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CPS, Health Equity, and Illinois’ Revenue Problem

Tiffany Ford and Wesley Epplin
April 3, 2017
As Chicago Public Schools (CPS) continues to struggle with budget cuts—and the system’s recent lawsuit about discriminatory education funding starts winding its way through the courts—we face another attack on our public education system and on Chicago’s youth. CPS leadership, along with Chicago and Illinois elected officials, share the blame for this failure. CPS budget cuts steadily chip away at investments in our collective future—our children—through reductions in teachers, necessary support staff, and outdated textbooks. These cuts worsen opportunity gaps, building on both historical and current structural racism and class inequity enacted through public policy, and are reinforced by our regressive state tax policy. This is an avoidable problem and we expect our elected officials to fix it.

Education is critical to the development of Illinois’ children and has a direct impact on health. Thus, inequitably funded schools are a public health crisis that exacerbates health inequities. Changing state tax policy so that Illinois can produce the revenue to equitably and sufficiently fund education is part of the solution.

Nationwide, Illinois consistently provides among the lowest state contributions to education, putting too much onus on local property tax revenue. This worsens education inequity by tying education funding to property tax revenue. High-poverty communities’ lower property value and associated taxes result in vastly lower education funding than in wealthy communities. This means that the schools attended by children born into poverty are systematically given less funding and resources than their affluent counterparts.  People of color disproportionately live in higher poverty areas, which is not incidental.  

Starting in the 1930s, predatory lending and property sales methods, such as redlining, restrictive covenants, contract buying, and blockbusting, made it especially difficult or impossible for communities of color to own homes and accumulate wealth. While officially outlawed in 1968, many argue that new iterations of these practices remain in use. Many other historic and modern examples of discriminatory policies exist, and together, they contribute to today’s residential segregation by race and class—and large differences in property ownership and value. Home ownership is also a major intermediate driver of the racial wealth gap, linking this history with vastly unfair education funding and opportunity today. If we believe in fair opportunities, Illinois elected officials must increase Illinois’ contribution to our schools to reduce the reliance upon property taxes for education.

This history of predation has a direct impact on our current education system and who is being disadvantaged by its broken and unfair funding structure. With regard to CPS specifically, the laws and budgets that contribute to education funding are systematically under-resourcing Chicago’s young people of color and people living in poverty. About nine out of every ten CPS students are students of color and 80% are economically disadvantaged students (meaning they come from families whose income is within 185% of the federal poverty line). Underfunding schools in which students of color and those living in poverty make up the majority of the impacted students is an example of structural racism layered with class inequity—perpetrated through public policy.

Recently, Health & Medicine provided recommendations to the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) regarding measuring structural racism, which is available here.  A social epidemiology approach to understanding education inequities as they relate to health inequities requires both measures of the inequity in education outcomes and the causal drivers. To focus on redressing structural racism and class inequities shown in education outcomes, the field of public health needs to measure and understand the policy and budgetary drivers that cause insufficient and inequitable funding and resources both among Chicago schools and among districts in Illinois. Achieving education equity is a goal within the larger frame of achieving health equity in Healthy Chicago 2.0, making this a key issue for public health.

What’s the responsibility of Illinois lawmakers?  By failing to pass a budget and raise sufficient revenue, Illinois’ elected officials have abandoned all of our public systems, including social services, healthcare, and education. Our state’s per-capita government spending is among the worst in the country—we’re 37th. Illinois is one of only a handful of states with a flat income tax rate, among the lowest rates nationally. Taking into account both state and local taxes and credits together, Illinois has the fifth most regressive tax system in the nation. The flat income tax fails to raise enough revenue to share with municipalities, contributing to higher property and other taxes to fund services, such as education. These harmful and backward public policies have straightforward solutions.

Illinois needs a constitutional amendment to allow legislators to replace the flat income tax with a fair tax. The sooner we start down that road, the better. By failing to take this on, our elected officials are further locking Illinois into its losing situation of continued cuts to already sparse public investments. To pay down debts and equitably fund public services such as education—which benefit us all—we need revenue. Illinois needs a progressive income tax. It is the only way to move toward fair funding so that all children have equitable opportunities for education, which is necessary to contribute to society and live a healthy and fulfilling life—and for us to all benefit from their brilliance.