‘Critically Divisive Lines:’ Why Inequity Persists In Illinois Schools
Yuliana Quintana worries she won’t succeed in college because she didn’t have access to lab equipment, Advanced Placement classes, and other resources during her high school years.
Quintana, 19, was last year’s valedictorian of her high school in DePue, a tiny village about 50 miles north of Peoria.
She's now a first-generation student at Lake Forest College in Chicago's northern suburbs.
Quintana said, so far, she's doing well in college, but her anxiety about whether her secondary education fully prepared her persists.
Quintana's school district, DePue Community Unit School District 103, is one of the poorest districts in Illinois.
DePue and more than 100 other needy school districts across Illinois received an increase in state revenue this year, thanks to the state's new school funding formula. But those districts still need more money to offer students a quality education. Some, including DePue, are also located directly next to school districts with thousands more dollars to spend on their students.
DePue is located on the banks of the Illinois River, next to Lake DePue. The village's claim to fame is an annual high speed boat race that takes place on the lake every summer. The organizers of the race donate a large portion of the proceeds from ticket and refreshment sales to the school district.
DePue, which once was an industrial hub, is also home to a superfund site. Factories that smelted zinc and produced phosphate fertilizer shuttered by the 1990s, leaving behind pollutants, including a 750,000 ton pile of toxic waste that locals refer to as the "the pile of black death."
Quintana said the middle school track team runs on the sidewalk adjacent to the toxic waste pile during their practices, because the district doesn't have a track.
DePue's property values are low, and there are few businesses in town. Quintana said many of the town's residents are immigrants who work at a nearby mushroom factory.
Due to low property values, the DePue school district relies heavily on state investment — about 75% of its revenue comes as state aid.
The district serves about 430 students, most of whom are Latinx, and most are also low-income. Roughly a third of DePue students require English language support services. Kindergartners through twelfth grade students share one classroom building, and most of the rooms lack air conditioning.
"So, summers in August, when we get back for school — it’s so hot," Quintana said.
The district’s sole principal, Susan Bruner, said she doesn’t mind the old building. It’s the upkeep that costs a lot. She said a recent radiator fix cost thousands of dollars because the part needed to be custom made because the building is so old.
Unfortunately, Bruner said, the community cannot afford to build another school.
With more resources, Bruner said she’d love to offer more courses.
"I would want to have more offerings for our kids. We’re not able to offer a lot to kids here," she said. "We should have a lot more to offer kids, which is going to expand their horizons and give them many more opportunities. That’s where I worry the most. I want to give our kids opportunities."
Since her junior year, Quintana has actively sought out those opportunities. She’s balanced school, night classes at the local community college and multiple jobs, including a summer working at the mushroom factory and as part of the janitorial staff at the school. Quintana said her parents can’t afford to help her pay for college.
"I’m self-funded. And I’ve always worked two jobs. Even when I took some dual credit classes in high school, I paid for those, too. And it was hard," she said.
Quintana said she feels unprepared for college; so far, she said, she hasn’t met anyone from a similarly low-resourced school district.
"There’s a disadvantage for me," she said. "I’m scared to like go to college, and like fail."
Critically divisive lines
The state’s new funding formula categorizes school districts in tiers. DePue is considered a Tier 1 school, which means it needs new revenue, and that it should be prioritized over other better-funded districts to receive additional state money.
According to the school funding formula, the district should spend more than $13,000 per pupil to offer an adequate education. Increased state investment in education boosted DePue’s per pupil spending from about $7,400 to roughly $8,000 in fiscal year 2018, according to state data.
Robin Steans, president of Advance Illinois, a nonprofit that advocates for increased investment in public education, said in three years the state went from 143 districts with less than 60% of the money they need to provide a quality education to just 14 districts in that category. The bad news, she said, is that about half of Illinois districts still have less than 70% of the funding they need.
"That can be as much as three, four, five thousand dollars a kid less than what they need," Steans said. "We’ve still got a lot of work to do."
Rebecca Sibilia, founder and CEO of the national education nonprofit, EdBuild, said state lawmakers should consider redrawing school district boundaries to decrease funding inequities and racial segregation between school systems, or, barring that, create larger taxing districts allowing schools to pool financial resources.
"School district borders are acting as critically divisive lines in our country," Sibilia said.
A recent report from EdBuild identified nearly 1,000 divisive school district borders nationwide — boundaries where schools, like DePue, have more students of color and receive significantly less per pupil funding than those schools on the other side that serve mostly white students, and have more financial resources.
The report identified 43 such borders in Illinois, including the one between DePue and Putnam County Community Unit School District 535.
Putnam is a county-wide rural school district serving roughly 900 students in Kindergarten through twelfth grade. The district borders DePue on the south, and is located on the other side of the Illinois River.
Putnam is nearly 100% adequately funded, according to the school funding formula; the district spent a little more than $10,000 per student in fiscal 2018, while the funding formula dictates a quality education would cost about $11,000 per student.
It’s a Tier 3 school district, which means it’s one of the districts that is last in line to receive additional state investment in public education, and the majority of its finances come from local tax sources.
Putnam also serves a predominantly white student body. It’s not the wealthiest school district in the state, but Putnam’s Superintendent Carl Carlson said the district is in a good place financially.
He said class sizes, and support services like school counselors and social workers are near the recommended levels. Carlson said each student has their own Chromebook, and classrooms are equipped with interactive smart boards. In contrast, students in DePue do not have access to their own dedicated tablets and laptops.
The district sources nearly a third of its revenue from the state’s Personal Property Replacement Tax — a tax that corporations pay on their income, which is then distributed to local governments and school districts. Carlson also said a Putnam County ethanol plant — Marquis Energy — provides a significant source of tax revenue to the district.
"If we didn't have the ethanol plant… We would have a hard time generating the funds that we're getting," he said.
Sibilia, with EdBuild, said state aid alone cannot sustainably address the funding gap between wealthy and poor districts.
"There's a whole lot of wealth that is sitting in a lot of communities in Illinois," Sibilia said. "The fact that the legislature isn't willing to tap into that local wealth in order to spread those resources more evenly, it's putting almost an unrealistic burden on the state to try to come up with money to keep up with the Joneses."
Steans, with Advance Illinois, said convincing wealthy districts to share their resources with poorer districts is a tough sell politically.
"That's extraordinarily difficult political terrain to try to change district boundaries," she said.
Steans said the state is making progress on creating a level funding field for all Illinois students — but addressing deep funding deficits, like those in DePue schools, will take years.
While Quintana never had the opportunity to attend an adequately funded school district, she hopes for a different situation for her two younger siblings, who still attend DePue schools.
"I do want them to go to college and seek a better education," she said. "I really do want their education to be better than mine."
The 2017 school funding law, which established the new formula, calls for an additional $350 million annual investment in the state’s public education, but there’s no guarantee that elected officials will continue to make good on the funding commitment in the coming years — and, at that rate, it will likely take schools like DePue much longer than a decade to reach adequate funding.
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