Lack of money is the root of problems for CPS schools

Ever hear the old adage: "Money is the root of all evil"? Of course you have, it's a classic. Current events in Illinois, however, suggest it should be updated. Because in our great state, it's pretty clear that a lack of money is just as, if not more, pernicious. For proof, just consider the recent proposal to allow the Chicago Public Schools to declare bankruptcy.

By far and away the state's largest school district, CPS is charged with educating almost 400,000 students, the vast majority of whom - 86 percent - are both "at risk" of academic failure, because they come from low-income backgrounds, and minorities, with some 84 percent being either African American or Hispanic.

Those demographics create academic challenges, given the significant achievement gaps between both the state's non-low-income and low-income kids, as well as between white and minority kids, which range from nearly 30 percent in math and reading to over 20 percent in science.

Sure the research indicates these academic challenges can be overcome, provided adequate investment is made in those educational practices that have a statistically meaningful correlation to enhancing student achievement over time. This approach to school funding is called the "evidence-based model," and includes everything from pedagogy, rigor, social-emotional learning and technology to wraparound social services.

The problem is CPS - and indeed a majority of schools in Illinois - lacks the resources (fiscal, infrastructure, professional, etc.) needed to satisfy what the evidence indicates is required. Given its demographics, the fiscal challenge for CPS is particularly acute. Indeed, not only does CPS lack the financial capacity to provide a meaningful education to its students, it's currently short by some $480 million of what's needed to just maintain the same, inadequate education it delivered last year.

CPS is in this horrible fiscal condition for primarily two reasons. First is inadequate funding from the state. Illinois ranks dead last among all states in the portion of K-12 education funding covered by state, rather than local resources. Indeed, the aggregate investment Illinois makes in its public schools is some $4 billion below the state's own standard of what it costs to fund K-12 education adequately, as identified by the nonpartisan Education Funding Advisory Board.

If Illinois merely funded public education to an adequate level, CPS's $480 million shortfall wouldn't exist.

Of course, the state didn't just begin underfunding education; it's done so for decades. So, to make up for the lack of state-based funding, CPS made a crucial policy decision in FY2000, which ultimately became the second cause of its fiscal woes: it stopped funding what it owed to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. Instead, CPS chose to borrow the money owed to pensions to cover the current cost of educating children. Where did CPS get the crazy, irresponsible idea to borrow against pension contributions to fund current services? Why from state government, which has done the exact same thing - on a bipartisan basis - for generations.

Which brings us to the underlying problem: a lack of resources. It's not possible to resolve CPS's fiscal shortcomings in a manner that comports with the evidence, is sustainable over time and generates the desired outcome of providing a meaningful education to CPS students without a greater investment in K-12 from the state.

But that's money Illinois doesn't have. Rather than be honest with taxpayers and raise the revenue which the evidence shows is needed to educate the predominantly poor, minority students CPS serves, Springfield is proposing to allow CPS to declare bankruptcy. Nothing says fiscal responsibility like using bankruptcy courts to allow a public sector entity to renege on contracts bargained in good faith.

The real genius: bankruptcy doesn't just allow CPS to stiff its creditors, it also lets Springfield off the hook for decades of underfunding K-12. So, if money truly is the root of all evil, a lack of money is even worse.

Ralph Martire is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank.

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