What to make of Reverend James Meeks' proposal to start off the fast-approaching school year by sending rough and tumble Chicago public school students to try and register at leafy New Trier High School?
Opinions vary wildly - as do predictions of whether the stunt will take place or make any real difference in Illinois' long-standing school funding fiasco. Me, I sort of like the idea -- and I'm not I'm not alone. The idea has been endorsed to varying degrees by folks as varied as the Reverend Al Sharpton and the Chicago Tribune editorial page. The Chicago Board of Education is suddenly talking about taking legal action to break the logjam in Springfield.
During these dog days of August, Meeks has somehow captured the public imagination to highlight an intolerable and seemingly intractable situation. Meeks has combined the simplicity of the Little Village Mother's Day hunger strike by parents who wanted -- and finally got -- the new high school that had been promised to them with the irreverent, pointed quality of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a made-up religion created to protest the teaching of creationism in public schools. Not coincidently, Meeks is also reminding us of the days before Brown. Vs. Board Of Education.
What makes Meeks' idea especially delicious is that Board of Ed officials and the Mayor can't really object too strenuously. The Board pulled thousands of kids out of school in June for a much-derided rally against gun violence in Soldier Field.
Frustrated at two years of inaction to equalize school spending, Meeks rolled out his irreverent idea a couple of weeks ago. In response, the Chicago Board of Education worried about the impact on its revenue stream. New Trier tried to warn against the hordes threatening to invade Winnetka. And the Governor called a special session of the state legislature at which, predictably, nothing much happened.
To be sure, Meeks is known for pulling stunts that generate attention but little improvement. Eric Zorn reminds us that this is not the first time that Meeks has pushed on this issue as recently as two years ago, and failed.
But that's not entirely Meeks' fault. Most protests fail miserably, at least in the short run. And there's little disagreement that funds available to educate children in Illinois shouldn't be determined by their parents' residency in one of 800 obscure governmental entities called school districts. School districts -- and funding schools based on local property taxes -- are a relic of the past. A recent article in The Atlantic proposed getting rid of them entirely, both to equalize funding and improve academic achievement. Not entirely in jest, the article is titled, First, Kill All The School Boards.
Disrupting the start of the school year is a small price to pay for something that could transform education in Illinois, which has the second-most inequitable funding system in the nation. Nor would it hurt Governor Blagojevich's reputation, which has declined precipitously in recent years, to bring Illinois into the modern era of school funding. Those who argue that more money isn't the answer ignore the fact that those who can spend more -- affluent suburbs and private school parents -- generally do so.
They key to Meeks' continued success on this issue will be to maintain our focused attention on the specter of students trying to register for class. He should resist any further expansion or dilution of his original idea, and avoid the use of the term "boycott" to describe his plan. This is more than a boycott. It's political theater.
What would add to the drama and build more pressure? Perhaps Meeks should invite New Trier parents to come try and register their children at one of Chicago's neighborhood high schools. The sight of suburban kids coming into shoddy city schools -- even if it's just for a day -- would highlight the resource gap and startle the eye. (Chicago public school students are 85 percent poor less than 10 percent white.)
It's a short trip from Winnetka to Chicago. Helping change the state's unfair funding system would really be something to put on a college application.