There are a lot of questions about the Rev. and state Sen. James Meeks' school boycott to protest inequitable school funding in Illinois. You can question whether asking parents to keep their children out of Chicago's public schools is the right thing to do--for any cause. You can also question Meeks' strategy considering that Chicago Public School administrators aren't his real target. The folks he's trying to influence include Gov. Rod Blagojevich, state Sen. Emil Jones and state Rep. Michael Madigan; the state's three most powerful elected officials not named Daley.
But you can no longer question the heart and determination of parents and students on the city's South and West sides. While school funding inequities affect students throughout the state--both urban and rural, both black and white--the loudest voices in the fight for reform have come from Meeks, his fellow black lawmakers, black clergy, and the parents and students they represent in Chicago's predominantly black communities. That doesn't mean that they are the only ones who care about this issue; but it might mean that they care the most of the all the people who want to see reform.
That's a point that needs to be remembered as the school funding debate continues.
An undertone to arguments against school funding reform have included the notion that there is no guarantee that providing more money to school districts educating poor children would result in improved test scores or better social outcomes. "Let's not throw good money after bad," is one comment I heard in a discussion on the matter.
Skeptics also point to a history of low-academic performance, lower rates of parent participation, and higher rates of student mobility as signs that education is just not as high a priority in poor communities as it is in wealthier parts of the state.
But both the support and defiance to Meeks' boycott are just some signs to the contrary.
While thousands of families and volunteers will participate in the boycott, hundreds of thousands will not. One mother of three high school students told a CLTV reporter that she'd send her kids to school on Saturdays, if she could.
Each year, thousands of families on the city's South and West sides, participate in back-to-school rallies, the Bud Billiken Day Parade, the Million Father March and other events promoting the importance of education and attending school on the first day. Where else do parents and students get so excited about going back to school?
It was 25 years ago when I graduated from Foster Park Elementary at 85th and Wood streets on the city's South Side. I can remember bemoaning my homeroom teacher's request for me to stand in front the class and tell my fellow 8th graders that I had been accepted to attend Whitney M. Young Magnet, one of the city's most highly-regarded high schools. I was horrified. I thought I'd get blank stares, and maybe even a "so what?" in response. Instead, my news was greeted with warm applause. Afterwards, a couple of classmates made a point to congratulate me personally. I was stunned.
That moment has always stuck with me. To me, it was proof that public school students in Chicago respect academic achievement--even if they don't believe it's something they can attain themselves.
The myth that black communities don't value education is one that should've been stamped out more than 50 years ago when parents were willing to send their kids to school alongside armed soldiers. Closer to home, nearly 200,000 black children boycotted Chicago public schools to emphasize inequities similar to those Meeks is trying to highlight.
So once this most-recent boycott settles down and the debate over school funding reform rages again, I hope the folks standing in opposition understand that the people demanding more money for education aren't just looking for a stage upon which they can grandstand, more money for their salaries and pensions, or excuses for poor academic performance--what they're looking for is a high-quality education, the best that money can buy.
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