Jim Nowlan: Even funding no panacea for schools

Jim Nowlan: Even funding no panacea for schools

First, I want to apologize for playing fast and loose with some misleading factoids last week in a column about Texas and Illinois. I know better; surface statistics can as often obfuscate as illuminate.

I noted that Texas spends about $8,000 per pupil annually on its public school kids while Illinois spends $12,000 and change, a huge difference. This is fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, which surveys such matters and should be a credible source.

This does not mean, however, that Illinois pupils have on average that much more in financial support. Illinois does pay its teachers, on average again, about $10,000 more per year than do Texas schools, and this amounts to about $600 per pupil of the $4,000 per pupil difference I noted last week.

Much, maybe most, of the rest of the difference apparently results from the dramatic growth in Illinois pension payments in recent years, including those for teachers. This year Illinois will put $3.7 billion into the teachers' retirement system in an effort to reduce unfunded liabilities, five times as much as the state contributed just a decade ago.

Of course, pension payments don't go into the classroom, so my factoid about spending differences was misleading. Sorry.

All of which brings me to my topic for the week: Illinois school funding disparities, which are worse than for just about any state in the nation and have been thus for decades.

For example, the wealthy New Trier High School district on Chicago's North Shore devotes $22,123 to each pupil annually, versus the $8,506 available to each pupil in the dirt-poor, once-industrial city of Kewanee in my territory, where 74 percent of the families are low income.

Every few years, however, Illinois political leaders get on their bandwagons and harrumph they will rectify things. Senate President John Cullerton recently declared it one of his top priorities.

And in his recent state of the state speech, Gov. Bruce Rauner promised to increase funding for poor schools and not take money away from wealthier districts (as they do in Texas, by the way).

Speaker of the House Mike Madigan has scheduled Soviet-style show hearings on the topic.

Don't count on any of this to change matters.

The state of Illinois provides only about one-quarter of total spending by its local schools, with 10 percent from the feds and the rest from local property taxes. Most states provide much more to their local schools.

The state school aid formula is complex. There is an old saw that only six people in Illinois understand it, and they aren't allowed to board the same plane.

Most of the state money for local schools is already allocated to property-poor and high-poverty districts. Kewanee already receives $5,000 from the state each year per pupil; New Trier gets a smidgen, maybe $600. Even if you took the $600 per pupil in state dollars away from New Trier and other wealthy districts and spread it to poor districts, such would do little to "equalize" spending. There just aren't enough dollars in the state pot.

And, we have to ask this question, would it make much of a difference? The linkage between per pupil spending and achievement in American schools is tenuous at best. The voluminous research I recall has found that increased spending doesn't improve outcomes much, if at all.

Indeed, the strongest correlate with outcomes is the highest level of education of the parents in a school district. If your school's parents all have advanced degrees, as most of those in New Trier probably do, the expectations for success are sky high and so are the test scores and likelihood of going to and succeeding in college.

That is probably a key factor in the fact that Massachusetts school children score so much better than kids elsewhere. Not coincidentally, the state also ranks first in the percent of parents with both college and advanced degrees.

Even so, it is manifestly unfair that Kewanee's kids receive only about one-third as much spending support for their education as do those at New Trier. If nothing else, with lots more money, Kewanee kids could receive intensive in-school coaching to build their expectations, and thus their test scores.

And even if the New Trier students had only the $8,000 that goes to Kewanee kids, they would still perform about as well as they do now — their parents would insist on it, and would come up with the private dollars to see that it was so.

Anyway, don't get your hopes up, Kewanee, that funding will improve any time soon. There just isn't any money in state coffers — literally.

Jim Nowlan is a retired senior fellow with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs. His email is jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on February 17, 2016 at 7:02 am

James Nowlan:  President of Stark County Communications, former Illinois House of Representatives member, former State of Illinois agency director, aide to three republican governors, former employee of the Illinois Policy Institute (republican policy think tank).

Oh, Jim is the current Chairman of the State of Illinois Ethics Commission.  So if you want to report something dirty in Illinois politics, you have to go to Jim.  No wonder Jim praises Rauner, and puts out the propaganda.  Maybe, Jim represents the Illinois problem with politics? 

Go to the State of Illinois website, go to state agencies, go to State of Illinois Ethics Commission, go to staff, and you can see Jim's picture and biography.  No mention about pay though.

David Green wrote on February 17, 2016 at 8:02 am

It isn't an act of nature that Illinois is "broke." But Nowlan won't explain how that happened, why that happened, and what can easily be done about it. He doesn't want to offend the 1%. http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/guest-commentary/2016-02-14/guest-co.... And I guess he should also apologize for his sloppy understanding of educational achievement, based on test scores. There's no magic bullet for better "outcomes", least of all paying teachers less. If there is a magic bullet, it's eliminating poverty. Nowlan doesn't want to go there. The 1% need victims to blame. They get off on that. But at least Nowlan doesn't get paid by the N-G, from what I've been told.

But of course he's rich from his career as a creature of the establishment.