Low-income students increase in outlying areas, hold steady in District 186
By Catherine O’Connor


In this first installment of a two-part project, SBJ examines the results of a study of public perceptions of Springfield’s Public School District 186 in contrast to real statistics on the number of low-income students throughout Sangamon County. Next month, part two will take a closer look at school data related to graduation rates, academics, challenges and progress that programs and learning environments are creating for the local educational system, which impacts Springfield business on many levels.

A new analysis of 2013 federal data shows that for the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students are living in low-income families, according to a Jan. 16, 2015, Washington Post report.  With the number of low-income public school students in Springfield District 186 at 67 percent, currently higher than the national average, these are statistics with profound implications for the city, the county and the nation.

With lower wages, economic and demographic shifts, higher numbers of rental properties, an eroding tax base in older neighborhoods and a sizeable number of low-income students in District 186, public perceptions are playing a significant role in Springfield’s residential real estate market.

Meanwhile, on the outer fringes of Springfield, home construction has been steady, with new businesses opening their doors in response to middle- and higher-income households choosing new residential options, often motivated by what are seen as better educational opportunities outside of Springfield’s public schools.

The last couple decades have witnessed moderate population increases and strong property values in outlying communities, supported by new construction and optimistic developments such as the Ace Hardware in Chatham and County Market grocery store in Sherman proving the adage “retail follows rooftops.”

Perceptions about the quality of educational opportunities in various area school districts seems to be fueling a vicious cycle, as the decision about where to send kids to school creates ripple effects for communities. But is there a consisten pattern when we look at student family income data in order to  try to define the trends shaping the residential real estate and business outlook?

A close look at the statistics on the numbers of low-income children in public schools whose families meet the federal poverty definition, reported by the Illinois State Board of Education on their “Illinois School Report Card” website, shows a surprising trend in the greater Sangamon County area.  While the number of low-income students in Springfield School District 186 remained level, the number of low-income students in the outlying school districts has increased by a significant percentage in the past five years.

Specifically, the number of low-income students in Chatham increased a whopping 31.5 percent, from 15 percent to 22 percent of the total 4,658 student population in five years.  In Rochester, the 40 percent increase, from nine percent to 15 percent, takes the number there to nearly 350 of the 2,321 district student body. The moderate numbers of low-income students in the smaller districts of Williamsville, Auburn, New Berlin and Pleasant Plains followed the upward trend as well.

Many questions have been raised. Has the cost of housing in the outlying districts started to become more affordable for lower income families? Are high income families staying in Springfield to take advantage of close proximity to recreation, culture and jobs but switching to non-public schools? Are they leaving the central Illinois area altogether, as state employment dries up, taking professional and higher level education and service sector opportunities down with it?

To address some of these concerns, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, at the request of Springfield Public Schools, has created a special task force to look at community perceptions of District 186, with the understanding that there is a strong connection between public education and a vital business climate. According to chamber president Chris Hembrough, perception surveys of business members and of the local Capital Area Realtors have been created to determine how much of a factor schools are for those planning to buy a home, as well as making business decisions.

A summary of the responses by 94 Realtors who compiled the survey in late 2015 was completed recently by Dan Sale, CEO of CAR. A central theme emerged showing that the quality of schools was a highly important factor in location decisions made by homebuyers. With the explosion of online property information available to the public, Realtors are familiar with where to steer clients for data and information about public schools, said Sale. Nearly 75 percent of those surveyed reported that most home buying clients were knowledgeable and had already decided in which school districts they wanted to live.

Of the Realtor respondents themselves, 40 percent had not attended high school in this area, 33 percent attended District 186, and 37 percent in Sangamon County or non-public schools.  More than 40 percent of the Realtor respondents have children who attended schools other than Springfield public high schools, with 26 percent graduating from District 186. Realtors perceive that factors such as neighborhood, school quality and convenience strongly influence home purchase choices and these characteristics were the least often compromised on in a final location decision.   

The survey of chamber businesses is ongoing, with a plan to gather additional data to test the validity of the results and share the complete findings in a final report later this year, according to Hembrough.

In a global sense, residential real estate trends will remain an important piece of the puzzle, because at the end of the day where families choose to live creates the local economy.  If home is 20 miles from Springfield’s historic “main street” business district, where groups like Downtown Springfield, Inc. are investing so much time and attention on promotion, busy families may opt out of another commute in the evenings or on weekends for shopping, dining or entertainment. Low gas prices and technological advances are changing the way we value where we live and view public education systems that eat up such a sizeable chunk of tax revenues.

Even more questions loom, which policy makers and community leaders need to consider as they plan for the future. When entrepreneurs open yet another retail franchise or brand name specialty shop, are jobs with living wages being created and new sales tax revenues increased, or just relocated?  With the region’s population and wages basically stagnant over the past decade, are those with the economic resources just migrating outward and around neglected inner city infrastructure badly in need of creative updating and repair?

Those familiar with the story of cyclical out-migration by baby boomer families from metro Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s to the much-preferred suburbs with their glistening modern schools and manicured playgrounds, know how the story goes.  Many of the challenges of the city follow the crowded perceptions of location, location, location.   

To participate in the Greater

Springfield Chamber of Commerce

public school perceptions survey,

go to: http://ow.ly/YuJEx.

Catherine O’Connor can be reached at catherineoconnor@gmail.com.