Every day I drove to hospice, I stared at the painful reminders of school inequities.
In the week that led up to losing my grandmother, I drove through Chicago to a nearby affluent suburb. I was in awe as I passed by an elementary school. The glass building looked brand new, and the view inside was immaculate. The computers and furniture alone were breathtaking. The comparison to what most Chicago Public School students face stunned me.
As a teacher, I have worked in classrooms with broken windows, desks and chairs that fell apart, washrooms without soap, bathroom stalls without doors, old computers that did not work and filthy floors. If you’ve been in an urban school, you know this. But new research again confirms the inequitable realities that many students, parents and teachers face daily in poorly-funded schools.
Like me, many urban teachers now must spend a considerable amount of time fundraising for our classrooms through crowdsourcing platforms like DonorsChoose. A friend pointed out that if I did not have to spend time on crowdsourcing because I had equitable access to resources, I could spend considerably more time on planning, curriculum, assessment, etc. And that is what my students deserve.
What Happens When You Work in an Underfunded School
If you work at an underfunded school, you also may not be aware of the enrichment programs that can exist in a properly-funded environment. After-school clubs, sports, foreign language immersion, dances, art exhibitions and school-wide rallies should exist in all schools, but are increasingly disappearing for too many students. For many students who live in communities prone to violence, teachers and administrators may simply want to give the students a sense of normalcy by hosting a dance, however brief it may be. But funding inequities make it harder and harder for schools to offer these opportunities.
This is a form of legalized segregation. True, race and class are not the same, but intersectionalities exist, and often Black and Brown students get the short end of the stick. Properly funded schools mean making the students the priority. Period.
Inequitable funding is not limited to Chicago. The fact that schools are mostly funded through property taxes is also not unique, either. Across Illinois, over 67 percent of school funds come from local taxes and revenue. In 2015, Winnetka, an affluent Chicago suburb, spent $23,571 per student. Most of that money came from local funds. By contrast, the state of Illinois spent about $4,553 per student. This illustrates the relatively small role state taxes play in funding schools compared to local property taxes.
Funding disparities also exist within districts. For example, last year in Chicago, schools with predominantly Latino populations had their funding cut at an extremely disproportionate rate when compared to predominantly White schools. After the media reported the story, budgets were adjusted, but the damage was already done. Incidents like these destroy partnerships between groups of color that schools and districts need to be successful.
As a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher, I have witnessed school budgets in decline. One of my former students was looking forward to attending the honor roll dinner for the very first time, but I had to deliver the news that it was cancelled. Others were shocked to learn that sports and clubs were no longer offered. They were desperate to participate and better themselves physically and mentally, and were crushed to learn that the soccer, softball and basketball teams would no longer exist.
Delivering news like this to a student is unbearable, and it is far too common for teachers and administrators in poorly-funded schools.
Although Illinois passed historic funding reform last summer, technical glitches mean schools have yet to see any new state money coming from the new funding formula.
There are a number of suggestions to solve the immediate problem, and more long-term solutions on the drawing board to support the reforms already in place. I am not a legislator, nor am I advocating one particular solution. But I am pleading with people (particularly those who are unaware of these disparities) to realize how unequal things are and that the status quo is not sustainable.
I am more than cognizant that financial challenges are not the only obstacles that our schools face, nor am I asserting that money is the solution to all of the problems in education. Yet the inequalities that exist for urban schools are criminal.
We need to put pressure on legislators, administrators and community leaders to address these barriers to low-income students of color. This is a form of systemic racism. If affluent White students were on the short end of the stick, the problem would have been fixed long ago.