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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Keep the kids in school

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

That was big of Sen./Rev. James Meeks to dare someone to arrest the kids he's leading out of the city's public schools in an ill-conceived protest, when he's the guy who should be pinched.

As for the students, truant officers ought to round them up and take them back to school where they belong. Of course, no one will do any of that because they don't want to appear mean, racist or elitist. And that's exactly the point of Meeks' plan to haul Chicago students out of the first week of school to protest, at downtown offices and at Winnetka's New Trier Township High School, the "inequities" of the state education funding formula.

"I dare the business community to arrest our children and send them to jail because all they want is a quality education," Meeks said. New Trier School Supt. Linda Yonke, for one, bent to this extortion, saying she wouldn't want to "undermine" his position by "engaging in a public argument." And what would she do? Hold a forum, she suggested. Oh, joy.

The issue already has been studied, protested and demagogued to death. Illinois school funding has fostered years of debate, lawsuits, constitutional revisions and a complicated formula for allocating state aid that will make your head spin. The formula ensures a "basic" funding level for every school district and takes into account local property tax base, student population, poverty and average daily attendance.

It entitles Chicago to more than $1.1 billion in state aid in 2008. Average spending per student for all grades in Chicago is $9,282, about 11 percent higher than the statewide average, according to, but certainly lower than the $17,184 spent on each New Trier student. But then, nearly everyone spends less than New Trier. That's because New Trier generally is free to spend whatever additional money it wants, and so it does, in large sums.

Would Chicago public school students do any better if this "inequity" were narrowed by New Trier spending less? Of course not. What New Trier spends has nothing to do with the performance of Chicago's students.

Truth is, the biggest problem with Chicago and other major school systems is manifested in the performance of black male students. A recent study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education concludes that African-American males in Chicago's public schools are less than half as likely to graduate as their white peers. The foundation attributes the poor performance to "the resource disparities that exist in schools attended by black males and their white, non-Hispanic counterparts." John Jackson, foundation president, lamented that this is the state of affairs 50 years after the Supreme Court decision ending school segregation. Meeks chimed in: "I want to keep kids out of the 'colored' schools. I don't want kids to have to go and drink from the 'colored' water fountain. I don't want them to use the 'colored' toilet or to have to sit at the 'colored' desk."

But if resource inequities account for the poor performance, why don't their white male, Hispanic and black female counterparts do as badly? After all, they are going to the same public schools in Chicago. Or are only Chicago's African-American male students shipped off to junkier schools, where they can only use the "colored" water fountain? Is it part of the state funding formula to somehow apportion less funding to black males? Are black males forced to use 20-year-old textbooks, while everyone else gets new ones? What precisely is there about how money is spent that mainly leaves black males so dismally out of it?

Maybe a complex of factors, other than funding disparities, explains the troubling performance of black males, and thus, a large part of the schools' problems. Perhaps the same thing that accounts for the decay of neighborhoods at the hands of black male gangs, or for the absence of fathers in the unraveling African-American family. These are symptoms of a cultural climate—corrupted by loosening morals, radical individualism, materialism, Hollywood's adulation of violence and parental irresponsibility, among other strands—that converges on African-American males in particular with all the focused and destructive force of a tornado. I dare say that in this cultural climate, if Chicago were able to spend as much as New Trier spends on each student, black males still would underperform. What is needed is not so much a change in the school funding formula, but a fundamental change in attitudes about family and society.

But I'm not saying anything new, or anything that Meeks doesn't know already. All that I'm saying is that if Meeks truly has the interests of Chicago's students at heart he ought to concentrate his energies elsewhere. He can start by proving to the students why every day spent in school is precious.


ACL, Chicago said...

Mr. Byrne,
I always enjoy reading all your op-ed column's. As always, you have hit the nail squarely on the head when it comes to public schooling, and inner-city society in general.
They can throw around all the money they want and it still won't address the core of the problem.
As some people would say, thanks for "Keeping it Real"

S said...

Mr. Byrne:
While we are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, on this particular subject we are in nearly full agreement.

I grew up on the North Shore and attended a school similar to New Trier, the subject of Rev. Meeks' enrollment campaign.

Recently, I took a hiatus from my law practice to teach in the inner city (at a high school mentioned today in the Tribune).

While there are promising students at schools all over, the problem is not one of money or computers or qualified teachers, despite what the CPS suits, Rev. Meeks, and others broadcast.

No, the fundamental problem is the kids (and their families) for the most part do not care about education and have no interest in trying to succeed academically. There exists a pervasive culture that school does not matter and a fatalistic attitude that even if it did, somehow it would not make a difference.

Until the leaders of the poor and predominantly minority people whose children make up the vast majority of CPS students make it a non-negotiable fact that academic success matters and failure is not acceptable, this cycle will continue.

As someone who has been on the inside and really, really tried to help change things but for the most part could not, I agree with your thoughts and hope that people recognize that it is not necessarily racism to say some of the things you've said.

RCS said...

So, let me get this straight - basically, you are saying that black males are the reason that Chicago Public Schools are low performing? Using that logic, would it not make sense for all other groups to flee CPS and try to enroll in North Shore schools that week? How about segregating black males in a place away from others so that they will not reflect so badly on CPS. Oh, I forgot they have places like that - jails and prisons.

P.S. I applaud your attempt to not sound racist, but isn't that like a joke that says you can say anything if you add the phrase "just kidding" after it?

David M. said...

So Dennis, I am not certain the real reason for this editorial – is it the one day of school that might be missed, the request for more monies, or that you really understand the problem and have the answer? Well Dennis, as always, I think it is the latter. But once again, you stray in an area of expertise that you have none. You are an old white guy living in Northbrook! You have no idea what it is like to live in the inner city of Chicago as a poor black male. You can never understand their problems and thus can never have the answer. And while I do not have the answer, I look for others to lead, such as Bill Cosby, Jesse Jackson, Clarence Page, and Barack Obama. Get out of the way! You can be of no help.

Anonymous said...

Take your typical New Trier family, stick them in Englewood, and they'd be beating down every politicians door demanding their kids get bussed to the suburbs and the state troopers (and national guard) patrol their streets. Meeks may be self-agrandizing, hypocritical, bigotted (definitely that), etc. but he hasn't become numb to certain outrages that we all take for granted.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Byrne:

I read in today's Tribune that funding disdparity is responsible for new Trier having a 99.8% graduation rate and Marshall a 46% graduation rate. I suspect if the funding were reversed New Trier would still have near ly 100% graduation and marshall would still have a huge drop out problem. The issue is not funding but rather a total disregard for education on the part of most African Americans. I spent two years teaching at Miami Northwestern, an inner city school in South Florida and found only three students that had achieved high school level reading and writing abilities. it was not a lack of intelligence but an utter disregard for the value of education


Anonymous said...

Pay attention to what Al and "S" said. They have been in the school system trying to help black students -- they say that the problem is the students' (and parents") lack of motivation to learn.

My half-sister taught in the inner city schools and found that it's almost impossible to even keep order with the children if they are beyond early grade school. Forget discipline; as a white woman she could not even shake her finger at a child, while other black teachers could drag them down the hall by the ear and not get warned by principals.

Very depressing and sad situation for the children and for society in general.