You may not know it, but if you live in Chicago, Illinois, you’re actually a citizen of two cities.
One Chicago features some of the best public high schools in the country according to the U.S. News & World Report. The other Chicago is marked by the kind of school buildings where if it rains hard enough, the roof just might cave in. We typically think of educational inequity as a problem of resources. If state and local governments were simply willing to allocate more funding to schools in lower-class neighborhoods, maybe the problem could be solved, right? Not quite. The primary source of funding for the vast majority of school districts in America isn’t state or local governments, it’s the taxes collected on properties in the district. The more valuable the properties in a school district, the more funding the schools in that district receive. It is because of this system that schools in the Chicago Ridge district (on Chicago’s south side) are so underfunded that three schools share one nurse, while the Rondout District (in the suburbs to the north) can afford to pay its teachers an average of $90,000 a year and craft individualized learning plans for each of its students. According to Binyamin Applebaum (lead writer on business & economics for the New York Times’ editorial board), it’s not even as simple as just living on opposite sides of Chicago: “It can be on the same block that the town line runs through the middle of it, and if you live on one side of that line, you’re consigned to an inferior education… and if you live on the other side, you’re basically a member of a club that is sponsoring a private school essentially, for the benefit of that small group of kids.” In Chicago and many other places in the US, the disparity in education quality is so vast that students from virtually a block apart may as well live in two different cities.
If a bill were raised to amend the current school funding system, it’s easy to imagine that progressives would be the ones to champion it. But when we return to our case study of Cook County, Illinois (the county that Chicago is in), we find that progressives aren’t doing as much to promote justice in the realm of education as they claim to be. Even in a county that voted 74.2% Democrat in the last presidential election, wealthy liberals still lobbied to keep the property tax-based resource allocation system in place for their school districts. Members of a party whose platform is “providing a world-class education in every zip code” have gerrymandered Cook County’s school zones so badly that there are school districts that only have one school. So, this isn’t a question of blue vs. red or conservative vs. liberal. It is, quite literally, rich vs. poor. The property tax school-funding system is one of the greatest perpetrators of the wealth disparity problem in our country.
We live in a nation that has historically disadvantaged its lower-class citizens. Isn’t education the institution that’s supposed to set that right? Education is supposed to empower children to change their circumstances generationally. It shouldn’t be the wall that keeps them on the south side of Chicago. It should be the vehicle that brings them to the hallowed halls of the University of Notre Dame. Sometimes it can be. But by and large, the property tax system causes those who are disadvantaged in American society to become even more so, because their inferior quality of education prevents them from pursuing opportunities (like attending a trade school or university) that would allow them to break into the middle class. This fosters the sense of disenfranchisement that causes people from places of poverty to distrust America’s established methods of attaining upward mobility. I saw this firsthand in Baltimore when I tutored children from the inner city. Some of my kids had, even at their young ages, completely disassociated themselves from the “American Dream” and the idea that doing well in school would in any way change their lot in life. This mistrust also explains why there is such rampant criminal activity in areas where educational inequity is most glaring.
The question of why there is so much disparity in our country’s education system is a complex one, but the answer begins and ends with the property tax funding system. Amending this system in favor of one that allocates resources more equitably would allow children from low-income areas to develop the same sense of curiosity and self-belief as their peers in higher-income areas. Inevitably, this would entirely transform their futures. It would entirely transform cities like Chicago and Baltimore too, shattering the glass ceiling of educational inequity that divides them in two.