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In quest for equity, Chicago students to boycott school Tuesday

With only the long weekend separating them from the first day of school, religious, political, and education leaders in Chicago are gearing up for a major protest in which more than 100 busloads of Chicago students will roll into a middle-class suburb and try to enroll in schools there to highlight unequal school funding between the two districts. Although organizers briefly offered to drop the boycott plan if the state’s top Democrats agreed to back a $120 million reform initiative to benefit Illinois’ lowest-performing schools, yesterday they announced that “the window has expired” and the boycott would go on.

The Committee for Concerned Clergy, led by state senator Rev. James Meeks, has been developing plans all summer to bus Chicago students to Winnetka, an upper-middle-class suburb 20 miles north of the city that’s home to New Trier Township High School, one of the nation’s top-rated high schools. Once there, the students will try to enroll in Winnetka schools, although the district’s residency requirements and state laws prohibit them from being admitted. For their part, Winnetka officials are cooperating with protest leaders and are planning to make it easy for the busloads of students to fill out registration forms. Back in Chicago, school officials are nervous about a funding formula that will cost schools $110 a day for each student who is absent during the first week of school.

Those who agree with the protest’s goals but object to its form are seeking legal redress; last week, the Chicago Urban League filed a lawsuit asserting that the state’s funding formula leaves urban schools shortchanged. But the law moves slowly. In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity filed a lawsuit meant to make New York State education spending more equitable among districts; the funding from that suit, which was finally resolved in 2006, has just started to make its way to the city this fall. And additional local dollars available in the suburbs and the special needs faced by many city schools mean equity in spending power is still a long way off.

For now, here in New York, as in Chicago, the city’s schools — on the whole, low-performing, although of course many are quite successful — are surrounded on all sides by middle- and upper-class school districts where student performance is high — so high that in some, every single graduate leaves with an Advanced Regents diploma. A few city students pay tuition to attend suburban schools, but a report released last week by the independent think tank Education Sector concludes that interdistrict choice — as when Chicago students enroll in suburban schools — is not a sensible strategy for improving educational outcomes because such programs can accommodate only a few students, leaving many behind in failing schools, and often do not even improve the performance of the few students who do take advantage of them.

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