Three busloads of students from a down-at-the-heels, 90-year-old high school in Chicago's South Side and their teenage counterparts from a new, $62 million state-of-the-art school in the wealthy suburb of Naperville had a close encounter today with an adage from legendary songstress Sophie Tucker:
"I've been poor and I've been rich, and I can tell you that rich is better."
The two groups of students, spent the day touring each other's facilities and getting a close-up lesson in the inequities of educational funding. In other words, seeing how the other half lives.
Orchestrated by Jesse L. Jackson and his Rainbow-PUSH Coalition, the event was designed to throw a spotlight on the huge disparities that exist around the country between the quality of public education delivered to poor students vs. that showered on the rich. While most of the national education debate has focused on taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, the more immediate concern in many communities is how to address what many argue is the unfairness of having children in one part of the city get a far better education than those in another. The amount of funding in suburban school districts, Jackson argues, is often three times higher than that in inner-city neighborhoods.
For the mostly white, well-off students at Naperville's Neuqua Valley High School, about 35 miles southwest of the city, the eye-openers from their visit to Harper High School in the economically depressed Englewood neighborhood were the peeling paint in a food service classroom, a science laboratory devoid of water or gas connections and any visible sign of chemistry equipment, a music room without soundproofing or uniforms for the school band, a gymnasium with dilapidated bleachers and a computer room without connections to the Internet.
"I just want to cry," said Lauren Drane, a 16-year-old junior from Neuqua Valley, as she walked through the dimly lit corridors of Harper High with her classmates. "This is so out of this world, I can't believe it. I'm just so lucky to have what we have."
But she was no less astonished than Sarreka Walker, 15, an African American sophomore at Harper High School, upon seeing the Neuqua Valley school's three gleaming new gymnasiums, two Olympic-sized swimming pools, elaborately equipped laboratories and lavishly appointed music rooms and computer centers.
The 2,500-student school, situated on a landscaped, 50-acre campus, has a 12-court tennis complex, fitness rooms with row upon row of exercise equipment, and even a functioning bank for use in business and economic courses.
It has a handsome new stadium for its Wildcats football team; Harper's athletes have to walk more than a mile to a city park for daily practice.
"In some ways it makes me jealous, because Harper is a very old school and they have more materials to help them succeed in life," Walker said. "I can't feel angry with them if they happen to have this advantage, but I sure can see myself in a school like this."
But the inequities between Harper High, whose enrollment is 99.3 percent black, and Neuqua Valley, which is 85.6 percent white, go beyond the physical plants, Jackson stressed in an interview while riding in a school bus between the two schools.
At Neuqua Valley, almost 94 percent of seniors graduate, compared to 52 percent for Harper High. Chronic truancy is 12 percent at Harper and zero at Neuqua Valley. And only 1 percent of Harper's students who took the standardized proficiency test last year exceeded the state average in reading. Thirty-seven percent of Neuqua Valley 10th-graders did.
Most telling of all, instructional and operating expenditures per pupil are nearly $2,300 more at Neuqua Valley than at Harper High, according to school officials.
The inequity in funding here is typical of imbalances across the country that have contributed to wide gaps in the quality of education between city and suburban schools. The annual per pupil expenditure in some suburban schools exceeds $15,000, Jackson said, while many city school districts spend less than $5,000 per student.
Jackson said the gap in education between city and suburban schools is wider than before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 overturning separate but ostensibly equal schooling and the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957.
As Sarah Monahan, 16, a Neuqua Valley junior, searched in vain for chemistry equipment and dissecting tables at Harper's science class lab, the reality of what inner-city students face began to sink in. She looked even more uneasy when Harper science teacher David Finkle gamely told the students, "We make do with what we have by making supplies out of simple materials. You don't necessarily need a gas line in the lab to learn about science."
"We have so much more. It's not fair," Monahan said. When asked why she thought her school was so much better equipped, she replied, "Well, in the suburbs, the parents just have more money. The kids are just more privileged, I guess."
Jackson said administrators at Harper High have tried hard to make their school more attractive with fresh paint, new lockers and other cosmetic improvements within a limited capital budget. But, he said, "You can't paint a new lab or a decent band room, and you can't paint decent textbooks and computers that work.
He was critical of federal and state education policy which, he said, favors "faddish" solutions such as school vouchers to send some students to private schools, or charter schools operated with public funds.
State Rep. Monique Davis (D), who joined the tour, said she would call for a special session of the state legislature to debate the issue of inequities in school funding. "It's unfair for some kids to start out in such a competitive world with such an obvious disadvantage. We've got to change the way we fund education."
Before the end of their long day of rude awakenings, the students were talking earnestly about starting a student exchange program, and some Neuqua Valley music students said they wanted to share their band room and some of their equipment with the Harper students.
Jackson said he was touched by the interaction between the students that he saw and overheard along the way. But looking out a school bus window at boarded-up slum dwellings as the group drove through Englewood, Jackson said wearily, "There's no doubt in my mind that this area has been red-lined for capital . . . and when you cut off capital, it affects everything."