Chicago students skip class to ask for funds


Published: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 8:06 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 1, 2008 at 8:06 a.m.

CHICAGO Maurisha Gaiter didn't raise her two daughters to be honor roll students by letting them skip class.

But that's what they plan to do Tuesday when the Chicago Public School year starts. And they have their mother's blessing.

Frustrated with overcrowded classrooms, outdated textbooks and a shortage of computers, Gaiter is sending 11-year-old Maurisha and 14-year-old Sakiijdra into some of the state's wealthiest suburbs to join hundreds and possibly thousands of other Chicago students in protesting an unequal system for funding schools.

"I don't want to send my kids to any second-class school anymore," she said. "If I have to keep my kids out for a whole month, I'm willing to do that."

State Sen. James Meeks and a group of 85 pastors have been drumming up support for a mass boycott to draw attention to funding disparities in Illinois public schools.

More than a hundred church buses are ready to take thousands of students to Winnetka, where they'll attempt to register at the affluent New Trier High School and Sunset Ridge Elementary School. Students must pay tuition to attend schools outside their home district.

Like many states, Illinois uses property tax revenue to operate public schools. Property taxes here account for about 70 percent of school funding. Rural and inner city schools generally end up with less to spend per student than suburban schools in areas with higher property values.

Administrators at New Trier High School said they're preparing for up to 2,000 students from Chicago on Tuesday. Boycott organizers say they plan to set up impromptu classrooms led by retired teachers in the lobbies of area businesses after the first day of protests.

The effort runs counter to Chicago's annual attempt to boost first-day attendance as a way to get students in the habit of coming to school every day.

"Any adult that tells their child not to go to school sends that child down a path that is self-destructive," said Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan. "Yes, we are desperately underfunded. Yes, we need to challenge that status quo. But let me be clear. Adults should fight that battle. Children should be in school."

Chicago Public Schools, the country's third-largest school system with more than 400,000 students, spent $11,300 per student last year. New Trier High School spent $17,500 a student.

Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover said the comparison is unfair because the Chicago district has hundreds of elementary and secondary schools. The Winnetka district has only one high school. Furthermore, high schools typically receive more funding than elementary schools, he added.

Meeks and reformers are lobbying Gov. Rod Blagojevich and legislative leaders to support a $120 million pilot program designed to show how an infusion of cash could improve ailing schools.

The proposal would pump $120 million into four clusters of schools high schools and their feeder schools on Chicago's West Side, South Side, south suburbs and downstate.

Auditors would establish standards in literacy, math and technology. Cluster schools would be required to submit weekly progress reports, yearly test results and staff performance reviews. Other requirements would include tutoring and summer school.

The governor says he wants to improve school funding but opposes an increase in the state's income tax.

"If it's a funding question, then (Meeks) has to prevail upon his colleagues in the Legislature to pass the revenue," Blagojevich said.

Boycott organizers said they're prepared keep their children out of school for at least a week.

"People say the children are being used as pawns," said the Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Church. "The children are the only leverage that we have right now. That's very tough for us emotionally to pull that trigger. But we want to do it because we can't afford to lose another generation of our youth."

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