School Reform: Which Tax?

by Mary C. Piemonte 

Let me first begin by saying that, as the mother of six children, I am concerned about them in every way, including their education. So I thought it would be a good idea to write about what is happening with Chicago’s Public School Reform.

I attended the April 9 march on Springfield. There were many marchers as well as speakers, all trying to be heard. Among the speakers were James W. Compton, president/CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

“Funding based on property taxes cannot support a fair equitable system,” Compton said. “We must move to a fair system of funding education, one increasingly based on income tax.”

Jesse Jackson Sr. led the marchers in a chant, “Keep hope alive! Equal opportunity now! Save the children!” But in the end, Gov. Edgar didn’t get the state Senate votes he needed for his school reform bill to pass. Now the focus of school funding reform has shifted to “how politically damaged Edgar has become,” according to many news articles. What about school funding reform? So much for nothing.

By the way, the state of Michigan had its own school funding reform in 1994. They increased their sales and cigarette taxes and established a tax on the transfer of real estate rather than raising their income tax. According to Michigan Treasurer Douglas Roberts, so far the plan has drastically reduced the role of the property tax as a means of funding schools. This was a move that cut property taxes for schools by an average of 45 percent. Michigan also dropped their state’s income tax from 4.6 percent to 4.4 percent and limited growth in assessed value of property to the rate of inflation; or 5 percent. “The reform plan is doing exactly what we said it would do,” said Roberts.

UNDERSTANDING THE FUNDING SYSTEM

With all of the lobbying and proposals for school reform, I learned a lot about the schools funding system and other information that I didn’t know or understand before. According to a pamphlet prepared by the League of Women Voters of Chicago, schools and other government services are funded by three kind of taxes: the property tax (on what we own), income tax (on what we earn) and the sales tax (on what we buy). The property tax is local and the sales and income tax are state taxes. The school’s funding comes from the Common School Fund, which is made up largely by the property tax, and some of the sales tax money. Unlike the sales tax, the income tax goes directly into the state General Revenue pot, along with 75 percent balance of sales tax and other state revenues. The general revenue funds provide the money to meet the basic school formula requirements which also include Chapter 1 – federal poverty impact funds – and the state’s share of special education funds. Contrary to what many believe, the lottery funds – which raise over $1 billion a year have dedicated amounts that go directly into the Common School Fund. Half of the money raised by the Lottery goes to the winners and most of the other half goes into the Common School Fund but not actually as additional funds. The Lottery money replaces funds that would have had to come out of the general revenue funds.

According to Chi-town Lowdown’s investigative report, more than $82 million in property taxes which would have gone to the Board of Education has instead gone to developers and banks. More than $224 million of property taxes which would have gone to the Board, the city colleges, the Park District and other city services have instead been diverted through a tax break device called Tax Increment Financing or TIF. TIFs are special districts created by the city which freeze the amount of property taxes that can be collected by the various taxing districts other than the municipality which passes the law. All other taxes collected above that mark go directly to a special fund created by the city, which then goes to aid developers within the TIF district.

A CALL FOR NEW SCHOOL STANDARDS

Parents, activists, and others concerned with state school reform gather in front of the state capital during a recent march to Springfield. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

A civic organization, the Council on Standards in Education and the Community (COSEC), pressed the Board of Education in March for new academic standards and demanded that parents receive explanations of these standards, both verbally at special workshops and in written form. Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas said that the new standards were to be made available in April or May of this year and that the board would ensure that explanations, orientation and training are made available to parents.

THE NEW NATIONAL TEST

President Bill Clinton established a new national test in reading and math and is calling every state to adopt high national standards by 1999. Clinton is proposing the two national tests to meet the new national and international standards in reading and math to measure individual student knowledge of subject areas, rather than how students in one system are doing vs. students in another school system.

The tests themselves will be based on content criteria already established through national and international consensus. Currently, many systems – such as Chicago – use national tests such as the Iowa which never tell exactly how much the student really knows in reading or math. Rather, they just tell parents and teachers where the child is in relation to other children around the country who also took the Iowa test. The new tests will be developed this year and in 1998 and will be available for school systems in the spring of 1999. The federal government will pay for the first year’s cost and, after that, systems will have to pay $5 per student, a cost that is less than the current cost of administering the Iowa test. Each school system will grade their own tests but the U.S. Department of Education will put the entire test, answers, scoring guides and other related material on the Internet each year after the test in an attempt to help parents evaluate their child’s score.

Many states have already committed themselves to Clinton’s new national test: Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina and Massachusetts. The majority of states are expected to sign on.

PROGRESS REPORT

The Board of Education was to develop a modified School Improvement Plan (SIP) to give to Chicago’s probation schools to correct deficiencies and raise student achievement. I wanted to know how well the probation elementary schools were doing, since the progress report was already publicly done for some of the probation high schools. So I spoke with Margaret Tolson, the principal at George T. Donoghue Elementary School on the South Side.

“We recently did the modified plan that will go into action, if approved, some time in September,” Tolson explained. “What we did prior to that plan was what’s known as a corrective action plan. Everything a school could do has been put into action in terms of the corrective action plan. And that included things such as the after-school reading program and some changes in our special education department organization. It involved bringing in parents to assist with the after-school programs and doing a training session with them so that they could become assistants in the classroom. All of that took place. We feel that the program was successful.”

I asked Tolson whether the changes would allow Donoghue to be removed from probation. Tolson replied, “No. The removal from probation comes when 50 percent or more of your school population is on grade level. That is a process which will take some time.”

I also spoke with the Albert Einstein School’s principal, Dr. Phyllis Tate. “We weren’t given a modified SIP but we were given an example of a modified SIP and asked to create our own that followed the guidelines. I think we’ve been very successful in implementing our corrective action plan.”

Tate said her school is on probation because of low test scores in reading. “We’re one point away now from the 15 percent that we need to be off probation and I’m positive that we’re going to get off probation next year. If we continue doing what we’re doing, I know we’ll be successful!”

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