By CARL GREEN
East St. Louis – It’s not every day when you see the top administrator shaking hands with the union president, but it happened recently at School District 189 headquarters.
The East St. Louis Federation of Teachers and the school board announced they are teaming up to build support for full funding of education by the Illinois Legislature, beginning with a petition drive that gained 1,000 signatures in just a day.
It’s a timely campaign as legislators, led by the Senate, are mounting a new push to break the budget deadlock of recent years, starting with a reform of how the state funds its local schools.
The budget plan has a hard way to go, but at least the participants, for now including Governor Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan, are speaking in terms of working together to get something done.
A commission Rauner arranged to deal with school funding reform, including Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), long a leader on the issue, had a deadline of Feb. 1 to make its report.
On Jan. 19, Terry Turley, president of the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers, made it clear that any reforms must take into account the needs of disadvantaged communities.
“Teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians in East St. Louis are dedicated to serving the students of our community, a community with an extremely high poverty rate,” he said. “Our schools need to be fully funded. We demand that money stay in the public schools and not be diverted to charter schools and used as vouchers, as seems to be advocated by the incoming presidential administration.
“Our schools deserve better, which is why we are here today in an effort to seek full funding for our students.”
District 189 Superintendent Arthur Culver joined Turley in the announcement and said education funding is in reality a civil rights issue.
“A quality education is so critical for all students, but especially students who come from communities like East St. Louis,” he said. “A student’s zip code should not determine whether there is adequate funding to meet their needs.
“Right now, the funding formula is broken. There’s a structural problem, and that’s because it’s not based on need.”
Equalized assessed valuation in Illinois is, on average, about $220,000 per school child, but in East St. Louis, it is only $18,000 per student, he said.
“That’s not equitable,” Culver said. “Education, in my opinion, is the most important civil rights issue we have today. With a quality education, our students can have a bright future. Education nowadays is the great equalizer. It’s the gateway to opportunity, and it’s the key to a better life for our students.
“We demand a funding formula that’s not based on local property wealth but instead is based primarily on need.”
Turley called on the Legislature to close tax loopholes that let billionaires and corporation avoid taxes at the levels working people pay – and to use the resulting money for education in the neediest places.
“As the percentage of poor children has increased, investment in the education of the students has actually decreased,” he said. “As a result, our schools have been starved of resources, experienced teachers, technology, facilities and the other materials our students need.
“Teachers have not been given the tools they need to succeed. Now more than ever, we should be working on a level playing field for all students instead of making it harder for students to achieve.”
“You can’t buy good teachers and good school buildings and much needed support on the cheap. Illinois needs to invest in its students.”
The first step in the joint campaign is the petition campaign calling for full funding for school districts. It was supposed to start on Friday, Jan. 13, but the ice storm caused a delay, followed by the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday on Jan. 16.
“The effort did not begin until Tuesday, but on just one day, we were able to collect almost 1,000 signatures in support of our cause, and that is full funding for students in this school district – full, fair and equitable funding,” Turley said.
State Senator James Clayborne (D-Belleville) attended the announcement and said the Senate is indeed moving forward.
“We have been the leaders, in my opinion, in creating an equitable and fair distribution of resources, to make sure that school districts like 189 get the needed funding,” he said. “We will continue, at least from the Senate’s perspective, to find a solution to make the money go where it should go to address those needs and concerns.
“Surely at this day in time, we do not have individuals who are so selfish that they look at East St. Louis and other struggling communities that aren’t able to generate the same amounts of revenue and say, ‘We don’t think that they should receive a quality education.’ I believe it’s just the opposite.”
BALLOONS IN BELLEVILLE
Belleville’s high schools joined in the issue Jan. 19 with an early morning rally at Belleville East High School of parents, students, teachers and community members to launch 100 red balloons, symbolizing students reaching their highest potential.
Those at the rally demanded full funding of schools and warned that students’ success is at risk if federal education dollars are diverted to for-profit charter schools.
The Belleville Federation of High School teachers organized the event, which was in conjunction with a national Day of Action organized by the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools.
Both the Belleville and East St. Louis unions are members of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and American Federation of Teachers.