CHICAGO – On the first day of the new school year public schools opened its doors to more than 400,000 students here on Sept. 2. But not every student showed up. Some 1,400 African American students chose another way to kick off the first day of class by boycotting school to protest unequal funding in state education. Chicago is the third-largest school system in the country.

After two days, led by State Sen. James Meeks, the boycott was called off and families who participated were asked to send their children back to school on Sept. 4. The boycott was expected to last the whole first week of school but was cut short after Meeks said he hopes to meet with Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) about the matter. Blagojevich said he wouldn’t meet with Meeks and discuss Illinois school funding while students continued to miss school. Meeks is also a pastor of a South Side mega-church.

“We’ve decided to call the boycott off, to call the governor’s bluff and to seek a meeting with him so that our kids can return to school,” Meeks said to reporters. “We still don’t think that we have adequate resources but while we’re fighting the resource fight we want the kids to go back to school and we want the governor to honor his commitment,” said Meeks.

The two-day boycott called attention to the mostly African American and Latino Chicago populated schools that suffer major inequities compared to wealthy and mostly white suburban schools. The action hopes to pressure state officials to pass legislation on education reform and make much needed funding more accessible to city schools.

Meeks, along with nearly 50 ministers from the city’s West and South sides organized hundreds of Chicago students, parents, religious and education leaders who boarded dozens of buses and drove 30 miles north to the more affluent suburb of Northfield. There they attempted to enroll in the better-funded school district of New Trier.

The boycotters wore bright orange T-shirts that said, “Save Our Schools Now.” The whole ordeal was in large part only symbolic because only students who live in that district are eligible to enroll there, according to state law.

Joshua Laurence, 52, participated in the boycott with his wife and their three sons. “I had to be a part of this,” he said to the Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s time that parents in Chicago stood up and took a stand. Today we are saying no more mis-educating our children.”

More than 100 staff at the New Trier and feeder schools welcomed the busloads of people with open handshakes, snacks and refreshments. A huge sign posted on the schools windows greeted them. “Welcome to New Trier, CPS students,” it read.

One of the best-funded schools in the state, New Trier High School is known for its academic achievements where 99 percent of student’s graduated last year and 98 percent enrolled in college. The majority of the students there are white.

Linda Yonke, superintendent of New Trier agrees that better funding is important when it comes to education. “There’s also no denying the fact that funding allows us to have smaller classes, a deep and rich curriculum and many extracurricular activities,” Yonke told Associated Press.

Rev. Albert Tyson supported the boycott and summed up the civics lesson for those who participated. “Our children have had the opportunity to see what a well funded school looks like,” he told reporters. “Our parents have had that same opportunity. Now they are clear on exactly what it is we are fighting for. And this, we would call a success.”

On the second day of the boycott students were sent to the lobbies of various businesses in downtown Chicago where retired teachers lead impromptu classes. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Boeing Corp., Aon Insurance and City Hall were some locations on the schedule where students and boycott supporters held teach-ins.

Chicago Public School officials and Mayor Richard Daley agree the issue is extremely important but feel students should not have skipped school, especially on the first day. Daley called Meeks’ boycott “selfish” and “irresponsible.”

Spokesman Mike Vaughn for Chicago Public Schools told AP that the students should have been in school. “We want our kids to start the school year strong, and that means the first week of school,” he said. “It’s important for the kids to connect with teachers and lay the groundwork for the year. And that can’t happen if kids aren’t in school,” he said.

More than $100,000 in potential reimbursement from the state is at stake, critic’s charged, which is determined on a school district’s highest three months of enrollment, usually during the beginning of the school year for Chicago.

Last June 10, Mayor Daley pulled 30,000 students out of school and bused them to Soldier Field to protest the inequities in school funding and aimed at pressuring state lawmakers to act in Springfield.

Property taxes account for about 70 percent of school funding in Illinois, which means inner-city and rural schools generally end up with less to spend per student than surrounding suburbs that have higher property values. For example, last year Chicago Public Schools spent $11,300 per student whereas New Trier High School spent $17,500 per student.

Meeks has already introduced a pilot program that would distribute $120 million to four clusters of schools – high schools and their feeder schools – on Chicago’s West Side, South Side, south suburbs and downstate. But his colleagues in the state assembly including the governor have not come to any conclusions.

Meanwhile the city’s West Side Black Caucus, which consist of more than two dozen elected officials declared its support for a law suit filed last month by the Chicago Urban League directed toward the Illinois General Assembly. The suit argues that the Illinois’ property tax-based system of school funding effectively discriminates against Latino and African American students.

Cheryle Jackson, president of the Chicago Urban League welcomed the support from the elected officials but told the Chicago Sun-Times the lawsuit could take years.

“We will be filing an emergency injunction to have this heard sooner [rather] than later,” she said. “But this lawsuit alone certainly isn’t the silver bullet. It’s creating an environment of heightened awareness and a sense of urgency where we begin to really pursue legislative solutions as well as legal solutions and advocacy.”

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