Too often, when I report on the school funding debate that has been going on in our state capitol for the past several years, I get bogged down in numbers — school district numbers, dollar amounts, bill and amendment numbers assigned to various reform plans, vote numbers tallying up support for each one.
This story, however, is about school funding without numbers.
Instead, we’ll hear from four students who recently visited the statehouse.
Jacob Imber and Mackenzie Fleming are both juniors at New Trier High School in Winnetka. Instead of describing it myself, I asked them to explain what it’s known for.
“I would say New Trier is known for the amount of wealth that goes into that school, as well as kind of the alumni that come out of it,” Mackenzie says.
Jose Florentino and Yaritza Perez attend Kelvyn Park High School on Chicago’s northwest side. Again, I asked the students to describe their own school.
“I believe that Kelvyn Park is known as like a community school,” Jose says, “where people are, like, trying to pass their classes. They’re trying to do their best. And they wish to join, like, a lot of clubs and sports, but we don’t really have the privileges to have them.”
“Well, we have like the basic sports like softball, basketball and volleyball — all those basic things,” Yaritza says. “But when it comes to, like, electives, we don’t have art no more, and we’re missing some of our things that other schools take for granted.”
As participants in the Metropolitan Community Project, Jose and Yaritza had visited New Trier, and Jacob and Mackenzie had visited Kelvyn Park. As these four kids sat with me, huddled around one microphone, they described the effects of the state’s current school funding structure by simply talking about those visits.
“I think the biggest thing I noticed about Kelvyn Park was the absence of teachers,” Jacob says, “and that a lot of completely different academic classes, like chemistry and English or even like chemistry and gym had their classes combined because there weren’t enough funds to support teachers for each of those different classes. There were a lot of rooms where substitutes had been teaching for weeks or months on end because and because of that, there was no real lesson. It was a lot of students just sitting there waiting for the class to be over.”
Jose says, when he heard how many students attend New Trier, he expected to find a crowded campus. But when he visited the school, he discovered it was so large, there was no crowding.
“We went to visit the library, and everything seemed to work,” he says. “All the computers seemed to work. They had all great books, books that it seemed like nobody had even touched them yet.”
“And also I noticed, like, there’s a lot of supplies for them. So in our school, we don’t have enough textbooks, so it’s hard to, like, take them home and finish homework, so we do most stuff on just, like, sheets of paper,” she continues. “And for them, I’m pretty sure they have enough. Even more.”
“And also, like, their lunchroom, it kind of seemed like a buffet to me,” Jose says. “In our lunchroom, it’s pretty different because we get the same food almost every day. It’s like pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza for a whole week, and then another week probably chicken. They try to switch it up on us, just to make us want to eat, but nobody really wants to eat in our lunchroom.”
At New Trier High School, students can start their day with a made-to-order omelet, hash browns, a fresh fruit smoothie, and organic shade-grown fair trade coffee. Lunch offers even more options.
“In our lunchroom, I would say there’s probably like five different stations, and you can go get food based on what kind of like cultural food you’re feeling,” Mackenzie says. “So you can have pad thai one time or paninis or pizza or salad... so it’s based on what you want.”
“Yeah,” Mackenzie says. “We have sushi too.”
The lunchroom isn’t the only place where the two schools’ menus differ. At New Trier, Jacob is taking three advanced placement courses this year; Mackenzie knows another junior classmate taking six AP courses. Jose is also a junior, but he’s not taking any AP classes, because, he says, Kelvyn Park offers hardly any.
“They cut off AP classes this school year,” he says. “They actually put people in different classrooms. Some people were selected to honors classes, so the whole school’s schedules got changed.”
I asked him how many computers were available at Kelvyn Park High.
“We have computers,” he says, “but they’re all broken.” He doesn’t mean “all” in a literal sense, but enough computers are broken that classes have to split up and go to separate computer labs to find enough functional terminals.
And at New Trier?
“When entering New Trier as a freshman, everyone is administered their own iPad,” Jacob says. The case has a keyboard integrated into it, making the iPad the equivalent of a lightweight laptop computer. “And I know the library at New Trier also has a computer lab and laptop cart and extra iPads they’ll hand out if a kid doesn’t have one or if theirs is broken.”
“Basically, your iPad is kind of your life at New Trier,” Mackenzie says. “All your textbooks are on your iPad and you do most of your work on your iPad so it’s always about bringing it back and forth from school and you keep it all four years.”
The reason New Trier High School is so different from Kelvyn Park comes down to property values. Illinois’ current school funding formula relies heavily on property taxes, so Winnetka – where a tiny one-bedroom dwelling rents for more than $1,000 per month – channels more money into its schools than inner city Chicago.
“Yeah, my history teacher, Mr. Bolos, he told us that Kelvyn gets around $11,000 per year for a student, and New Trier gets $23,000, so it’s more than double,” Mackenzie says. [The Illinois State Board of Education website shows that Kelvyn currently gets about $15,000 per student per year].
This structure feeds upon itself. The better the school, the higher the property value. Both Jacob and Mackenzie say their parents bought homes in the New Trier district due, at least in part, to the allure of the school.
“That was definitely a factor,” Jacob says.
For Mackenzie’s mom, this high school was the major criterion in her real estate decision.
“I recently moved to Illinois, and my mother bought a house in New Trier [attendance zone] specifically so I would be going to New Trier, because she knew, like, its reputation and the quality of students that come out of it,” she says. “So New Trier was basically the sole factor.”
This concept also works in reverse.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t want to live in our community, because Kelvyn Park has such a bad reputation,” Yaritza says. “It’s, like, known for violence, and it’s, like, hard because our graduation rates are really low. So some teachers mostly assume that you’re not going to end up in college, or you’re not going to have money to pay for it, so like a lot of people don’t try as hard.”
Jose refuses to accept this situation.
“What I’m going through right now at Kelvyn Park motivates me to do better,” he says. “We’re all humans, so I don’t see no differences, why they should treat us differently.”
That’s what it comes down to when you talk about school funding without getting bogged down in the numbers.