Kids' protest highlights rich-poor schools gap in Illinois

Critics say Chicago students shouldn't miss class to point out education-funding disparities.

M. Spencer Green/AP
Young protesters: These students were among 1,000 Chicago public school pupils (plus parents) who took part in a symbolic protest Tuesday against inequities in education funding.

On what was supposed to be their first day of school this week, about 1,000 Chicago Public School students got a different sort of education.

Rather than go to classes, they boarded buses with parents, church leaders, and activists to try to enroll in a wealthy suburban district – a symbolic protest against school funding inequities that are among the most glaring in the US.

Chicago's mayor, school superintendent, and other officials condemned the boycott, saying skipping school sends the wrong message. But organizers say it's a desperate situation that calls for drastic action – and that the issue grabbed front-page headlines for the first time in years, due largely to the theatrics of the boycott.

"It's irresponsible to send kids to a system that doesn't have the resources to educate them," says James Meeks, the state senator and Chicago pastor who planned the boycott, responding to charges that having kids miss school is irresponsible. "This system does not have the money to do the job."

Equity in education funding has been a national issue for 35 years, ever since a 1973 US Supreme Court case challenged the fairness of a system in which the poorest students had the worst schools. The plaintiffs lost the case, but the justices issued a rebuke to the system, setting off a series of state litigation cases that have been surprisingly successful, says Michael Rebell, director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University's Teachers College. In some cases, old systems like Illinois's, which rely primarily on property taxes for school funding, were changed, and in many states, lawsuits that focused on "adequacy" – the responsibility of the state to ensure that all students receive at least an adequate education – have led to more state funding to the poorest districts.

$17,000 vs. $10,400 per student

But Illinois lawsuits have been unsuccessful, and dissatisfaction with the size of the spending gap between rich and poor runs high. At New Trier High School's Northfield campus, where per-pupil spending tops $17,000 compared with $10,400 in Chicago, buses Tuesday unloaded about 2,000 Chicago students and adults, nearly all African-American. A large sign in the window read "Welcome to New Trier CPS students," and local residents stood by with more welcome signs. Students were ushered into the auditorium to fill out enrollment forms, all of which will be rejected because of residency requirements.

But the goal, say participants, wasn't for students at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to attend New Trier or other wealthy schools, but to boost funds for poor districts with less ability to rely on property taxes for their needs.

"This wasn't something people wanted to do. This was something that needed to be done," says Andre Thurman, a Chicago pastor who brought his two teenage children with him. At one daughter's high school, he notes, the balcony in the gym collapsed, and equipment and books are in a sorry state. "We're asking for better funding not only for CPS but for all the schools across the state."

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.

"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.

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