CHICAGO – The end of summer vacation is right around the corner and you know what that means. Yes, that’s right, students everywhere are gearing up here to march back to school beginning Sept. 2. But state Sen. James Meeks (D) has something else in mind for the first day of school.
Meeks who is also a pastor of a major South Side church is proposing that Chicago Public School students boycott the first day of school in order to call attention to and protest the major inequities in the states education funding. Part of the plan is to push the Illinois Legislature to pass an education bill that will provide equal funding for all public schools.
Meeks has received support from Reverend Al Sharpton and nearly 50 ministers from the city’s West and South Sides who are asking parents not to send their children to school in an effort to enroll Chicago students in the more affluent New Trier Township High School District in the north shore suburb of Winnetka, Illinois. After the first day of the boycott, a full week of action is in the works by Meek’s and supporters with expected protests at different schools and government buildings including lobbying Chicago’s downtown businesses.
Meeks and Sharpton feel immediate steps need to be made in attacking the crises in public education. After 50 years since the color barrier in education was broken with the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education, Meeks and Sharpton say many changes are still required to address racial and economic divisions in education, particularly problems schools face in urban and low-income communities.
“Whether it will be funding or graduation rates, we are still separate and unequal,” said Sharpton to CBS news.
Meeks and his supporters say Chicago schools, where students are predominantly African American and Latino, lack the adequate funding needed to successfully teach and graduate it’s students compared to the high rates of graduation and amount of resources in surrounding suburbs, which are mostly white.
For example, Marshall High School in Chicago has a 46 percent graduation rate compared to New Trier’s 99.8 percent rate. Boycott supporters say the Winnetka school gets about $17,000 for each pupil, whereas a Chicago school receives about $10,000 per student. The thousands of dollars spent more on suburban students compared with city kids in poorer districts demonstrates uneven, unfair and unequal disparities, says Meeks and his supporters.
Ultimately major differences in education funding sets up the conditions for children to fail, especially when they have to grow up in poverty with scarce alternatives for a better future for themselves and their struggling communities.
Chicago Aldermen in the City’s Council’s Black Caucus could not come to consensus and are not taking a direct position on the matter after Meeks met with them for their support.
“We need to address the same thing he’s trying to address,” said Education Chairman Latasha Thomas to the Chicago Sun-Times. “Our way is pushing the Legislature for radical reform of the state funding formula,” she added.
Alderman Freddrenna Lyle told the Times, “All of us want our children in school. That’s really the bottom line,” she said.
Most agree, however, the issue is important and believe a boycott may help pressure state lawmakers to take action. At the same time many feel Meek’s approach is the wrong one and wont solve the long-term problem. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) could lose state funds if students miss school because average daily attendance helps determine the overall funding for the district. Part of the CPS funding is based on three months of its highest attendance average, which in most cases is the beginning of the school year.
Mayor Daley and Superintendent of CPS Arne Duncan both agree state officials need to act, but they do not support children missing school. According to Duncan, attendance on the first day of school has gone up by 17 percent since 2000 with 68,000 more students in classrooms. Last year the Chicago’s attendance rate on the first day of class was 93 percent.
“We’ve worked extraordinarily hard to build a culture where every single day matters,” said Duncan at recent news conference. “And that first day, that first week, does set a tone for what happens the rest of the school year.” Duncan added, “I am very grateful for the attention Meeks has brought to this issue, but I think we can fight this battle and win the battle without doing anything that puts students on a course of behavior that is self-destructive.”
Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) also said Meek’s call for a boycott is the wrong way to go about addressing the matter. Blagojevich called a special session to address an education bill but after 20 minutes the house adjourned and they failed to tackle the issue.
Talking to Chicago Public Radio, Duncan said he was angered that state officials, led by Democrats who have been in a on-going two-year stalemate on many budget issues, could not address education funding more seriously. “If they can’t do the right thing legislatively – and we need to be hopeful that’ll happen – maybe we have to challenge them through the legal system. Maybe it takes a class action lawsuit,” said Duncan.
Even the 32,000 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) said they support Meeks effort to change the way Illinois preK-12 public schools are funded by increasing the state income tax while reducing property taxes. They agree that all Illinois students, including Chicago, deserve the highest quality educational opportunities.
In a statement CTU said, “While we know first-hand that the Chicago Public Schools produce some of the finest students in the nation, we are concerned that the future of our children could be jeopardized by the unavailability of needed funds to assure that equal opportunity is extended to every one of them on a fair basis.”
CTU continued, “The failure to reform education funding lies at the feet of all elected officials, including those who represent wealthy suburban districts where residents pay high property taxes in order to provide adequate and equitable funding for their schools.”
“We understand Sen. Meeks’ frustration because we share it,” said CTU. “While we expect our students to be in classrooms with our teachers, paraprofessionals, and school-related personnel on the first day of school in September, we hope the actions Sen. Meeks has announced will be the impetus to awaken our state legislatures and the governor to do the right thing and pass an education funding reform bill.”
Meanwhile Illinois is ranked 47th out of 50 when it comes to state funding of education and a share of that school funding comes from property taxes which keeps schools in more wealthy areas better funded than those in low-income communities.