We are not doing a good job in educating Illinoisans. That problem is devastating us in the southern part of the state. (It is a different kind of problem in Chicago and up north generally.) I need to break this into three parts. (1) the funding of pre-school, primary, and secondary education; (2) the funding of higher education; (3) the role of education in economic development. I will handle these questions in three successive blogs. Let us begin with the first.
The good side of having public education funded by property taxes is that it insures local control over the schools. I think local control is essential, but it has been eroded by funded and unfunded mandates from the federal government. The reason the federal government became involved in education in this way was due to our refusal to bring equal educational opportunity to African American children and to the poor. If we had done this voluntarily, the federal government would not be involved today.
But the Supreme Court said in 1954 that separate is inherently unequal (which is surely true, given long-term economic disparity and the practice of funding schools from property taxes). Local communities refused to obey the courts. Counties, municipalities, and whole states refused. The federal government has used a carrot-and-stick method ever since. It doesn’t work. Here is why.
If the federal government dangles billions in funding in front of the states in exchange for conformity with certain standards set by the feds, then states behave as if this pot of cash relieves them of the responsibility to educate their own people in their way. The states become administrators of federal money and enforcers of federal policy. Local control has been strangled on the one hand and bribed into conformity on the other. The result is McSchools. No one cares about McSchools. They cook little macs into bigger macs that merely conform to health department and standardized test requirements. They diminish teacher autonomy and ignore individual differences in communities. They deprive communities of a sense of pride and aspiration in their own schools and level everything out into unspecial sauce. Students become mystery meat, ground up into test-taking machines, or left behind by that process. Alienation rules. The upside of having schools funded by property taxes is neutralized and even eliminated.
Meanwhile, the downside of having property taxes pay for the schools remains and even grows worse —that is, the unequal funding that goes with rich people having well-funded schools, while poor and working people have lower quality schools. Clearly this doesn’t work. Pooling property taxes and re-distributing them alienates the middle class without doing much to address the cultural sources of poverty. It become a disincentive for both poor and wealthy schools to become themselves, have their own character, aspirations, and room for creative practice.
What to do?
My suggestion is school partnering. It can begin in pre-school, so this plan could be implemented over the course of fifteen years and need not disrupt the path of current students. Every wealthy school should be paired with one troubled school (underfunded), and one middling school, and these should be geographically proximate, close enough for active exchange. Each school should be the locus of certain desirable programs —music, art, sports, vocational ed., etc., and the resources should be assigned according to what is needed to have excellent programs of the sort chosen by the joint board of the three schools. Most importantly, the schools should have only one sports program, although the various teams should be located in different campuses. This plan prevents the duplication of expense in having, for example, a football team at all three schools. It will build school spirit and solidarity, over time, lead to better cultural understanding across race and class, and bring interest into the struggling community from the more affluent communities —a sense of common needs and goals. It will lead to investment in marginal neighborhoods by wealthier neighborhoods, as the communities become intertwined and not isolated from one another. The children will form friendships across the usual boundaries that will, in time become partnerships in business, community leadership, and will engender trust where it is now wholly absent.
Pooling resources will make it possible to bring back special programs that have been discontinued due to lack of funding. New faculty should be hired into the threefold school group with the understanding that they may move among the three schools as need requires and as the programs grow. Teachers should be encouraged to innovate in their classes, not conform. Existing faculty can sign on voluntarily for the threefold arrangement or finish their careers under their current arrangements, but should be incentivized, financially, to join the new program as the first group of tri-students comes into their grade levels.
In short, we can use education to create economically integrated communities, save money and duplication, have better programs, enhance local control and involvement, restore teacher autonomy, create community pride, and balance educational opportunities for those who have less. We can do all of this and run things on the basis of the property tax system, and over time, tax revenues will increase as the struggling communities gradually do better. There is no need to raise anyone's taxes to implement a system like this. Oh, and it would cut administrative costs by eliminating duplicative positions and effort. And this plan may retain the better teachers, so many of whom leave education for less difficult careers in business or service industries.