School funding remains top education issue, says poll

IEA President Kathi Griffin points to Pritzker fair tax as long-term solution

Polls show strong support for funding public education — and a graduated income tax is key to that in Illinois. (Shutterstock)

Polls show strong support for funding public education — and a graduated income tax is key to that in Illinois. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

A new national poll finds that “a lack of financial support” is the top issue afflicting public education — and it’s held that spot for decades.

The poll found strong support across all demographics for funding public education — and even for backing teachers as they strike for higher salaries and additional resources for schools.

The PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools is in its 51st year, but for the past 18 years school funding has been the top issue. An article on the poll printed last week in Education Week pointed out extensive trends in issues involving public education.

From the late ‘60s into the mid-’80s, lack of discipline was considered the top education issue. That was replaced by the use of drugs into the early ‘90s. Then lack of funding joined in, and the three shared the top spot until funding emerged as the central education issue in 2002, peaking at over a third of respondents making it their top concern in the years following the Great Recession a decade ago.

“The shifts over time are striking," the PDK poll stated. "In the first PDK poll in 1969, 26 percent called discipline the schools' top problem, compared with 6 percent today. At its peak in 1990, 38 percent called drugs the main problem versus just 3 percent today. And in the aftermath of the Great Recession, in 2010 and 2011 alike, 36 percent called school funding the biggest problem. That's stayed high; today's 25 percent compares with a pre-recession average of 16 percent.”

The national poll is reflective of a similar poll on “The State of Education” released by the Illinois Education Association earlier this year. It found overwhelming support for public education across the state, with 68 percent of respondents calling it “one of the most important issues,” and with an additional 15 percent of those polled saying it was “the single most important issue facing Illinois” — meaning 83 percent of Illinoisans display a strong commitment to public education.

Some 71 percent believe funding for public schools should be increased, and an overwhelming majority of 62 percent think the $13,000 a year spent on average per pupil across the state should be increased.

It shows a renewed commitment to public education statewide, IEA President Kathi Griffin said, after Illinois had been “defunding education … especially our colleges” for decades.

And now the state might actually be committing itself to addressing that issue over the long haul with what Gov. Pritzker has called the “fair tax,” or a graduated income tax, citizens will vote on next year in what amounts to a referendum to alter the Illinois Constitution to allow such a tax.

Griffin pointed out that the “evidence-based funding” approved as the new state formula for public education two years ago has been key to leveling the playing field between well-to-do suburban districts and both urban and rural school districts.

She cited the Schaumburg school district as a shining example of what can be done if a well-off city commits itself to adequately funding education, saying, “You have a dense population that pays pretty significant property taxes. In central Illinois,” she added, “you don’t have the density.”

Griffin backed the evidence-based funding that state Sen. Andy Manar made central to the new school funding formula two years ago as key to addressing the disparity between top-performing suburban districts and struggling rural districts. Because of its dense population in relatively high-priced homes, Schaumburg can ask all residents to pay a little more to improve education — and they do. But a rural county or township can’t ask the same of a relatively few farmers. So it’s only right that the state give those districts more money to make up the difference. The issue is sustaining that in the years to come.

“Having the evidence-based formula is important,” Griffin said, “but the plan has to have fuel, so to speak. It has to have money to in order to provide that continued financing.”

Thus the need for a state progressive income tax, which would add an estimated $3.4 billion a year to state coffers.

“We see school districts that are able to do so much for their kids because they have the resources to do it,” Griffin said. “And we want all of our kids to have that opportunity.”

So do parents — as the recent polls show.

“Parents obviously are seeing the impact,” Griffin said. “When you have kids who are trying to learn from books that are outdated and taped together, and the last president in the book is Ronald Reagan, that’s not quality education. And parents notice that.”


“When you have kids who are trying to learn from books that are outdated and taped together, and the last president in the book is Ronald Reagan, that’s not quality education. And parents notice that.”

IEA President Kathi Griffin (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Teachers do too, she added. She praised the new $40,000 minimum teacher’s salary passed this year by the General Assembly (and expected to be signed by Gov. Pritzker) as key to recruiting new teachers and addressing the state’s teacher shortage, but she said young teachers could also benefit from additional training and mentoring — initiatives the Economic Policy Institute says will help recruit and retain teachers, but that again require money to give teachers the time and resources to pursue them.

“It isn’t that distracts don’t want to do it,” Griffin added. “It’s that they can’t.

“Some districts are able to provide that, and others are not. That’s why the fair tax is so important. We have to have the revenue to do right by our kids.”

Last week, Pritzker signed other Manar bills into law intended to address the teacher shortage, including one that allows student teachers to be paid and removes the requirement that teachers must pass a basic skills test to be licensed. Another, signed Friday, prioritizes National Board certification funding for hard-to-staff classrooms and creates incentives for National Board-certified teachers to work in rural and remote areas. Griffin applauded National Board certification as an intense program and very beneficial to teachers — again, if it’s paid for. Manar got $500,000 added to the state budget to support National Board-certified teachers.

“It’s well documented that we’re having trouble attracting qualified teachers to Illinois schools, and it’s time to change that narrative,” said Manar, of Bunker Hill south of Springfield. “As I drafted this legislation, I heard from teachers around the state about the problems they’re facing, and I’m glad that we were able to come together to create this package and address these problems.

“This teacher shortage is creating a major barrier to providing students with the best educational opportunities available, and downstate communities like those I represent are bearing the brunt of this challenge,” he added. “These new laws are another step in the right direction as we fight to recruit and retain qualified teachers in Illinois.”

The same need for financial backing goes for school employees commonly known as education support professionals — bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries, custodians — who are often underpaid because they work part time, or 10 months out of the year, and often don’t qualify for benefits like health care or the Family Medical Leave Act. Griffin emphasized that all of that comes down to having the monetary resources to pay for it, and to the state progressive income tax to sustaining it over the long haul.

“Everything goes back to the importance of passing that fair tax,” she said.

The public support for it is there, both in the state and nationally. The PDK poll found that just over half of teachers would vote to strike for higher funding of school programs, higher pay, and having more say in school standards, testing, and curriculum, but less than half would vote to strike for more say in teaching conditions. About three-quarters of school parents, however, said they’d support a teacher strike on those issues, with even a strike on teachers having more say on school conditions backed by 70 percent of respondents.

According to the poll, African-American parents especially believe “their local schools have too little money,” but “even a majority of the most affluent Americans say their schools are underfunded.”

The IEA poll from earlier this year found similar results, with 84 percent of those polled considering teachers “very important” in having a say in how schools are run, topping even parents at 71 percent, and far surpassing the support for administrators (50 percent), local school boards (49 percent), and students (46 percent), and with only 11 percent giving the same importance to politicians, while 39 percent said they should be involved “not at all.”

“If we want what’s best for our kids — and we are a state that’s always valued education — we have to start putting our money where our future is,” Griffin said, “and our future is with our kids.”

And the added revenue from Pritzker fair tax is essential to that goal, she added. “We really need to focus on doing what’s right for the state,” Griffin said. “That is to pass the fair tax. There’s going to be a lot of negativity coming at us, from people who are very wealthy who don’t want to pay their fair share.”

The Chicago Sun-Times ran an editorial just Monday telling readers to “beware of (the) disinformation campaign against a fairer tax for Illinois.”

Statewide, residents insist they want to provide more funding to schools. Griffin said it’s time to follow through on that, adding, “The best way to do that is to make sure that we pass the funding with the fair tax that will help pay for the evidence-based funding to make sure that all of our kids, no matter where they live, are able to get that quality education.”