This story is part of the NPR reporting project “School Money,” a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. WBEZ’s Becky Vevea visited several districts to sort out how Illinois pays for its public schools.
In Illinois, as in much of the country, school funding can vary wildly from district to district.
That $9,794 -- it’s what the Chicago Ridge School District spent per student in 2013. Ridge sits tucked along the southern edge of Chicago, a small district with just three schools. Roughly a third of its students are learning English as a second language, and two-thirds come from low-income families.
On one cold, January day the art teacher at Ridge Lawn Elementary packed up her room mid-year. She wasn’t quitting. Far from it. She was moving to the other district elementary, Ridge Central, for the second semester.
“We don’t have full-time art and music at the elementary level,” says superintendent Kevin Russell. “Instead, what we do is, for half of the year the students get art, and the other half of the year the students get music.”
It’s just one example of what a school can -- or can’t -- do with roughly $9,794 per student (that number comes from Education Week and has been adjusted for regional cost differences). It's well below the national average of $11,841.
Ridge’s three schools also share a nurse, have no assistant principals and students get physical education three days a week, despite a state mandate that says it should be taught daily.
It’s a very different story about an hour away.
In Chicago’s affluent northern suburbs. Dozens of schools nestled among business districts and neighborhoods filled with tony mansions spend well beyond the national average. Among them sits Rondout District 72, the district with the highest per student spending in Illinois. It’s tiny, with just one grammar school and 22 teachers serving roughly 145 students.
“Rondout has a long history of a very personalized approach to the education of each child,” says superintendent Jenny Wojcik.
Rondout was once a rural, one-room schoolhouse. Founded in 1864, the original structure is still at the center of the expanded building. Wojcik says they are fiscally responsible and don’t have extra layers of bureaucracy. For example, she is not just the superintendent but also the school’s principal, business manager and special education director.
Class sizes are small, and every student has an individualized learning plan. Nearly all teachers have a decade of experience and earn, on average, more than $90,000. Kids have at least one daily break for “mindful movement,” and lunch is cooked on-site, including a daily vegetarian option. The district does not participate in the federal school lunch program, Wojcik says, and they cover the cost of lunch for the 12 percent of students who are considered low-income.
Why does Rondout have so much and Ridge so little?
Because Rondout isn’t just small. It’s lucky.
Today, the school is surrounded by business, including part of the offices for the international pharmaceutical company, Abbott. Those businesses pay property taxes, and a big chunk of the resulting revenue helps pay for Rondout School.
That fact, along with the district’s low enrollment, helps explain why Rondout was able to spend $28,639 per student in 2013.
More broadly: “You’ve got highly segregated rich and poor towns that raise vastly different amounts of local revenue based on their local bases and a state that really doesn’t put much effort into counter-balancing that,” says Bruce Baker of Rutgers University, who studies how states pay for their public schools.
The next question is: What can or should a state do to level the playing field?
In most states, school funding breaks down roughly like this: state (45%), local (45%), federal (10%). But, in Illinois, that breakdown tilts toward local funding (56.8%). To compensate, the state tries to send more money to low property wealth districts like Chicago Ridge and less to districts like Rondout. In fact, says Rondout superintendent Wojcik, of her school’s $3.6 million budget, barely 2 percent comes from the state. That $28,639 is largely local money staying local.
Illinois already isn’t spending much of anything in Rondout, but it’s also drastically under-spending in districts that really need the help.
“Quite frankly, Illinois is just one of those states that’s never bothered to put enough state aid into the system,” says Bruce Baker of Rutgers.
The state legislature says $6,119 is what’s needed to educate a child in Illinois. Lawmakers settled on the number eight years ago and haven’t changed it since. In fact, they’ve even underfunded that $6,119 amount in recent budget cycles.
Kevin Russell, the superintendent of Chicago Ridge, insists that’s the problem. He’s not interested in taking money away from Rondout or any other district. What he wants is for the state to kick in more and take into account the high need in schools like his
Until that happens, the state won’t even begin to put a dent in its schools’ resource gap, which means more commuting for Chicago Ridge’s one nurse and plenty of packing boxes for its art and music teachers.