Despite calls for its cancellation and a Chicago Public Schools counter campaign, the first-day of school boycott of low-income CPS schools by State Sen. James Meeks went forward Tuesday.
About 2,000 parents and students converged on suburban New Trier High School in Northfield. Several Austin community churches joined a caravan of yellow school buses bound for the school’s campus Tuesday morning, a trek organized by Meeks to protest the disparity in state education funding. Instead of enrolling in Chicago Public Schools, parents registered their children in the wealthy school district that spends $17,000 per-pupil versus CPS’s $10,000.
A large welcome sign posted to New Trier’s windows greeted students. According to New Trier officials, 1,100 elementary school students and 150 high school students registered. The district will determine eligibility and send notices to the students. Meeks, who led the boycott, along with several south and West Side ministers, met with New Trier officials.
According to Meeks, the boycott was not about turning out high numbers, but putting a national spotlight on Illinois’ funding mechanism that places urban children at a disadvantage.
“Illinois is the seventh riches state in the nation, but we are 49th when it comes to the portion that we pay for a child’s education,” he said, charging that the disparity creates a “wealth gap” between affluent and poorer schools. Meeks has encouraged Gov. Blagojevich, outgoing Senate President Emil Jones and House Speaker Mike Madigan to convene an emergency special session in Springfield to address the funding crisis. Similar sessions have been called to address capital improvement projects, Meeks noted, arguing for the governor to address “human capital.”
“Our kids are more important than streets, roads and bridges,” he said.
Parent Yancy Bady also questioned how the state could spend $21,000 to house one prison inmate, but only $9,700 to educate one child. Bady has children in Orr, Michele Clark and Austin Polytech high schools.
“Then you find out that 6 out of every 100 kids go to college-that is a 94 percent failure rate,” he said. “I am not about to gamble with my kids’ lives that way.”
Sakiijdra Williams, 15, traded her first day as a freshman at Douglass High School to join the boycott. “Everyone should be treated equally,” she said. “Every school should have the same thing,” she said.
New Trier’s District Superintendent Linda Yonke applauded Meeks for bringing greater attention to the funding disparity. However, as an educator, she contends students belong in school.
“With that in mind, I think the event was successful in drawing attention to the issue of school funding,” she said.
But Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church likened the boycott to efforts to integrate Arkansas schools more that 50 years ago. Acree noted when segregation in Arkansas was at its peak, nine black school children-known as the Little Rock 9-were integrated at Little Rock Central High School, putting them on the frontlines of the civil rights movement.
“[That] caught the nation’s attention and helped ignite a movement to begin the process of desegregating the school system,” he said.
But 50 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools, segregation still exist, Acree explained, adding that this time, it is based on how schools are funded. He called the state’s formula a “broken property tax-dependent school funding system” that “punishes people who are born in poverty poor zip codes.”
Rev. Marshall Hatch of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church explained the boycott is part of a larger funding reform effort. He noted a lawsuit has been filed charging the state and the Illinois State Board Education “with separate and unequal school systems.”
“We talk about ‘No Child Left Behind’-the shame of Illinois is we have left whole school districts behind, not only in Chicago, but in rural (areas),” Hatch said.
The weeklong boycott continued at 20 downtown office buildings on Wednesday. Volunteer teachers provided educational instruction in the buildings’ lobbies. The boycott will last until Friday, after which the ministers will gather to determine next steps.