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Editor's Notebook: Politics are behind the failed promise to Illinois school children

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues

What does a sewer back-up have to do with education? Or for that matter an electrical short? Or a boiler malfunction?

Quite a bit, it turns out.

One school superintendent tells our Statehouse reporter Pat Guinane her district has had to cancel classes because of sewer back-ups. "We're kind of in a low area," says Ruth Schneider of the Stewardson-Strasburg district, "and when it rains real hard we get sewer back-ups — and sometimes even when it doesn't rain. The lines are just old and crumbling and need to be replaced."

Schneider's district, centered 15 miles north of Effingham in an east central Illinois cornfield, consists of one K-12 building, a section of which is half a century old. 

"If we don't get some money for construction," she tells Guinane, "I don't know how we maintain this facility for the 21st century."

Does this matter? There are reasons to believe it does. And the problems Ruth Schneider describes at her school are echoed by school officials from Chicago to East St. Louis and farther south.

In fact, we set out to compile a status report on the condition of Illinois' schools, what Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing in Brown v. Board of Education, called "physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors." Sadly, Guinane finds little has changed since Illinois officials hammered out a plan to help local communities repair and rebuild their crumbling and overcrowded schools. 

In March 1997 (see "The schoolhouse is falling down"), Gary Kelly, the superintendent of DuQuoin School District 300, warned Illinois Issues readers, "I truly believe we're getting close to the point where we're putting students at risk every day.

But nearly a decade later, Guinane finds thousands of Illinois elementary and secondary schools still need replacement, expansion or repair. Beyond crucial plumbing upgrades, a state survey released this year shows schools throughout Illinois need rewiring or structural work, new fire alarms or new roofs.

Rochester school district, just east of Springfield, tops the state's priority list. Superintendent Thomas Bertrand tells Guinane one wing of his district's junior high dates to 1921. It needs replacing. "The electrical, the boiler, the plumbing — the whole infrastructure was completely worn out."  

The extent of such safety hazards is disturbing enough. But Guinane discovered something else. Two dozen school districts, including Rochester, Stewardson-Strasburg and DuQuoin, have been waiting since 2003 for the state's promised share of construction costs. In dollars, that's 148 million promises the state hasn't kept. Another 250 districts have applied to the State Board of Education for help — should funds be available again. 

It's true, the state has been hardpressed of late just to make ends meet. Still, in the past two years, funding to rebuild Illinois schools has foundered on partisan bickering between lawmakers and the governor over possible revenue sources — while, somehow, the dollars have been found for other projects and priorities.

This month, when the legislature convenes its fall veto session, state politicians may peer again into the empty school construction account. 

In the meantime, consider this: The crumbling commitment to ensure that Illinois children have safe places to learn represents merely the most visible tip of the broken promise. If the state owes each Illinois child the best possible education, then safe, clean and pleasant classrooms amount to the first payment on that promissory note, and the easiest. It gets a whole lot harder from there. 

Sadly, Pat Guinane finds little has changed since Illinois officials hammered out a plan to help local communities repair and rebuild their crumbling and overcrowded schools.

The larger promise is to ensure adequate and equitable spending on each child's education. Yet, despite pumping millions into school funding over the years — including $325 million in new money for this budget — Illinois has yet to come up with what many school finance experts consider adequate per pupil spending. And, with its over-reliance on local property taxes to finance education, this state is among the worst in the nation in spending disparity between property-rich and property-poor districts. This gap between the lowest-spending and the highest-spending districts stretches from $4,440 to $23,800 per student. It's hard to imagine that the children who go to these respective schools receive anything resembling an equal education.

The difference is wealth. And, increasingly, it is race. Researchers for The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University raised concerns about the connection between concentration of poverty and a trend toward resegregation of the nation's schools, 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education ruled children have a right to an equal opportunity for a good education.

As we reported last year (see May 2004), the report issued by the project rated this state among the top four with the most-segregated school systems. In Illinois, authors Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee wrote, "61 percent of black students and 40 percent of Latinos were in 'intensely segregated schools.'"

No matter the excuse, the failure to redeem this larger promise is political, too, not financial. 

Writer Jonathan Kozol makes such connections. He has been talking and listening to children in inner-city schools for more than 40 years. In Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, published in 1991, Kozol visited classrooms in Chicago and East St. Louis, districts home to high poverty rates and large numbers of racial minorities. Each is on the state's construction list for $29 million in assistance.

Kozol's description of East St. Louis High is memorable. The school's heating system didn't work, leaving some rooms cold and others sweltering — and making teaching and learning difficult at best.

In Kozol's most recent book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, published last month, Kozol returns to what he calls "bleak and unhappy" schools, including some in Chicago. He finds the "disrepair and over-crowding were familiar still in many districts."

But the children, he notes, have no political agendas.

Among the letters he received from the many children he has met is this one from Elizabeth: "It is not fair that other kids have a garden and new things. But we don't have that. I wish that this school was the most beautiful school in the whole why world."

What does a sewer back-up have to do with education? It is an apt metaphor for the decision to ignore our most basic promise to Illinois' children. 

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, October 2005

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