Not everyone is jumping on state Sen. James Meeks’ campaign to keep kids out of school on the first day in order to highlight inadequate state funding to poor schools. Other elected officials are actually taking the opposite approach.
Meeks, senator of Illinois’ 15th legislative district, proposed the boycott earlier this month, joined by some Chicago clergy, including several Austin pastors. They argue that Chicago Public Schools are under-funded and have fewer resources to invest in education than affluent suburban school districts.
But in a maneuver to ensure students are in school on the first day, CPS CEO Arne Duncan, along with elected officials, including Aldermen Ed Smith (28th) and Emma Mitts (37th), hosted a door-to-door campaign Aug. 13, in the Austin neighborhood. Kicking off with a rally at DePriest Elementary School, 139 S. Parkside, officials joined Chicago Board of Education President Rufus Williams in canvassing the neighborhood encouraging parents to send their kids to school on Sept. 2.
“I spoke about the importance of education and the need for our children to be in school on the first day,” said Smith. “It is the only way they can be competitive in today’s difficult job market.”
Without mentioning Meeks specifically, Smith did admit there are serious funding discrepancies with CPS, but put the onus on the Chicago school board and Gov. Rod Blagojevich to generate more funding for under-served schools.
“I have been attempting to meet with the governor since [Aug. 16] to get more involved in this,” Smith said, adding that he believes the solution to closing the funding gap between CPS and suburban schools is addressing income taxes. “The housing market is still greatly in the red, so it would seem unreasonable to raise property taxes any more than they are. Income taxes would provide a stream of funds for the board to put more money back into schools without increasing the burden on home owners.”
First-day supporters also argue that attendance on the first day dictates how schools are funded by the state. However, the Illinois State Board of Education offers a counter argument. In a July 25 letter sent to Meeks by ISBE Chief Financial Officer Linda Riley Mitchell concerning state funding, she wrote, “General State Aid payments are paid twice each month. General State Aid is paid based, not on individual days, but upon the best three months average daily attendance for the school year or the best three for the last 3 school years, whichever is greater.”
Mitchell added that the reason CPS works so hard to encourage strong first-day attendance is because “attendance tends to decline with bad weather and the days adjacent to school…For this reason, in order to assure that the school starts the year with the highest possible attendance, CPS works to assure high attendance to start.”
For supporters of the boycott, such as Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church, this information is crucial for parents.
“It dispels the myth that first day attendance dictates funding,” he said. “It is clearly a manipulation tactic, but we are standing firm. We demand that the government fix the inequalities that exist in CPS. This is a broken, property tax-dependent system that needs to change.”
Acree added, “We have tried conferences, protests and marches and the gap has not closed. With the boycott, we want to force the hands of the state legislature to finally put our kids first and not last as usual.”
Peggie Burnett, assistant principal of John Hay Community Academy, 1018 N. Laramie, acknowledged funding would not be greatly effected by the boycott. Burnett, though, stressed there needs to be more money filtered into CPS to allow community students access to resources that are generally more accessible beyond city limits.
“We need more funding for computers, after school programs and books,” she said. “We need all the amenities that are available in the suburban schools.
Concerning getting kids in class on day one, Burnett said, “The first day of school is very important because it creates the relationship between the students and teachers. If students miss the first day, it really does set the stage for truancy and increases the likelihood of the student falling behind in their studies.”