Chicago Braces for a School Boycott

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Tim Boyle / Getty

A teacher assists a student in her third-grade class in Chicago, Illinois.

Paul Perry is fed up with Chicago's public schools. So much so that he's transferring his 13-year-old daughter, Knighta Jane, to a school in a nearby suburb where her mother lives. He worries that Knighta Jane will be missing out if she stays put in her neighborhood school. "How can we expect our kids to compete on an equal playing field with kids at suburban schools?" the animal-care technician asks, pointing to public schools like those in nearby Winnetka, an affluent suburb that spends as much as 70% more per pupil than Chicago does. "It's not possible."

Thousands of Chicago parents will soon follow Perry's lead, at least temporarily. More than 3,000 families have pledged to keep their kids out of class on Sept. 2, the first day of school. Instead, on that day many of the students and some parents will board a fleet of 100 school buses bound for Winnetka, about 25 miles north of downtown, to try to enroll in its public schools, some of the best in the nation. Others are planning to protest outside prominent office buildings in Chicago, including the landmark Mercantile Exchange. In doing so, all involved will echo Paul Perry: "I'm going to say, 'Open these doors and put my kid on equal footing.'"

At the heart of the protest is one of the most daunting challenges facing American public schools: how to resolve the ever-widening gap in funding — and performance — between poor and wealthy districts. In Illinois, local property tax revenues fund a neighborhood school system, leading to vast differences in the education dollars one district receives compared to another. Chicago each year spends just $10,000 per pupil whereas suburbs like Winnetka can spend as much as $17,000. "Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer," says Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago's public-school district. "But the fact that the amount of money spent on education is determined by where you live is fundamentally unfair."

Since the 1970s, at least 45 states have been forced to grapple with whether their school funding mechanisms are fair to every child. And over time nearly all have moved toward a more equitable means of distributing education dollars. But in a handful of states, courts have quashed such efforts, arguing that state constitutions leave such decisions up to legislatures. Advocates have failed twice before to get more equitable funding in Illinois.

But this time around, Chicago's schoolchildren have as their champion the Rev. James Meeks, one of the city's most influential pastors and head of Illinois' legislative black caucus. In February, Meeks introduced a bill that would raise state income tax from 3% to 5% and ensure that a portion of the increased tax revenue goes directly to schools. Not surprisingly, the bill never gained traction, with few legislators willing to push for a tax hike. So now Meeks is spearheading the Sept. 2 protests. "This was the next step," he says. Last week, a group of Meeks supporters also filed a lawsuit pushing for equitable funding.

But can more even-handed funds help keep more kids in school, let alone guarantee a quality education for all? In 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, only 55% of Chicago's public school students graduated high school compared to 100% at Winnetka's New Trier High School. And just half of Chicago students go on to college versus a staggering 98% at New Trier. "If we had a little bit of the resources of the districts five miles from us, we could close the gap that much quicker," says Duncan, who has taken a publicly neutral stance on Meeks' boycotts.

Other states have argued that's not necessarily so. Many government officials assert that more resources rarely lead to improved student performance. And several academic studies have backed up that contention. "By most measures, the performance of U.S. students has remained stubbornly flat in the face of resource or policy adjustments," Stanford economist Eric Hanushek wrote in his 2006 book Courting Failure. Indeed, both advocates and opponents of equitable funding tend to agree that accountability must go hand in hand with increased funding. "It's just common sense," says Michael Rebell, director of the National Access Network, a Columbia University think-tank that tracks parity in education funding. "Money will only matter if it is used well."

In Chicago, the boycott protest is also drawing some criticism. Questions remain as to whether Chicago students will even be able to enroll in Winnetka schools — in light of recent changes to the district's student residency requirements — and if so, how they will get there after the Sept. 2 protest. And some educators caution that keeping kids out of class, for one day or longer, could ultimately do more harm than good. Since school funding is in part tied to student attendance rates, Chicago Public Schools estimates it will lose $110 a day for each student who doesn't attend class. And the protest could also affect next year's funding, which Illinois pegs to the number of children in school during the three months with the highest attendance rates, with September usually being the highest.

Some educators also worry about the symbolic impact of the protest on students who presumably will return to their inner-city classrooms. "Telling them to go to another district and enroll sends the message that your teachers aren't as good as those in the suburbs," says Kia Banks, a literacy teacher at Chicago's Kohn Elementary School. "I bring the same level of competence to my classroom as any other teacher."

Nevertheless, Denette Mason, a former Chicago teacher, says she will keep her two children out of school Sept. 2, though she's not sure yet where or how they'll spend the day of protest. Having taught on Chicago's hardscrabble South Side for years, Mason has seen firsthand what educators are up against. Often, she remembers, students had to share textbooks because there simply weren't enough to go around. "[Kids] deserve to be in schools where they can learn all they can and have proper materials," she says. "They deserve to have a chance in life."