What is the best predictor of a student’s academic achievement?
If you think it’s grades, IQ, or standardized test scores, think again.
It’s the child’s zip code.
In one neighborhood, a child can go to school in safety, while in another, perhaps only blocks away, the child encounters violence. A 2009 study by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice underscores the primacy of place: “Inputs to schools matter. As wonderful as some teachers and schools are, most cannot eliminate inequalities that have their roots outside their doors and that influence events within them.”
In Illinois, where public schools are primarily funded by property taxes, residential segregation translates into dramatic contrasts in school funding. The per pupil spending gap between low and high poverty districts is, at $2,500, the second highest in the nation, according to Dr. Max McGee, president of the Illinois Math & Science Academy, former Superintendent of Wilmette School District 39 and former State Superintendent. According to the Chicago Urban League, “The EAV [equalized assessed value] per pupil in the top five wealthiest districts ranged from $1.2 to $1.8 million, while the EAV per pupil ranged from $7,000 to just over $24,000 in the five districts with the lowest property wealth.”
A school situated in a safe environment can channel its funding into books, teacher salaries, programs in athletics and the arts, while poorer districts spend much of their already reduced pot on basic human needs like food, transportation, and security.
These economic disparities by zip code are also defined by racial segregation – so much so that the Circuit Court of Cook County backed the Chicago Urban League’s claim of a discriminatory impact based on race in the state’s use of the property tax for school funding. Racial segregation is inevitable when African Americans are denied housing for decades, when restrictive covenants are placed on homes and neigborhoods, when the real estate industry practices race-based steering, when banks “redline” some neighborhoods in favor of others, and when FHA home loans were initially approved only in white neighborhoods. Not until 43 years ago with the Fair Housing Act were all these practices made illegal. But the effects of these practices linger. Outside Evanston, the north suburban population remains only one percent Black.
But why should a prosperous, predominantly white community be interested in having integrated schools? According to a study by Harvard Law School, since the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in its 1954 landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, it is clear that “an essential condition for reducing prejudice is for people from various racial groups to be in contact with one another.”
Growing up in a diverse community prepares children for living in a complex, heterogeneous world. By learning how to act and resolve conflict within a context of mutual respect among political equals, they learn how to live in a democractic society. The Harvard study enumerates other benefits such as enhanced critical thinking, access to a broad base of beneficial social and professional networks post-graduation, and exposure to different cultures.
Dedidated to those principles of democracy, a grassroots group of north suburban parents and teachers, under the umbrella United We Learn, coalesced three years ago to promote better public education systems that benefit all Illinois children. UWL organized to welcome State Sen. Rev. James Meeks and the hundreds of Chicago Public School students who boycotted their first day of school in 2008 to rally at New Trier High School. Beyond that day, UWL embarked on an inquiry to find out why and how funding matters. They held community forums and last year, released a video, The Education They Deserve, in which high school students, teachers, parents, and business leaders in Chicago and the North Shore highlight the inequities inherent in educating kids by zip code.
Most studies on student achievement focus on school-based strategies. But we we know that the impact of community is vital, especially in terms of its wealth. Indeed, a Chicago Tribune editorial published earlier this month underscores the economy as the core problem with urban schools.
While we wait for economic recovery, we can invest in the future of our north suburban children by endorsing housing strategies that promote integration. Those strategies could include:
- Marketing and celebrating our suburbs as welcoming of diversity. From posters and ads, to municipal web sites and housing fairs with positive images of different populations by race, religion, national origin, presence of children, disability, sex, age, sexual orientation, income, and marital status, our suburbs can communicate a powerful message of openness. Skokie, for example, has long celebrated its diversity through its “Festival of Cultures.”
- Inviting minority families living outside these suburbs to consider a move here. A study by the University of Illinois at Chicago found significant “racial blind spots” between whites, African Amercans and Latinos in the Cook County area. For example, 40% of African Americans in this 2004 study of 800 randomly selected adults knew nothing about Glenview.
- Supporting affordable housing programs that can help lower income residents to remain and others to move into the community, particularly local workers. Evanston, Highland Park, and Skokie have rental and for-sale housing at a variety of price points for low- and moderate-income famililes and people with disabilities. In addition, Deerfield, Northbrook, Northfield and Wilmette have affordable units for older adults.
- Refusing to tolerate housing discrimination by landlords, home sellers, property managers, or real estate professionals. Evanston, Morton Grove, and Wilmette have brochures promoting their communities with fair housing laws included. Municipal commissions, such as housing or human relations, can help educate the public. The Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, as the region’s private fair housing enforcement agency, is also well-equipped to investigate complaints and act as a free educational resource.
All of these strategies require political will. If you are interested in learning more about school and community-based strategies to promote diversity, please join the Interfaith Housing Center in welcoming three north suburban principals – Dr. Ryan McTague of Niles North HS in Skokie, Erin Murphy of Field Middle School in Northbrook, and Dr. Jeff Brown of King Lab in Evanston – to a regional forum, “Inclusive Community, Inclusive Schools,” on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011, from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. at the Winnetka Congregational Church, 725 Pine St., Winnetka.
The forum is being moderated by Barbara Hiller, an active coach of school principals and herself a retired principal and assistant superintendent from Evanston, and a leader in United We Learn.
This community forum, the centerpiece of the Annual Meeting of the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, and is free and open to the public. Founded in 1972 by north suburban residents, religious, and civic leaders, Interfaith is the premier advocate for fair & affordable housing. We welcome your open mind and engagement.