Back to school for Chicago public school students
By Jenny Song
CHICAGO — Public school students who skipped classes to protest unequal education funding were urged to return to their desks Thursday after the boycott was prematurely called off.
State Sen. James Meeks, who led what was supposed to be a four-day boycott, said late Wednesday that he ended the protest after two days because Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he wouldn’t meet while it was still in effect.
"The governor stated that he would not meet until the boycott was called off, so we are going to not only call his bluff but trust that he keeps this word," Meeks said. "We trust that the governor is a man of good will and good sense."
Messages left for a Blagojevich spokesman were not immediately returned Wednesday night. A spokesman said earlier that he would not be meeting with Meeks this week.
Meeks had threatened to prolong the boycott until state leaders, including the governor, take some action, such as supporting a $120 million program to pump funding into key ailing schools.
Organizers said the two-day boycott was effective and brought attention to the issue of school funding at the country’s third-largest school system with more than 400,000 students.
"Everybody in the state is talking about school funding and the inequities between high property value districts and the kind of education they get and low property value districts," Meeks said.
On Tuesday, when school started for public school students, more than a thousand students boarded buses to suburban Northfield, where they symbolically registered at the affluent New Trier High School.
Earlier Wednesday, students skipped classes to attend impromptu lessons in the lobbies of downtown Chicago government and business buildings. Retired teachers gave lessons in math, reading and writing as a substitute for regular classes.
"We don’t want them to miss a day of learning, not by any means," said Lenette Edwards, a former public school teacher.
Meeks said he could not yet estimate how many students participated in the boycott’s second day, but he said the number was in the hundreds.
At the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, about a dozen students sprawled on the floor of the visitor’s center. Pastor Willie Comer of Salem Baptist Church said Merc officials offered to send a speaker to teach the students about trading.
Another 40 students filled a walkway at Fifth Third Bank, where a bank employee gave a presentation about credit cards, loans and interest rates. Similar scenes were played out in 16 other buildings, including the Aon Insurance building and Bank of America, said Tasha Harris, a spokeswoman for Meeks.
Meeks said he was pleased with the way his group was treated across the city. He said he’s hoping to meet with advisers from the businesses to discuss ways they can help solve the funding problem.
"We need their minds," Meeks said. "They should care. This is their future work force."
Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan repeated Wednesday that keeping children out of school is wrong even if the message is right.
"The fact is that those students who missed the first day, or in some cases the first four, have missed valuable learning time," he said in a statement.
Mayor Richard Daley has called the boycott "irresponsible." Blagojevich has said Meeks is using children as "pawns" and the school boycott was a bad idea.
Meeks called Blagojevich "the bad guy" on Tuesday. Asked Wednesday whether public remarks antagonizing the governor would set back any chance for compromise, Meeks said, "It can be done without the governor."
Property taxes make up about 70 percent of school financing in Illinois, so rural and inner-city schools are usually less well-funded than suburban schools. Funding critics said the system constitutes unequal education between poor and rich, and black and white.
Wanda Hopkins, assistant director of Parents United for Responsible Education, said Meeks’ boycott has been successful because it’s drawn public attention to the funding issue and has exposed which politicians support education funding and which don’t.
"Therefore, we got to take this to the polls," she said.