Meeks holds rally for school funding

August 7, 2008 3:54:15 PM PDT
State Senator and Reverend James Meeks led a rally Thursday in Chicago's Federal Plaza for equity in education funding.Meeks has called for Chicago Public School students to boycott the start of the school year. He wants them instead to enroll in suburban schools, such as Winnetka's New Trier High School, which spends thousands more per student than Chicago Public Schools.

Meeks and other pastors used Salem Baptist Church last Sunday to gather support for the boycott.

"We are now back in segregation. We are now back. And people are wondering why we are bad," said Meeks.

Behind the boycott is Meeks' proposal in Springfield to change school funding. Currently in Illinois, schools are supported largely by property taxes. That's why school districts where homeowners pay high property taxes have better-funded schools.

Meeks said he wants the state income tax to support schools. But while many educators and public school reformers support changing how schools are funded, they disagree with Meeks' boycott.

"No one is going to benefit because our children will be at home and probably not learning. And they still have to pass those tests a month later in the school year," said Valencia Rias, Designs for Change.

Hundreds of protesters filled Federal Plaza in the Loop. Meeks said he plans to hold classes in the lobbies of buildings in the Loop.

"It is an absolute disgrace that we lead the nation in school funding disparity," said Rev. Ira Acree, Greater St. John's Bible Church.

A sign at Thursday's rally said it all - New Trier is spending $17,000 on each high school student, compared with $10,000 at Fenger and the other Chicago high schools.

Ninety percent of the school budget at New Trier comes from the property taxes of wealthy residents with expensive homes, which is why investment banker Mike Macakanja, an observer at the rally, moved his family to the New Trier district.

"Property taxes are high there. I know because I pay them. And part of the reason we moved there was to get better education for our kids and the reputation of the school," he said.

The schools in Chicago's poor neighborhoods with low property values have to rely on money from state. But Illinois is 49th in the country in per capita state funding of public education, contributing only 29 percent, while 58 percent comes from local taxes.

The numbers are essentially reversed in Michigan, which revamped its funding formula in 2004. And the other neighboring states all contribute much higher percentages than Illinois, where efforts to raises income taxes or find other ways to lessen the reliance on property taxes have all failed.

"We have ways to be able to address education funding without raising taxes. And every year, Senate President (Emil) Jones and I pursue different ways to do it. And every year, Mike Madigan and those same house Democrats kill it," said Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Meeks is calling for a student boycott in Chicago until there's a new plan that distributes money more fairly.

"We ain't sending our kids back until we get an answer to this solution. We need quality education and we need it now," he said.

The issue is back on the table Tuesday in Springfield, where Meeks and his allies will reopen the debate on how to shift the reliance on property taxes to other funding sources, such as income taxes, gambling or leasing a state asset, such as the lottery or the tollway system. The chairman of the state board of education, Jesse Ruiz, and the president of the Chicago school board, Rufus Williams, say they support the Meeks campaign for funding reform but not a boycott of the first or any other day of school.


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