Proposal could end pending CPS boycott

A recent proposal by state Sen. James Meeks (D-15th) to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and state Senate President Emil Jones Jr. could put an end to a pending boycott of Chicago Public Schools.

A recent proposal by state Sen. James Meeks (D-15th) to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and state Sen. President Emil Jones Jr., could put an end to a pending boycott of Chicago Public Schools.

The proposal by Meeks, who is also pastor of Salem Baptist Church, 742 E. 114th St., is called the Illinois 21st Century School Reform Initiative, a pilot program that would address academic shortfalls at underperforming schools throughout the state, said Tasha Harris, Meeks’ spokeswoman.

Meeks is asking the state to fund the proposed $120 million, three-year initiative, and wants Blagojevich, Madigan and Jones to agree to it before he calls off the Sept. 2 boycott, Harris said.

Earlier this month, Meeks began organizing a weeklong boycott after becoming fed up with the state’s current school funding formula that provides more funding to schools in wealthy school districts than urban school districts such as the Chicago Public Schools.

Currently, CPS receives $10,000 per student while students attending schools in affluent school districts such as New Trier High School in north suburban Winnetka receive $17,000 per student.

Rather than send children to school on the first day, which is Sept. 2 for CPS, Meeks is encouraging parents to take their kids to wealthier schools to try and register them there.

And during the boycott, Meeks has told parents to send their children to alternative schools he is organizing.

“We have tried everything so now we’re going to the streets,” Meeks said during an Aug. 21 town hall meeting discussing the boycott. “If we don’t know anything else, we know the streets.”

The boycott is supported by a host of ministers, community groups, education activists and organizations.

The Chicago Urban League and the Quad County Urban League filed a lawsuit Aug. 20 against the State of Illinois and the Illinois State Board of Education to force the state to change its funding formula.

“We cannot allow another minority child to begin a school year knowing that they will not be given the same opportunity to learn as compared to white students in well-financed schools,” said Cheryle Jackson, president of the Chicago Urban League. “So (the) Chicago Urban League has filed a lawsuit because we cannot allow the current flawed system of school funding to continue in Illinois for another year.”

The lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County, states the current school funding system is unconstitutional and a violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003.

Although many ministers have publicly endorsed the boycott, not all of them agree that a boycott is the solution.

“We are not looking to boycott the schools but rather the streets,” said Steve Jones, a minister who heads the Baptist Conference of Chicago & Vicinity. “When parents meet their children’s teachers on the first day, a special bond is established.”

Leonardo Gilbert, a minister at Sheldon Heights Church of Christ, 11325 S. Halsted St., also does not support a boycott.

“I support schools educating our children. But that cannot happen if no children show up,” Gilbert said. “I agree that funding disparities exist between Chicago schools and many suburban schools, but keeping children out of school is not how the funding problem will get fixed.”

Parents are also split on the boycott.

“I am a big supporter of Rev. Meeks, but this time I think he has went too far,” said James Tolliver, 41. “I do not think a boycott is the best solution to the funding problem,” said Tolliver, whose son attends Bethune Elementary on the West Side. “While it has brought a lot of attention to the funding problem, I doubt if it will bring a solution.”

However, Lexus Miller, 27, whose two sons attend Wendell Smith Elementary School on the South Side, supports a boycott.

“My boys will not be at school next Tuesday. I plan to send them to Salem’s alternative school so they can still receive some educational guidance until Rev. Meeks says it is safe to send them back,” she said.

Sen. Meeks said there would be alternative schools set up for kids to attend during the boycott.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan said CPS could lose $24 million in funding if the boycott is successful. There were 408,601 students who attended CPS during the 2007-08 school year.

He added that CPS has no contingency plan in place to deal with a shortage of children in school the first week because he expects parents to send their children to school.

“We’ve had six years of rising test scores, and over those six years, first-day attendance increased 17 percent,” Duncan said. “That’s not a coincidence. Attendance drives academic performance. If you fall behind early in the year, you may never catch up.”

And children will be marked absent for each day they do not attend school, Duncan said.

But Meeks said students could not be marked absent if they never showed up on the first day.

“That’s a myth CPS would want you to believe,” he said. “Another myth is that schools would lose money if children do not show on the first day.”

Sen. Meeks added that parents could go to the Web site to read a letter from Linda Riley Mitchell, chief financial officer for the Illinois State Board of Education, which explains how the state allocates funds to CPS.

In part, the letter stated: “The first day of school does not carry any additional weight as a day of attendance.

General State Aid payments are paid twice each month. General State Aid is paid based not on individual days but upon the best three months average daily attendance for the school year or the best three for the last three school years, whichever is greater.”

Wendell Hutson can be reached at

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