Illinois Schools’ Spending Gap No Mystery

Published October 1, 2005

More than 800 separate school districts and varying costs of living across the state of Illinois are two of the factors contributing to a per-pupil spending gap of more than $19,000 between the costliest and least-expensive school districts in the state, according to a new report from the Illinois Policy Institute.

Mike Van Winkle, the institute’s director of public policy, was prompted to investigate the spending gaps after he read an article in the August 1 issue of the Chicago Tribune reporting, “the difference between the highest- and lowest-spending [school] districts was $19,361 per pupil in 2003-04, about $4,000 higher than the year before and the biggest school-spending gap in a decade.”

According to the article, Rondout Elementary District in Lake County ($23,799 per pupil) spent the most, while Central School District 51 ($4,438 per pupil) spent the least.

Van Winkle’s analysis, titled Rethinking Spending Gaps: What Can Spending Gaps Tell Us about Waste in Public Education? is an attempt to find out what the $19,000 difference really means.

Periodically, Van Winkle said, the media report a story in which the spending gap between the highest- and lowest-spending districts in the state is presented as a meaningful statistic. “So a lot of what we’re trying to do with Rethinking Spending Gaps is undermine that interpretation of the statistic and say, ‘Hey, simply citing that gap really doesn’t mean anything,'” he said.

Why So Large?

“The truth is that spending gaps are not evidence of a maliciously ‘regressive’ education funding system, rather they are evidence of a complex, diverse, and free economy,” Van Winkle wrote. “Unfortunately, the way the education establishment uses this data is often misleading. Moreover, there are factors unique to Illinois that make these spending gaps appear more pronounced than they truly are.”

One of Illinois’ unique factors is its 887 school districts. By comparison, Florida has just 67 school districts, even though it has more students. “If Illinois had fewer school districts, Rondout would then be averaged in with several other schools to produce a district average that would certainly reflect lower overall spending than $23,799,” Van Winkle wrote. “The resulting gap would appear far less pronounced than it appears now.”

Another factor is the cost of living in different parts of Illinois. When an adjustment is made for the cost of living, the spending gaps shrink, Van Winkle said. In 2003, Standard & Poor’s worked with the National Center for Education Statistics to develop cost-adjusted data for Illinois’ spending gap; the results showed a 25 percent decrease in the spending gap, according to Van Winkle’s report.

What’s the Solution?

Leveling the funding field might sound like a good idea, but it is not a practical one, said Ronald Kazmar, vice president of the Plainfield School District 202 Board of Education.

“Are you ever going to eliminate the extremes? That’s a tough one,” he said. “Obviously, certain school districts are blessed with certain assets such as utility companies or major manufacturing companies or high levels of land valuation that enable them to tax more. Is it right to take that money away from them and give it to other school districts to redistribute that? To me that smacks of some pretty strong socialism, which I don’t think is the basis of this country.”

The other avenue would be school vouchers or school choice, Kazmar noted. However, he questions whether private and parochial schools would be required to meet the same regulations and requirements that public schools must meet. For instance, he said, public schools must provide education to everybody, including disabled students, which may require additional teaching staff or sending a student to an outside institution and paying the tuition.

If you allow school choice to occur as it’s now structured, Kazmar said, you’re going to have what’s now called “adverse selection”: All the children with the learning and disciplinary problems will be left in public schools, while the rest go to private or parochial schools through school vouchers.

School Choice Provides Option

Van Winkle, however, thinks the “adverse selection” problem has been exaggerated. He supports school vouchers as a very good solution, although he believes they might not work in every area of the state.

“The ‘adverse selection’ argument is painfully weak,” Van Winkle said. “In reality, with vouchers in hand, kids with learning and disciplinary issues could be some of the first to abandon the public school system precisely because they have more to gain from transferring to private schools that specialize in coping with their particular challenges.”

Van Winkle also notes high spending gaps illustrate how more money doesn’t always translate into a better education. For example, data from 2003 showed Rondout spent $7,357 more per pupil than the Kenilworth School District, yet Kenilworth’s third- and fifth-graders had higher reading proficiencies.

“Don’t necessarily listen to the advocates who just point out a spending gap and say that means we need to increase spending,” Van Winkle said. “It’s much more complicated than that. Look at where schools are spending their money, instead of how much they are spending.”

Greg McConnell ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in Palatine, Illinois.

For more information …

Mike Van Winkle’s report, Rethinking Spending Gaps, published by the Illinois Policy Institute in August 2005, is available online at