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The Chicago Boycott: Publicity Stunt or Principled Protest?

By Eduwonkette — September 03, 2008 3 min read

Yesterday, State Senator Rev. James Meeks engineered a boycott of the Chicago Public Schools, urging CPS students to travel with him to high-spending districts in Chicago’s suburban North Shore to try to register for school. The objective of the protest was to draw attention to inequalities in school funding in Illinois. Rev. Meeks sought to contrast the Chicago Public Schools, which annually spends a bit over $10,000 per student, with New Trier High School, which spends in the neighborhood of $18,000 per student. Publicity stunt, or principled protest?

Probably a bit of both, in skoolboy’s view. Illinois still relies heavily on local property taxes to fund its schools, and the variability in income and wealth across school districts means that different districts have differing capacities to raise money to support the schooling of the children who reside in them. State and federal funds are supposed to compensate for these inequalities, and they do, but not completely. The available evidence suggests that total per-pupil spending on students in the wealthiest 20% of school districts in Illinois is considerably higher than total per-pupil spending on students in the poorest 20% of school districts—a difference on the order of $2,500 per pupil per year.

The chart below shows these dynamics. skoolboy divided Illinois’ school districts into national deciles based on the median family income of the district in 2000. Districts with a median family income of $30,000 or lower were in the lowest decile, whereas those with a median family income of $66,000 or higher were in the highest decile. I looked at three different revenue streams: per-pupil local revenues; per-pupil state revenues; and per-pupil federal revenues. The sum of these three is reported as total per-pupil revenues. (I use revenues because they’re reported by source in the federal data, and expenditures are not. The data are also weighted by the number of students enrolled in each district, so smaller districts count less than larger ones. I also excluded districts in which the total per-pupil revenues exceeded $40,000 per year. The story is pretty much the same whether one looks at median family income or the percentage of children living in poverty within a district.)

You can see just how strongly district median income and local per-pupil revenues are correlated in Illinois (r=.68). It’s also clear that state and local funds flow disproportionately to lower-income districts. But when the three funding streams are added together, there is a moderate positive correlation (r=.38) between a district’s median family income and its total per-pupil revenue. Although federal and state revenues do help to close the gap between wealthy and poor districts in Illinois, the remaining inequalities in spending are not trivial.

Having said that, a comparison between the Chicago Public Schools and New Trier is fundamentally misleading. By skoolboy’s calculations, the average total per-pupil revenue in New Trier in 2006 was nearly $22,000, which is way, way above the average total per-pupil revenues for the 113 Illinois districts in the top national income decile ($11,400). Moreover, CPS is in the 5th median income decile, not one of the lowest, and its total per-pupil revenues are a tad above the average for the 87 Illinois districts in that decile.

Not all states show this pattern; some have been more successful in reducing the association between a school district’s total per-pupil spending and the characteristics of the students in that district. (For example, like Ken DeRosa, I also find no correlation between per-pupil revenues and the percentage of children in poverty among Pennsylvania school districts. However, in Pennsylvania, as in Illinois, districts with higher median family incomes do spend more than those with lower median family incomes. ) How schools are funded has a lot to do with the inequalities across districts, but funding formulae don’t change easily. Don’t expect high-spending districts to be happy with policies that ask them either to spend less or to subsidize the spending on children in other districts.

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