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Lorraine Forte

Lorraine Forte

Posted: September 4, 2008 04:30 PM

Tinkering Around the Edges Not Enough For Failing Schools


A kid who lives in Austin is closer to suburban Oak Park-River Forest High School than to Whitney Young, a comparable top-scoring Chicago school. And according to state Sen. James Meeks, that Austin student should be able to enroll, at no cost, in Oak Park, less than a mile-and-a-half away (compared to almost 7 miles to Whitney Young).

While media eyes have been focused on Meeks' first-day boycott of Chicago schools, another plan from the legislator/mega-church pastor has gotten little publicity: His proposal to allow kids to enroll in any school in the state, without paying tuition. Right now, an Austin kid could go to Oak Park if his family paid the $18,912 tab, which is what the district spends on every student. Compare that to the approximately $12,909 Chicago spends on high school students. For a school the size of Oak Park, with 3,100 students, that's a stunning difference of $18.6 million a year.

That's just one of two ideas Meeks is pushing. The second: a pilot project that would send more cash to failing schools--two in Chicago, one in the suburbs, one downstate--to show what difference more money can make.

Both plans have merits. In Austin, residents have been clamoring for years for a new high school, one that would serve kids better than the old, now-closed Austin High, which was a dismal failure. Meeks' idea--echoed by some national groups--would give at least some kids the chance at a better education by expanding the limited transfer options they now have under federal law. The No Child Left Behind Act gives students a chance to move to better schools within a district, but too often the choices, as in Chicago, are few.

But a recent report from the non-partisan think tank Education Sector casts a shadow over the idea. Given transportation hurdles and the fact that districts can only accommodate so many new students, the report estimates that, even with plans like the one Meeks proposes, as many as 90 percent of students in failing schools would still be stuck in them.

As for the pilot program, probably the last thing education needs is another pilot initiative, especially one meant largely to prove something that shouldn't even be in question at this point: Money makes a difference. It stands to reason that, with more money, schools can do more--offer more afterschool programs, more counselors and social workers, additional highly-trained teachers. If it takes nearly $19,000 to give kids in stable, middle-class Oak Park what they need to post higher-than-average scores on the ACT and SAT and pass Advanced Placement tests, it certainly will take that--and more--to do the same for students in poverty-stricken Austin.

Sure, schools are responsible for making wise decisions on spending--even the most ardent advocates of increased school funding agree to that. But in the final analysis, these two proposals are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to really fixing what ails urban education.

It's time to do more than tinker around the edges. Offering a few hundred seats in suburban schools or launching a pilot program to "prove" money matters isn't enough. Even opening more charters--an argument from those who say more competition will somehow force failing schools to get better--won't solve the problem. Not all charters are created equal, and most of those in Chicago wouldn't last long without the added support--read: money--they get from private donors.

Money matters. It's time for lawmakers to acknowledge that, stop tinkering, and do something about it.