At a recent dinner, my cousin Luke, who is a high school student, told us about his school's occasional treats of hot chocolate and doughnuts. He also told us about his new textbooks that he rarely uses. The school where I teach started the year without Spanish books in our bilingual classrooms. A hot chocolate budget is the last thing on my mind.
Both schools are located in Lake County. Luke's school is in Libertyville High School District 128, while I teach in Round Lake Area Unit District 116.
Despite their geographic proximity, our districts are very different. Luke's high school spends 78 percent more per pupil than the high school in my district. His school's budget and the resources that come with it -- not just hot chocolate and textbooks, but opportunities as well, like computer science and robotics clubs -- are the byproduct of our state's heavy reliance on property taxes to fund education.
My district serves primarily Hispanic students, and 52 percent of our students are considered low-income. Luke's district is predominantly white with only 8 percent low-income students. Because of an overreliance on property taxes, a wealthy district like Luke's is able to provide additional funds and resources to their students.
By contrast, low-income districts like those in Round Lake receive only 81 cents for every dollar available to non low-income students. Out of all 50 states, Illinois has the largest funding gap between low income and non low-income students.
The broken funding formula in Illinois hurts vulnerable students the most.
There is nearly universal agreement from politicians and school leaders alike that Illinois' school funding formula needs to change. On Feb. 1, The Illinois School Funding Reform Commission released its long-awaited report and found current disparities in Illinois state funding alarming.
Shortly after the report appeared, Rep. Will Davis introduced House Bill 2808, which aligns with the commission's report. Now it's up to the Illinois legislature to move this forward.
Here is why this matter is urgent. While our state's policymakers debate the ISFRC's report, I spend my evenings at the library searching for books. When the library doesn't have what my students need, I buy them with my own money. I do this to fulfill a state mandate which is not funded under the current school funding model.
My district goes above and beyond to provide not only basic classroom supplies, but to fill in gaps where families are unable. We provide backpacks and coats to students who don't have those necessities. These items come out of our already limited budget.
I was recently given a used projector for my classroom. Unfortunately, my district can't afford to hang the projector from the ceiling or to provide a screen for it. Meanwhile, each student in Luke's district has a Chromebook.
I am grateful to teach in a community that knows its children deserve the best. Residents of Round Lake District 116 tax themselves at 7.6 percent, a much higher rate than the 4.7 percent in Luke's district. But, even with our higher tax rate, my community is unable to generate enough revenue to fund our schools equitably.
My district has to provide more materials than our wealthy counterparts, and we must to do so with less funding. It isn't working. Our state needs to step up and step in to fill the funding gap.
My students deserve more than what they currently get and the next funding model must represent that. It is imperative for Illinois' policymakers to acknowledge this and act accordingly. Then perhaps next year, Luke and I will sit around the table with some hot chocolate and discuss how proud we are of our state and the changes it has made.
Kali Skiles teaches early childhood in a blended classroom at the Round Lake Early Education Center. She is a state policy fellow for Teach Plus Illinois.