Free the Chicago 1,400

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 9 2008 11:16 AM

Free the Chicago 1,400

An unusual act of civil disobedience last week in Chicago: To protest inequities in Illinois' system of school financing, James Meeks, a Baptist minister and state senator, organized a boycott of the first day of school by 1,400 Chicago public-school students, almost all of whom were black. The twist: That morning, he bused them all to Northfield, a wealthy, mostly white Chicago suburb , to the lavish campus of New Trier Township High School , a public school with four orchestras , a rowing club , a course in " kinetic wellness ," and AP classes in French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Latin, and Chinese. You know, your basic American public school. The Chicago kids lined up and tried to enroll for classes—symbolically, at least.

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To their credit, the administrators at New Trier, as well as a few parents and students, welcomed the visitors with signs, snacks, and cool drinks. Every Chicago student who took part in the protest was invited to register at the school, but none of them will in fact be able to enroll because of New Trier's residency requirements. No house in the suburbs, no spot in the school.

Mayor Daley fulminated , calling Meeks's protest "very selfish." But it was a peaceful demonstration and by all accounts a successful one ("This is civil disobedience at its finest," one New Trier parent said ).

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As the Chicago Tribune reported : "At issue is how much money schools spend per student. In a funding system fueled largely by local property taxes, New Trier Township spent nearly $17,000 per student in 2005-06 ... while Chicago Public Schools spent an estimated $10,400 per pupil."

It's one of those basic facts of American educational life that seem inevitable and yet impossible at the same time. On the one hand, of course the wealthy burghers of Northfield are going to spend more on their public schools than the poor residents of inner-city Chicago. On the other hand: We're really going to send rich white kids to excellent, well-funded public schools and send poor black kids to substandard, poorly funded public schools? That's our plan for fixing public education in America?

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.

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