Across the Midwest, metropolitan regions like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Buffalo, New York, have struggled with attracting and retaining young professionals. They’re concerned – and rightfully so – that bright, young people born and raised in their cities will be wooed straight out of university by big companies (and bright lights) in New York, San Francisco or L.A.
Cities in the Great Lakes region are right to address the underlying push-pull factors contributing to this trend, such as lack of job opportunities, transportation access and affordable housing. Yet, another kind of brain drain threatens even cities like Chicago, which have been successful in attracting young professionals.
The academic achievement gap between poor and wealthy, white and black, immigrant and citizen is a national embarrassment; nowhere has it been more egregious than in Illinois, which has consistently posted among the worst student achievement gaps in the nation. Statewide and in Chicago, many young people never have a fighting chance to graduate high school, let alone earn a college degree. Thousands of minds are lost every year, leading one to wonder how successful this region could be if more students had the opportunity to become educated for the 21st Century economy.
One of the major factors contributing to the achievement gap is the state’s broken school funding system, which over-relies on property taxes to fund education. In Illinois, communities with a healthy tax base can afford to provide their students with all the bells and whistles of a modern education, while disinvested communities struggle to provide even basic necessities such as updated text books. Some schools in wealthy communities spend almost five times more per student than their counterparts in less affluent communities.
In short, the quality of an Illinois child’s education directly relates to his or her ZIP code.
Most Americans would agree that fixing Illinois’ achievement gap is a moral mandate. Yet arguments of moral obligation have, so far, failed to sway state lawmakers.
There’s good news, though: in the past year or two, state leaders seem to be coming around to the fact that Illinois’ economy, its future workforce, and its ability to compete in an increasingly global marketplace are inextricably tied to solving the school funding mess. What’s more, the huge increases in immigration that Chicago and Illinois have experienced have added a layer of urgency to addressing the state’s achievement gap.
· Over a lifetime, a high school dropout in Illinois earns 45 percent less than a high school graduate;
· If current gaps in educational attainment persist, Illinois’ personal income per capita is projected to drop by 2 percent from 2000 to 2020; and
· An Illinois high school graduate will pay $208,000 more in income and payrolls taxes, including $43,392 more in Illinois state income tax, over their lifetime as a result of increased earning potential.
Restructuring the state’s tax system to decrease education’s over-reliance on property taxes would give more students in Illinois a fighting chance at getting a decent education. Along with improving our transit system and ensuring homes are available at all price points, addressing the achievement gap is essential to truly combat the brain drain.