On the map for education coverage

It was just three paragraphs, but the conclusion of Sharon McGowan’s 1976 school funding investigation caused a political stir in Illinois.

McGowan had discovered that $85.5 million in federal funding earmarked to help Chicago’s 212,434 “poverty children” in the 1974-75 school year had been instead spent for general purposes throughout the public school district. The fund, created by Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, was intended to improve academic performance at  schools with a high percentage of low-income students, most of whom were black.

“I made a mistake in not realizing that it was the most important part of the story. It would have been better in retrospect if I had led with that,” said McGowan, now the editor-in-chief of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.

Still, her findings drew a flurry of media attention. “That put the Reporter on the map for the board of education. We got a lot of credibility for the beat after the story,” said McGowan, who is also president of Complete Communication, a consulting firm.

Two years earlier, a class-action lawsuit based on claims similar to McGowan’s findings had been dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The decision was based on the grounds that Chicago Public Schools had instituted programs to correct teacher-student ratios and funding disparities.

But McGowan’s story found that, during the 1974-75 school year, CPS spent 7.3 percent more on instruction at richer, mostly white schools than in black, mostly poor schools. Average reading and math scores were also lower at the city’s “poverty” schools.

After the story was published, a statewide political debate ensued. Some argued that the fund  should be used to target specific schools that were falling behind, while others still insisted that improving the entire system was the best way to help poor students.

In December 1976, CPS Superintendent Joseph P. Hannon released a plan for how to distribute the district’s $174 million in federal aid for 1977-78: Nearly $95 million for “poverty students” and nearly $79 million for those with special education needs.

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