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The Chicago Boycott: Publicity Stunt or Principled Protest?


Yesterday, State Senator Rev. James Meeks engineered a boycott of the Chicago Public Schools, urging CPS students to travel with him to high-spending districts in Chicago’s suburban North Shore to try to register for school. The objective of the protest was to draw attention to inequalities in school funding in Illinois. Rev. Meeks sought to contrast the Chicago Public Schools, which annually spends a bit over $10,000 per student, with New Trier High School, which spends in the neighborhood of $18,000 per student. Publicity stunt, or principled protest?

Probably a bit of both, in skoolboy’s view. Illinois still relies heavily on local property taxes to fund its schools, and the variability in income and wealth across school districts means that different districts have differing capacities to raise money to support the schooling of the children who reside in them. State and federal funds are supposed to compensate for these inequalities, and they do, but not completely. The available evidence suggests that total per-pupil spending on students in the wealthiest 20% of school districts in Illinois is considerably higher than total per-pupil spending on students in the poorest 20% of school districts—a difference on the order of $2,500 per pupil per year.

The chart below shows these dynamics. skoolboy divided Illinois’ school districts into national deciles based on the median family income of the district in 2000. Districts with a median family income of $30,000 or lower were in the lowest decile, whereas those with a median family income of $66,000 or higher were in the highest decile. I looked at three different revenue streams: per-pupil local revenues; per-pupil state revenues; and per-pupil federal revenues. The sum of these three is reported as total per-pupil revenues. (I use revenues because they’re reported by source in the federal data, and expenditures are not. The data are also weighted by the number of students enrolled in each district, so smaller districts count less than larger ones. I also excluded districts in which the total per-pupil revenues exceeded $40,000 per year. The story is pretty much the same whether one looks at median family income or the percentage of children living in poverty within a district.)


You can see just how strongly district median income and local per-pupil revenues are correlated in Illinois (r=.68). It’s also clear that state and local funds flow disproportionately to lower-income districts. But when the three funding streams are added together, there is a moderate positive correlation (r=.38) between a district’s median family income and its total per-pupil revenue. Although federal and state revenues do help to close the gap between wealthy and poor districts in Illinois, the remaining inequalities in spending are not trivial.

Having said that, a comparison between the Chicago Public Schools and New Trier is fundamentally misleading. By skoolboy’s calculations, the average total per-pupil revenue in New Trier in 2006 was nearly $22,000, which is way, way above the average total per-pupil revenues for the 113 Illinois districts in the top national income decile ($11,400). Moreover, CPS is in the 5th median income decile, not one of the lowest, and its total per-pupil revenues are a tad above the average for the 87 Illinois districts in that decile.

Not all states show this pattern; some have been more successful in reducing the association between a school district’s total per-pupil spending and the characteristics of the students in that district. (For example, like Ken DeRosa, I also find no correlation between per-pupil revenues and the percentage of children in poverty among Pennsylvania school districts. However, in Pennsylvania, as in Illinois, districts with higher median family incomes do spend more than those with lower median family incomes. ) How schools are funded has a lot to do with the inequalities across districts, but funding formulae don’t change easily. Don't expect high-spending districts to be happy with policies that ask them either to spend less or to subsidize the spending on children in other districts.


So, I'm unclear. Is skoolboy writing this or is wonkette quoting skoolboy?
I thought this was wonkette's blog. Am I in error?

Hi, Falstaff. I'm delighted the comments are working again.
Sorry for the confusion -- eduwonkette is on holiday, and I'm filling in while she's away. (If you scroll down to last Thursday, you can see my particulars.) The fact that the post says at the bottom that it was posted by eduwonkette rather than me is just one of the many problems that this site has endured over the past few days. Everything since the 8/29 post on Why the Achievement Gap Matters is skoolboy's handiwork. As always, eduwonkette is not responsible for the content of my posts. All she's responsible for is her questionable judgment in turning things over to me for a few days.

SB, If you have the data, I suggest comparing the performance of free and reduced lunch students in the top 10% revenue schools and those from the bottom. Or those from schools over the median and those from below. I would bet performance is similar despite the funding disparities (or at least sufficiently close to account for the increased number of reduced price lunches and decreased free lunches that likely are present in the top 10%).

It seems that once per pupil spending hits about five figures, it goes to non-instructional factors, such as facilities. State of the art urinals don't usually have an effect on student performance.


You accurately described the savage funding inequities that threaten public education in Chicago.But you never explained your remark about our protest being a "publicity stunt."

A couple of thousand of us students, parents and educators missed school and work yesterday to ride those buses for hours, from the South Side to the North Shore, and spent hours more in the hot sun, waiting in line for a chance to register our kids in a school that spends upwards of $20K/student.

Volunteer teachers gave up a day's pay and held classes for the students on those buses.

How can that be both a "principled protest" and a "publicity stunt?" Some of the teachers that rode with me asked me to ask you.

I'm sorry Kette. I meant to address the question above to Skoolboy. Confusing since SB referred to himself in the third person while making the "publicity stunt" remark.

Both Fred and Mike Klonsky are irate at my characterization of the boycott/protest as simultaneously a principled protest and a publicity stunt. skoolboy's writing from the relative comfort of New York, quite a distance away from the action, and with no children in CPS who are getting shortchanged by the existing funding inequalities.

I'm a strong supporter of protest movements in education, and not just the ones we all know about. And I admire people who act on their principles and beliefs. When I described the Chicago event as a publicity stunt, I had two things in mind. First, I believed that there was no realistic possibility that any CPS child would be successfully registered to attend New Trier. One might not think that it's fair that this would be the outcome, but the fact that it was, in my mind, a foregone conclusion made the effort a stunt. Second, as I mention in the post, New Trier is off the charts relative to the spending in the higher-income districts in Illinois. The use of such an extreme case as the site for the protest also contributed to my characterization of it as partly a stunt.

As many readers know, the pendulum in school finance has swung from equity to adequacy. I'm not crazy about the fact that in most states, wealthy districts are able to spend more educating their kids than poorer districts. But I'm especially concerned that all children attend schools with the resources needed to provide them with an adequate education. "Adequate" is a normative term, but I would set the bar quite high in defining it, and holding government accountable for providing the needed resources.

Ken: finding and merging those data sounds like real work, so I'm not sure when I would get to it.

The usual school expenditure categories are coarse tools for making sense of how money is spent in schools, and I think we can benefit from finer-grained analyses of spending. But I agree that how money is spent matters, and that one can spend money on things that are far removed from teaching and learning in the classroom, and thus unlikely to influence student achievement.

I heard recently that a graduate school at an elite institution (thankfully, not an ed school) had decided that it needed an "architecturally significant" building for its precious students--and was contemplating embarking on a big-bucks capital campaign. That seems ridiculous. On the other hand, classrooms that are overcrowded, have leaky ceilings, inadequate heating, air conditioning and ventilation, and rats underfoot are not good learning environments, and far too many poor children are in such classrooms.

I would be curious to see an analysis done on spending WITHIN a big district like Chicago. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that school buildings serving less advantaged students are often in poor repair relative to those serving high-income students. I am thinking of some of the NYC public school facilities described in Jonathan Kozol's books versus a school like Stuyvesant. If the per-pupil revenues are consistent throughout a district, how does one explain such a disparity? One answer I can think of is simply that, while the district receives revenue on a per-pupil basis, that revenue is not distributed amongst individual schools on a per-pupil basis. Any thoughts?

Hi Brent,

The issue of inequalities in spending within large districts is a topic near and dear to my heart--eduwonkette and I have been studying this in New York City in our parallel universe. There are inequalities in per-pupil spending within districts that are socially patterned. But most school systems don't report building-level expenditure data, so there are only a couple of cases that have served as sites for looking at this: NYC, Columbus, OH, and Cleveland, OH. Amy Ellen Schwartz, last week's cool person, has studied this with her colleagues at NYU and elsewhere, and there's also an important paper on Columbus by Dennis Condron and Vincent Roscigno that appeared in Sociology of Education in 2003.

New York and other districts have experimented with weighted student funding, an approach in which dollars "follow the child" to the school, with different weights (i.e., dollar amounts) associated with different child characteristics (such as English Language Learner, or full-time special education student) built into the amount that comes with the child. This is intended to even out some of the per-pupil spending inequalities among schools within a particular district, but I don't think we know very much about how well it works. For a cautious view on weighted student funding, see the Ed Week column written by Ross Rubenstein, Amy Ellen Schwartz and Leanna Stiefel here

A couple of thousand of us students, parents and educators missed school and work yesterday to ride those buses for hours, from the South Side to the North Shore, and spent hours more in the hot sun, waiting in line for a chance to register our kids in a school that spends upwards of $20K/student.

Would have been easier just to buy a house in the district, then you would have been able to register in the district's schools.

skoolboy, I appreciate your analysis here on school funding. You said, "Don't expect high-spending districts to be happy with policies that ask them either to spend less or to subsidize the spending on children in other districts."

I've seen and done some analysis on private donations to public schools, mostly in the form of school foundations, PTOs, booster clubs, etc. I have found that when states ask districts to spend less or subsidize the spending in other districts, those communities supplement the loss of money through school foundations. In states like California, the number of school foundations increased after property tax revolts limited the amount of money schools can raise from local sources. The communities that are spending significant amounts of local funds in schools are the very ones that have the capacity to raise funds through foundations and other nonprofit organizations.

Its very difficult to account for the amount of private dollars in public schools, but it would provide an interesting addition to the debate on school finance.

Ken: You're kidding, right? The median price for homes in Winnetka, IL on 9/1 was $1,197,000 (see here).

Anon 11:47: The role of private funds that don't show up in schools' operating budgets is an important topic for study, and I hope that school finance experts are pursuing it. The New York Times had an article a few months ago about school auction season in New York City. One school raised $245,000 in its annual auction (in addition to other private funds raised during the year.) That's not chump change!

Regarding funding for specific schools, I remember as a child my parents were not allowed to contribute funds directly to my elementary school in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Parents were only allowed to contribute funds to a school by participating in those "fundraisers" where students sell wrapping paper and the like, and $1 of each $5 roll of paper goes to the school. My family always thought that was an inefficient way to contribute to a school - they would have much preferred to give $20 directly to the school, than to buy $50 worth of wrapping paper, of which the school only received $5.

My question: Do most public schools allow direct financial contributions to an individual school? From the posts above, it seems this occurs in other places in the U.S. Is Fairfax County just an idiosyncratic system, or was this rule changed at some point?

I was half-kidding. I knew the property values would be astronomical to support that level of per pupil spending.

But, the point I was trying to make was that there's a price to be paid for that level of per pupil spending -- high property expenses and taxes thereon. And, let's not forget that the inhabitants of those properties likely earn high incomes which are going to fund the state and federal government already to fund the protesters' schools.

I'm all for providing an adequate education for every student, not a gold-plated one.

Which ties into your concluding point, SB

"Don't expect high-spending districts to be happy with policies that ask them either to spend less or to subsidize the spending on children in other districts."

I think that many residents of the district, mainly the ones without children attending schools, would be happy to have their property taxes lowered. But, our public schools have become very adept at rent-seeking their way to ridiculous spending levels in districts with large tax bases.

And, as I indicated above, these people are already subsidizing other people's schools districts via the other taxes that they pay. We often talk of the "state's money" as if it were something other than the taxes collected from taxpayers.

The private funds difference in a public school setting can make a significant difference. I know of parent organizations that have endowed teachers, added substantially to libraries etc. These can run well over $100,000 a year.

Many PTOs have gone to direct donations instead of selling gift wrap or other trinkets because it is more efficient for the reasons Attorney DC said.

Attorney DC: I don't know as much about the rise of this phenomenon as I wish, but it appears that the dominant method of organizing and disbursing private funds to support public schools is the incorporation of non-profit educational foundations. In your neck of the woods, the Fairfax Education Foundation was founded in 1983, and has awarded over $20 million, mostly for technology enhancements, to the Fairfax public schools over its lifetime.

Are you taking cost-of-living into account when comparing expenditures between regions?

Here in Portland, we also have a nonprofit educational foundation. Individual schools here can raise well above $100,000, and their funds are spent on salaries. Another foundation in a district of about 1500 students is raising millions of dollars. The concern here is that these foundations are moving beyond the old PTO model of funding field trips, band uniforms, library books, etc. They are moving more into operating costs and teacher salaries. Several have explicitly state their mission to lower class sizes, which in some research is tied to improving student performance.

The Portland Schools Foundation has an equity fund in which they take a percentage off the money raised by schools (I think its 10-20% off of anything raised above $5,000). That money is then put into a fund that other schools can tap into. The system isn't perfect. For example, the equity fund does not allow that money to be spent on salaries, whereas the original fundraising is spent only on salaries. It is a step in the right direction, but these private donations are beginning to become a much bigger concern in terms of equity in school finance as the amounts increase and spending shifts.

skoolboy: Your information about Fairfax County squares with what I remember of my parents' complaints: They could contribute to the COUNTY but not to an individual school.

In a county the size of Fairfax (one of the largest in the country) this seriously dilutes any impact of a parent's contribution on their own kid's school - hence the weird use of wrapping paper drives.

Excellent question, Corey. No, the Illinois and Pennsylvania analyses do not take cost-of-living differences across districts into account. Are you concerned that a given (unadjusted) dollar amount might have a different purchasing power for educational resources (e.g., teacher salaries, building upkeep, etc.) in some districts than in others? I'll count on those more knowledgeable than I to chime in on this.

As a Virginia resident (and former VA teacher) I can attest to the huge difference in teacher salaries between districts in VA.

Northern Virginia (Arlington, Fairfax)has the highest starting salaries in the state. Down in southern/rural VA, starting salaries are close to half of what they are up in NoVa.

I researched this for an education law class in law school, and found NoVa salaries starting around $41K and rural VA salaries starting around $26K. Obviously, this in part reflects the cost of living in these areas - Metro DC vs rural counties.

Interestingly, the lower salaries appeared to offer a higher standard of living, at least in terms of home costs. I compared housing costs with salaries, and found that while teacher salaries in NoVa were about 2x that of rural Va, home costs were about 4x as high. That is, you could get a better home w/ a 30K salary in southern VA than you could with a 50K salary in the DC suburbs.

I would expect to be paid more if I taught (or worked in any other capacity) in Philadelphia than I would if I worked the same job in Shippensburg b/c the cost of living is so much higher. Since salaries are such a huge part of school spending, it wouldn't seem to make sense to compare the spending of the Philadelphia and Shippensburg schools without making some sort of adjustment for that.

I'd suspect that the price of most supplies would vary less, and I don't know enough about maintenance, construction, or energy to know how much those costs vary (though I do know that electricity is dramatically cheaper in Nashville than in NYC).

I still think your characterization of the Chicago protest as a "publicity stunt" is insulting. The purpose of the protest wasn't simply to enroll inner-city black students at New Trier. Of course we knew that was an impossibility or it would have been done years ago. Nor did we think we all could afford to by houses in Winnetka and one of your readers suggests. The purpose was to shine a light on the savage inequities in state school funding--which we did, and to push the governor and the legislature to take action--which we will.

"Publicity stunt" was the language used by the opponents of equitable school funding to discredit the families and children marching for equity. I know that's not what you intended, but you should choose your words more carefully.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Mike Klonsky: SB, I still think your characterization of the Chicago protest read more
  • Corey: I would expect to be paid more if I taught read more
  • Attorney DC: As a Virginia resident (and former VA teacher) I can read more
  • skoolboy: Excellent question, Corey. No, the Illinois and Pennsylvania analyses do read more
  • Attorney DC: skoolboy: Your information about Fairfax County squares with what I read more




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