Kids' protest highlights rich-poor schools gap in Illinois
Critics say Chicago students shouldn't miss class to point out education-funding disparities.
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School funding is a perennial issue in Illinois, which has the largest unaddressed funding gap in the US between highest- and lowest-poverty districts, according to the Education Trust, which studies the matter annually. Illinois's gap, which has been widening, stood at $2,238 per pupil in 2005. The state ranks 49th in the nation in terms of the portion it contributes compared with local revenue.Skip to next paragraph
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"High funding doesn't guarantee good results, but inadequate funding can tip the scales toward poor results," says Amy Wilkins, Education Trust vice president.
Critics caution that simply throwing more money at poor districts won't solve all their problems. Mr. Rebell agrees, to a point.
"I don't dispute the fact that the money has to be spent well," he says. "Money doesn't do everything. But if you've got no labs in 35 high schools" – one egregious finding that helped win a recent New York lawsuit – "you can't even begin to talk about whether you're adequately studying lab science or applying yourself."
Big fix, smaller fix: neither approved
In Illinois, Senator Meeks, who pushed unsuccessfully for a school funding plan that would cut property taxes and raise state income taxes, has acknowledged the tough political reality of enacting such an overhaul before the 2010 gubernatorial race and the need to address lawmakers' concerns that a huge infusion of cash – as much as $10 billion more for education – be well spent.
Instead, he and Ron Gidwitz, a former Illinois Board of Education chairman and a Republican, offered a scaled-back pilot proposal that would cost $40 million over three years. Four clusters of low-income schools – in Chicago, the suburbs, and downstate – would get targeted needs assessments and increased accountability, in an effort to demonstrate how well-directed additional resources can pay off.
"People want to pay for education as long as they think the money is well spent," says Mr. Gidwitz.
If the pilot had been approved by state officials last week, Meeks promised to call off the boycott, but he was unsuccessful. Instead, he's getting all the attention he wanted, plus a fair amount of criticism.
"This is the right issue but the wrong method," says Rufus Williams, Chicago's school board president. "It's counterproductive to have children out of school at any time."
Mayor Richard Daley, in remarks at a new school opening, called the boycott "very selfish."
But Meeks and others say holding the protest last week, before Chicago schools were back in session, would never have garnered this amount of media attention. It's providing the students – who received instruction on civil rights history during their bus ride and were asked to write about what they learned – with another sort of education, they add.
"They got a great civics lesson today," says the Rev. Marshall Hatch, one of several Chicago church leaders who helped with the boycott.