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The Education Inequity Echo Chamber

Recently Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass suggested suburban taxpayers would be the ones to foot the bill for a CPS bailout. His idea rests on the notion that if the State of Illinois bails out CPS, it will be on the backs of more affluent suburban homeowners. Kass wrote his soliloquy to suburban taxpayers: "You don't need me to tell you how much they've sacrificed. You know what you've given up, or delayed - from that car you didn't buy to the vacation you never took - to put that down payment together. You know how hard you looked to find the right schools, the research you did on test scores."

I have friends and family living in the suburbs, and certainly they don't want to bail out another school district, but the fact is, the suburbs have been getting bailed out for decades.

There is massive inequity across our nation and it doesn't happen by accident. The inequity exists due to policies, structures and systems at the federal, state and local levels that enable those with wealth to gain more wealth, while punishing and harming the citizens in municipalities that started life with less.

How does this happen?

Let's begin at the federal level. Jonathan Kozol, in his 1991 book Savage Inequalities, explained how school districts across the nation, and especially in Illinois, depend on local property taxes:

The property tax depends, of course, upon the taxable value of one's home and that of local industries. A typical wealthy suburb in which homes are often worth more than $400,000 draws upon a larger tax base in proportion to its student population than a city occupied by thousands of poor people . . . Because the property tax is counted as a tax deduction by the federal government home-owners in a wealthy suburb get back a substantial portion of the money that they spend to fund their children's schools - effectively, a federal subsidy for an unequal education. Home-owners in poor districts get this subsidy as well, but because their total tax is less, the subsidy is less . . . In 1984, for instance, property-tax deductions granted by the federal government were $9 billion. An additional $23 billion in mortgage-interest deductions were provided to home-owners: a total of some $32 billion. Federal grants to local schools, in contrast, totals only $7 billion, and only part of this was earmarked for low-income districts. Federal policy, in this respect, increases the existing gulf between the richest and the poorest schools.

The federal policies increase the existing gulf between rich and poor, and in this instance, the suburban taxpayers win.

Now, let's look at state and local policies that help the suburban and wealthy taxpayers.

State governments decide to fund education with property taxes. Local districts are funded by local property taxes, so the wealthier the property, the wealthier the district. States could choose to offset the disparity caused by the federal government by selecting other tax revenue sources to fund education, but they do not. Instead, poor districts have fewer funds due to reliance on property taxes, which is then aggravated by federal policy. In Illinois, the disparity and inequity is enhanced when the City of Chicago contributes 20% of the state's funds for education, has 20% of the state's students, but only receives 15% of the state's funds for education.

How do local policies further the divide? Kass seems to think that if poor families simply do their research and postpone a vacation, they could choose to live in the suburbs. Putting off a vacation - is that enough to move to a community where housing prices average $400,000? How often do wealthy suburbs demand developers add affordable housing? Rarely, if ever.

The inequity is compounded because, for most of the 20th century, minorities were not allowed to live in many communities due to redlining and other racist practices. Minorities were relegated to communities where poverty was concentrated, property values were minimized, and generational wealth was nearly impossible to develop.

It's not like poor families are so dumb they choose not to live in wealthy suburbs. They don't live there because they can't afford to move to such fairy tale towns. If they're black or brown, they only recently gained the right to move to many of these places. Even today, many landlords, real estate agents, bankers and other gatekeepers of the American Dream prevent the poor and minorities from living in towns flush with funding for local schools. They are relegated to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, where teachers struggle to address the constant tidal wave of hardship.

Our segregated nation is an echo chamber: disparity is entrenched and enhanced at the federal, state and local levels.

And then we wonder why the poor can't pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

John Kass, stop blaming the poor. Advocate for policies that enable equity, rather than enable economic and racial segregation. If we want to live in a true meritocracy, the race shouldn't start at birth, when some children are born on third base and too many are born and raised in the dugout. Instead, we should ensure that equity exists until every person reaches adulthood. Then, and only then, will you be able to fairly and honestly praise suburban taxpayers.


* Bill McDonald is a pseudonym for an area educator with sufficient grounds to remain unidentified.


Comments welcome.


Posted on February 17, 2016

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