NEWS

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January 27, 2009

Experts advocate for greater public school funding at MLK week panel

A panel of public education experts discussed funding for Illinois schools on Thursday, during the final event of the University’s week dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.

School of Social Sciences professor Charles Payne, who moderated the event, called the challenge of tackling inequality in education funding “one of the great issues of our time.” He argued that conventional wisdom—that education-funding levels have a negligible impact on student achievement—has been statistically discredited in the past 13 years.

The speakers disputed the argument that per-pupil school funding levels are less significant than a student’s upbringing and home environment in determining academic achievement. Instead, panelists advocated extra funding for “at-risk” students, citing studies that show well funded schools as performing best, even when controlled for other variables, such as socioeconomic status.

Ralph Martiere from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability presented his organization’s recently released report, “Money Matters,” which argued that the current Illinois tax system creates substantial gaps in student achievement between low- and high-poverty level school districts.

Martiere ranked Illinois’s school funding as next-to-last in the nation. He pointed to the state’s overreliance on local property taxes to fund schools as the main cause of inequities between districts.

The report also presented a harsh criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act. “Who comes up with this stuff?” Martiere asked, pointing out that schools facing budgets cuts are primarily those that serve the most “at-risk” students.

“A quality education is not about being able to post some algorithm on the fridge for mom and pop,” Martiere said, underscoring the importance of school quality in determining later financial stability. “It’s about being able to get a job in a competitive economy.”

Both Martiere and Pedro Martinez, the chief financial officer for Chicago Public Schools, put the cost of covering the funding inadequacy at $2 billion, a significant increase over the current annual budget of approximately $3 billion.

Martinez pointed to a lack of viable sources for increasing education funding: “It’s very frustrating. Everybody agrees that we’re underfunded, but where does the money come from? You going to increase sales taxes? Do we open up a casino? Who are we going to take it from?” he asked.

Martiere echoed the challenge.

“You can get every politician in the Western Hemisphere to say, ‘I’m for public education.’ Then you say, ‘Here’s a rational way to fund it,’ and the discussion breaks down,” he said.