Novel Tactics At Chicago School-Funding Protests

Organizers of a school boycott in Chicago are trying high-profile tactics to protest education funding. On Tuesday, more than 1,000 students skipped the first day of classes. On Wednesday, some classes were held in the lobbies of office buildings.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. With the beginning of the school year come new fights over school funding. In Chicago, more than 1,000 students boycotted school this week. They wanted to draw attention to disparities in funding levels between wealthier and poorer neighborhoods.

Well, today that boycott ended, but as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, the fight is not over.

CHERYL CORLEY: When school started this week in Chicago, about 1,000 students urged by ministers and school advocates, skipped the first day. Instead, they boarded a bus, traveled to a wealthy suburb and filled out enrollment applications in a symbolic gesture to highlight funding inequities.

A day later, the Chicago kids met up with retired teachers in the lobbies of government buildings and businesses in downtown Chicago to learn what they may have been missing in school.

Unidentified Woman #1: Anybody tell me in their own words what is a fraction?

Unidentified Woman #2: What is a fraction?

CORLEY: Learning math and reading and writing in a bank lobby didn't seem so bad to nine-year-old Darius Robinson.

Mr. DARIUS ROBINSON (Student): I think it's a - a pleasure.

CORLEY: Darius and all the other kids popping their hands high to answer questions wore bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: Save our schools now.

State Senator JAMES MEEKS (Democrat, Chicago): Save our schools now because for 30 years we've been in this rut.

CORLEY: A rut, same James Meeks, which has left many schoolchildren in the state short-changed. Meeks is an Illinois state senator and a minister who spearheaded the school boycott.

State Sen. MEEKS: I've tried six years in a row to introduce school funding bills to change the structure. The way we handle education funding, they get nowhere. And so this is now another way of trying to have people pay attention to the fact that this is the problem.

CORLEY: Here's the gist of the argument over school funding. When it comes to public schools, location means everything. Local property taxes, along with state money, often make up the bulk of a school district's budget.

That means kids in wealthier neighborhoods, where property values are high, typically go to schools where class size is small, the curriculum is rich, and there are plenty of extracurricular activities.

Students in poorer neighborhoods usually get by with far less. In that suburban school district where Senator Meeks tried to register Chicago students, the district spends about $17,000 a year on each of its students. In Chicago, it's more like $11,000 to $12,000 per student, and the gap is even wider in other areas of the state; thus the boycott.

Mr. ARNE DUNCAN (Chief Operating Officer, Chicago Public Schools): We absolutely agree that the fight is the right fight. We obviously disagree on the strategy.

CORLEY: That's Arne Duncan, the head of the Chicago schools, who was among many who thought the boycott, which was originally scheduled for all of this week, wasn't the way to help solve the schools funding problems.

Mr. DUNCAN: Our day is too short. Our year is too short. We're, you know, fighting for more time for our students, and I really worry about students falling behind.

CORLEY: The students went back to school today, after Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich said he wouldn't meet with school advocates while a boycott was in effect. Now the governor says he will try to do so.

Not willing to wait for what still could be a long legislative effort, the Chicago Urban League has taken a familiar step, filing a lawsuit over the state's school-funding formula. It claims the over-reliance on local property taxes discriminates against children in poor neighborhoods throughout Illinois and violates state civil rights law. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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