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FIGHTING FOR EQUITY IN ILLINOIS SCHOOLS

As told by Dr. Mike Popp, Assistant Executive Director of West40 and former school superintendent


“When I was a school superintendent, I realized that different districts were offering very different experiences to their students. For example, I worked at a district where we had a greenhouse and a planetarium. Then at my next district, they had a food pantry, a closet of second-hand clothing and a health clinic inside the school. That sealed the deal for me and made me focus on equity. I knew this had to change.


I had been involved in the effort for school equity since 2014, working with various groups and trying to implement a new formula for how we fund our schools. Then at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, the governor of Illinois signed the Evidence-Based Funding Formula into law. Our Illinois school system was finally changing its formula for the first time in a very long time.


The old formula gave a set amount of money per pupil to each school district. This funding was supposed to be in addition to whatever local money the district received from property taxes. The result was that a poorer district might only be able to spend about $6,000 per student, whereas a wealthy district might be able to spend over $20,000 per student.


At West40, our focus is really on alternative education. And a few months after the new funding formula was passed, we realized that it didn’t adequately cover programs like ours. We talked to the state superintendent of schools and to ISBE, and they said they would try to fix it. But it was an uphill battle.


In 2018, I met Illinois state representative Will Davis at an event in Chicago. I was then able to get a full meeting with him, and I explained our West40 work and how the funding was affecting us. He helped pass a supplemental appropriations bill that included programs like West40. There was a lot of back and forth among legislators in the battle to secure permanent funding, but we’re now on the path for programs like ours to be properly supported.


In the middle of this experience, Dr. Klaisner [executive director of West40] came up with the idea of expanding our legislative ‘SWAT team’ to cultivate a sense of legislative leadership across West40. I had done advocacy by myself and I was still a novice. So in a sense, it was one novice teaching other novices about legislation and how funding works.


Through a lot of hard work, we started to figure out how legislators think and make decisions. Rep. Davis spent six hours at our facilities one day, and what we learned from his visit is that legislators are just regular people trying to learn about a wide range of topics. He said he needed to figure out how all the abstract line items in the education budget translated into real life. So it’s our job to advocate for schools and keep him and other legislators up-to-date on the education issues being discussed in Springfield.


The fight for equity isn’t always pretty. And it doesn’t always move in a straight line. But I’m proud that as an organization, West40 continues to be on the forefront of fighting for better education in the state of Illinois.”


“WE’RE NOW ON THE PATH FOR PROGRAMS LIKE OURS TO BE PROPERLY SUPPORTED.” - Dr. Mike Popp

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