Don't Make Kids Pawns of School Funding Mess

I've got a suggestion for pastor and state Sen. James Meeks: No need to go all the way to New Trier to see disparities in school spending--a trip across town to Walter Payton will do just as well.
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I've got a suggestion for pastor and state Sen. James Meeks: No need to go all the way to New Trier to see disparities in school spending--a trip across town to Walter Payton will do just as well.

Taking kids across town to one of the state's top-rated, top-spending high schools, right here in the city across town from schools that have been stuck in the academic basement for decades, would highlight a problem that needs to be rectified even in the (sadly, unlikely) view that legislative leaders suddenly saw the light and decided to do something about the state's lack of support for education.

The problem doesn't stem from any conspiracy on the part of the district to shortchange kids. It's a natural outgrowth of how Chicago Public Schools operates, with more experienced, more highly-paid teachers choosing to work in top schools and less-experienced, lower-paid teachers disproportionately concentrated in high-poverty schools with the toughest challenges. Switching to a per-pupil budget system would even out funding across the district, giving more resources to schools that need it the most.

The disparities in Chicago, however, are a separate issue. The statewide spending gap that Rev. Meeks is calling attention to with his student boycott plan is, in a word, shameful. The state's share of the bill for running public schools is at 30 percent, the lowest point in years, and local property taxpayers are footing nearly two-thirds of the costs, according to A+ Illinois, an advocacy group for education funding. As a result, poor, mostly minority districts, and rural Downstate districts too, just can't pay for the abundance of new books, new computers, art and music classes and other resources that ought to be part of any kid's education, no matter where they live.

Still, don't expect much from Meeks' made-for-the-TV-cameras scheme to have CPS kids skip school and head for Winnetka to try to enroll in one of the state's top-spending districts. (Never mind that CPS kids don't live there and, despite misinformation that's apparently been put out, don't have a right to enroll there, even under No Child Left Behind, which only allows kids to switch to higher-performing schools within their own district.)

Sure, the TV cameras will show up, maybe even for a few days, if any substantial number of kids head out to New Trier or camp out in the lobby of Loop office buildings (as Meeks also plans to have them do). But what's happened so far as a result of the boycott threat? Gov. Blagojevich called a special session to address education funding--and then went missing in action. ("We were beyond disgusted," one activist who traveled to Springfield tells me. "I guess he was out judging horses at the State Fair.")

It was déjà vu all over again--a flashback to Meeks' threat to run for governor, which got Blagojevich to promise to boost education spending, but then roll out a dead-on-arrival scheme to sell the state lottery to do so.

Besides, Chicago public school kids already have one of the shortest school years in the country (in fact, New Trier's year starts nearly two weeks before Chicago, on August 21), and attendance is already a big enough problem in Chicago, especially given the need for the district to get as many kids--and thus, as many state dollars--as possible into the classroom. If adults can't find a way to fix the mess, don't keep kids, especially poor kids, out of 1) the safest place for them, given the violence in some neighborhoods and 2) the place where lots of teachers and principals are doing their best to give kids an opportunity to learn.

There's certainly basis for the argument that a crisis needs to happen to get legislators to do something about state funding for education (and the state's overall budget problems too). But given the strange mix of ego, animosity and complacent "do-nothingness"--for lack of a better word--that seems to be the order of business among politicians in Springfield, keeping kids out of school won't shame them into doing something. It will only make kids into pawns.

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