Fairness in school funding

The Reader’s Ben Joravsky is one of many in the media making a big hoopla about how Chicago Public Schools spend a lot less per pupil than New Trier High School does ($10,049 vs. $20,811, according to Joravsky).  Leaving aside the question of whether more money results in better education, some basic facts seem to be getting lost here.

(1) Comparing Chicago’s k-12 district to New Trier’s high school district isn’t meaningful. High schools always spend more than elementary schools, per pupil. I’m not going to try to explain why, tho it seems high school teachers are paid better than elementary school teachers. and maybe more specialized equipment and smaller classes are needed.

(2) Compared to most other districts, Chicago is wealthy. Since advocates say the main reason for the disparities is that some districts have a bigger tax base (more assessed value of real estate per student) than others, we’d think that Chicago’s tax base must be pretty poor. Sure, New Trier’s tax base is more than seven times as much, per student, as Chicago’s. That leaves plenty for them to share with the elementary feeder districts.

But how does Chicago compare to the 394 other K-12 districts in Illinois? Chicago’s $165,380 per student is higher than 92% of the other K-12 districts. And that’s even after allowing for the scandalous TIF extractions that have Joravsky rightfully concerned. (Check my work with the figures from here. Look on the left side under “file type” and download the xls spreadsheet.) Most of the K-12 districts have a tax base of less than $100,000/student.

(3) Disparities of local tax base can be remedied without raising income or sales taxes. If for some reason it’s necessary to increase state funding for local schools, that can be done without raising the income tax or sales tax. Wealthier districts could be required to “donate” part of their revenues to poor districts. Or the statewide real estate tax can be resurrected. Ideally, it would exclude improvements from the tax base.