Boycott Underscores Disparities in Schools

Second-grader Jenil Lewis and grandmother Jill Towns wait with other protesters in New Trier.
Second-grader Jenil Lewis and grandmother Jill Towns wait with other protesters in New Trier. (By M. Spencer Green -- Associated Press)
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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

CHICAGO -- It is the first week of school for Nadell Jackson, 13, and his brother Natavis, 14, and they are hoping to "get smarter and learn a lot more," in Nadell's words. But they often have to share books at the schools they attend on this city's South Side, meaning they can't take books home to study. Nadell craves better science books, and Natavis would like to see more after-school sports.

Science books and extracurricular activities are not lacking at New Trier Township High School in the northern suburb of Winnetka, which spends more than $15,000 annually on each student, compared with $10,000 per student in Chicago.

To protest this disparity between Chicago public schools and those in wealthier suburbs, the Jackson brothers were among about 1,000 students from Chicago who boycotted the first day of class Tuesday and instead showed up at New Trier and another suburban school asking to enroll. This demonstration was orchestrated by an Illinois state senator, James T. Meeks (D-Chicago), who is also a pastor at Salem Baptist Church on the South Side.

"We have to leave some books in class because there aren't enough; we need more computers; the auditorium has broken seats. We have to pay so much for the prom because the school can't help fund it," said De'Erica Munoz, 17, who commutes two hours each way to a high school on Chicago's North Side from her South Side neighborhood because the schools are better. But, even the North Side school she attends is subpar compared with those in New Trier.

"This looks like a college campus," she said as she looked around the New Trier school. "We should have the same opportunities as suburban kids."

The nonprofit Education Trust calculates that although the average gap in per-pupil spending across the country between high-income districts and low-income ones was $938 in 2005, the gap was $2,235 in Illinois. Only New York had a larger gap that year.

"These schools are segregated," said Rhonda Storball, a post office worker who moved to the suburbs specifically so her two children could attend better schools. She said she is now the only African American in her neighborhood and that her children had trouble adjusting to their new schools because their Chicago education left them behind academically.

On Tuesday, New Trier opened its gym and auditorium for Chicago students to fill out registration forms. But in keeping with state law, the students will be rejected because they do not live in the district.

Arne Duncan, chief executive of the Chicago school system, called the state's property-tax-based funding structure for education "fundamentally broken."

"It is totally separate and totally unequal," he said. "The children of the rich get a different education than the children of the poor. We continue to fight that battle every way we can."

In August, the Chicago Urban League filed a civil rights lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County against the state of Illinois and state board of education. The suit alleges that the current funding of education violates the state constitution.

On Wednesday, Meeks brought busloads of boycotting students to downtown office buildings to protest. He called off the boycott Wednesday evening, saying he was still seeking a meeting with the governor and top legislators.

A recent analysis by the nonprofit Chicago-based Community Renewal Society found that statewide, lower-income districts have voted for higher property tax rates than wealthier areas, but the resulting funds raised for schools are still inadequate because property values are lower.

Though they agree school funding needs an overhaul, Mayor Richard M. Daley and Duncan stridently opposed the boycott, with Duncan calling it "the right fight but the wrong strategy." He visited seven African American and Latino churches on Sunday urging students to show up for school. He said first-day attendance was high despite the boycott, thanks to school district efforts including canvassing and distribution of free school supplies.

Meeks proposed a pilot project to spend $120 million over three years to create new schools and measure the academic results. He offered to call off the boycott if Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and state legislators met with him during the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The meeting did not take place.

"The governor likes the concept but wants to hear more," Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero said. "That they weren't able to get together in Denver shouldn't be the end of it. It's still something he wants to pursue."

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