By CHARLES N. WHEELER III
In a television commercial a few years back, an actor made up to look like an automobile mechanic shakes his head in dismay as he surveys a partially disassembled car engine. The vehicle's hapless owner neglected to properly protect the engine from wear and now faces a costly repair bill, he solemnly tells viewers. A smart motorist, though, can avoid similar expenses by installing the particular brand of oil filter the commercial is pitching. "Pay me now, or pay me later,'' the actor-mechanic says authoritatively, placing the decision squarely in the lap of the viewer.
As a new decade dawns, Illinoisans face a similar situation in the ongoing waste of our most valuable resource, our human capital. The choices we make in the 1990s will determine whether we fully tap this precious resource or continue to squander its potential. The stakes are much higher than the thrown rod or blown valve of the TV commercial. On the line is no less than the state's ability to take full advantage of the incredible opportunities the 21st century is sure to present.
The key to utilizing the state's human capital, of course, is education. The authors of the state Constitution recognized that truism two decades ago when they ordained as a fundamental goal of the people of this state "the educational development of all persons to the limit of their capacities."
The constitutional drafters also assigned the state primary responsibility for financing a system of high quality public education. But that goal remains today more wish than fact. In the current school year, state dollars are paying only about 40 percent of the total bill for elementary and secondary education, down from the 48 percent share of a decade ago. Moreover, because of heavy reliance on local property taxes, huge disparities exist, both in the resources available to educate youngsters and in the effort taxpayers are required to make for their local schools.
That the state's current system of financing schools is not equitable is no revelation; almost from the enactment of the complicated formula under which more than $2 billion in general state aid is distributed, there have been calls for its revision. Aside from some minor tinkering, however, the General Assembly has side-stepped the issue, chiefly because most lawmakers are fearful meaningful reform would carry a price tag that could be satisfied only through a substantial increase in the state income tax rate.
The days of legislative temporizing may well be numbered, however, as support builds for a legal challenge to the state's school financing system patterned after similar, successful lawsuits in Kentucky and Texas. The effort is being spearheaded by James D. Nowlan, a professor of public policy at Knox College in Galesburg with a varied and productive background in government and politics, aided by educators and school finance experts.
Evidence abounds of the fundamental unfairness of the state's system of funding its public schools. For example, financial data included with this year's school report cards showed that per pupil spending ranged from $12,866 in one west suburban elementary district to $2,095 in another grade school district, this one located in northwestern Illinois. Roughly one out of seven school districts in the state spends more than $5,000 for each youngster, while almost one out of five spend less than $3,000, the report cards showed.
The inequity affects not only students, but taxpayers as well; a school district fortunate enough to have within its boundaries a nuclear power plant, a major industry, a huge shopping center or some other highly valuable real estate can reap a property tax windfall, even though its tax rate is but a fraction of a neighboring district not so blessed. In one example cited
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by researchers at Illinois State University, one high school district realized a per-pupil spending of $9,403 with an operating tax rate of just under 66 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, while an adjoining high school district could spend only $3,891 per student, despite a $1.44 tax rate.
"Thus, there are two sides to the equity problem," concluded Illinois State Professor G. Alan Hickrod, a school finance expert. "Students are condemned to receive different levels of goods and services depending upon where they live, and taxpayers are not treated equally under the law because their tax rates, too, are dependent upon where they live."
Given the evidence, it's a safe bet the current funding system could not withstand judicial scrutiny, if a suit is filed.
Less clear is what remedies a court might order or the legislature might adopt. Indeed, one fear among some educators is that lawmakers might decide the easiest response to an adverse court decision would be simply to cut from the top and add to the bottom, bringing per-pupil spending in all districts into a sort of homogenized mediocrity without making a true investment in the future.
While the idea of education most commonly calls to mind a classroom of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngsters awakening to the wonders of the world under the skillful guidance of a dedicated teacher, learning is a lifelong process. And so our mandate to make the most of our state' s human capital must be broader, extending to such atypical "students" as the teenage dropout, the adult illiterate, the displaced factory worker, the welfare client lacking basic jobs skills. All have the capacity to become contributing members of society, if we are willing to unlock their potential.
Almost 30 years ago, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to landing a manned spacecraft on the moon before the decade of the 1960s was out. Despite awesome obstacles, that dream was realized on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on another world.
Now it's time for Illinoisans to take on a similarly ambitious challenge for the 1990s — investing in a comprehensive system of education that will bring out the latent riches of our human capital.
Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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