On May 17, the nation will mark the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared unconstitutional state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and white students. This watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement opened the doors to better educational opportunities and outcomes for African Americans. The Brown decision’s affirmation of the constitutional right of every child helped to put many on a path to economic and social advancement. But sadly, this country has not fulfilled Brown’s legacy of quality education for all.
Sixty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, we are operating a separate and unequal system where a child’s zip code controls the amount of money available to fund his or her education. As a result, Illinois has, for many years, ranked 49 out of 50 states when it comes to its investment in public education and Black, Latino and poor children across the state often get a grossly underfunded education that has negatively impacted their academic outcomes.
Six years ago the Chicago Urban League, fed up with the state’s lack of will to fix its public school funding formula, filed a lawsuit to have the scheme declared unconstitutional and in violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003. Our lawsuit remains viable and, when we have our day in court, I’m confident that we will win based on clear evidence that the state’s funding model violates the law and is doing severe damage to our students.
A victory would mean the state, starting with the General Assembly, would have to create a new and more equitable education funding plan. A plan that distributes funds in a way that ensures that children in low-income, property-tax poor districts receive the support they need to succeed.
While we are confident in the strength of our lawsuit, the Urban League has always maintained that at any time, the General Assembly can do right by the children of Illinois and change the discriminatory school funding system. It appears that a real possibility of change is on the horizon in Springfield.
Senate Bill 16, the School Funding Reform Act of 2014, is a proposed new law that would address the inadequate funding of school districts with the highest concentration of children from low-income communities. This bill would create a single funding allocation system that would distribute resources in a simple, equitable way. The progressive funding formula would prioritize resources and direct them to communities where there is greater student need. The result would be increased funding to high poverty school districts and extra support to children with disabilities and students who are English language learners.
This bill, which is sponsored by Senator Andy Manar of Staunton, IL and has been endorsed by members of the Senate Black Caucus including: Kimberly A. Lightford, Mattie Hunter, Emil Jones, III, Toi W. Hutchinson, and Jacqueline Y. Collins, is well thought out, is supported by national experts on school funding reform and is in alignment with other states that have successfully revamped their school funding formulas.
Senate Bill 16 has picked up momentum in the Senate and, in addition to the legislators above, has attracted a diverse mix of Senators from metropolitan and rural areas of the state. They all understand that this is an issue that impacts children across our state and that when we fix the way the state funds public schools, we will reap the benefits.
Better educated students mean higher graduation rates, a better talent pool for employers, more successful businesses and a stronger economy. While we all know that school funding alone won’t raise achievement; sustainable improvement cannot happen without adequate resources. We believe that Senate Bill 16 is a critical step in ensuring access to the resources our schools need.
The Chicago Urban League calls on the leadership and members of the Illinois General Assembly to pass Senate Bill 16 and finally bring an end to the decades long funding disparities that have done irreparable harm to the children of Illinois. We also call on everyone who cares about improving education outcomes for our children to contact the members of the Senate and the House and urge them to vote “Yes” to this important piece of legislation. It appears that the political will is finally there. It is time to stop investing in prisons and to start investing in our children. We, the people, must take action to hold the General Assembly accountable for doing what is right.
Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.