Speaking at a "back to school" rally yesterday at Bowen High School on the South Side, Chicago Public Schools Chief Arne Duncan pleaded for children not to be used as "weapons" when the first day of school arrives Sept. 2.
A group led by state Sen. James Meeks and more than 50 pastors are pushing for a week-long boycott when school begins as a protest to state educational funds they don't feel is adequate.
Duncan agrees that city schools are not funded properly, but opposes students missing classes.
"Let's not use children as weapons," Duncan says. "Let the adults figure out the Springfield part."
Tuesday's rally attracted 300 to the front lawn of Bowen High School on East 89th Street, including several clergy who oppose Meeks' group. Standing behind the podium was a large group of children, from elementary age to high school. One elementary-aged girl wore her cheerleading outfit. "Back to School" signs lined the streets around the Bowen campus.
For the second time in six days, CPS officials and community leaders also took to neighboring streets to greet children and convince their parents to send the kids to school on Sept. 2. Every child within a three- to four-block area received a free back pack.
"School is where our children need to be," shouted Michael Pfleger, a priest at St. Sabina church, at the rally as people applauded. "Parents, take your child to school. Don't send your kids to school, bring your kids to school!"
At issue is state educational funding. Duncan says Illinois ranks 47th in the nation per student in educational funding. CPS will use $100 million in reserves to cover a yet-to-be approved budget that will likely be approximately $1.9 billion.
Last week at a similar rally at DePreist Elementary in the Austin neighborhood, Duncan said he and other school superintendents have talked about filing a class-action suit against the state.
State legislators were expected to discuss more educational funding last week in Springfield, but Duncan says the topic was not discussed at length.
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing," Duncan says. "The governor petted cows (at the state fair)."
Frustration over state government raged within Fleer.
"We should close Springfield down. It's a disaster," he says.
Meeks' group hopes to attract statewide attention with a boycott and arranging a protest at New Trier Township High School's campuses in suburban Winnetka and Northfield, where Meeks says $17,000 per year is spent on each student instead of the $10,000 per student allocated for Chicago students. They canvassed West Side neighborhoods last week and were planning to hit the South Side this week.
CPS officials strongly oppose the planned boycott and have not backed off the Sept. 2 opening day for school.
"We appreciate the battle, but not the strategy," Duncan says.
There has been no talk of punishing children who don't attend the first week of school, says CPS spokesperson Celeste Garrett, but district officials are not backing off their attendance policy, either. If a student misses more than nine days of school through the year, they must attend summer school to be promoted to the next grade. Signs posted at Bowen stated that children missing classes would have to attend after-school classes and Saturday classes.
There are indications, Garrett says, that the boycott is losing steam.
"I think people are not joining up with the boycott," she says.
Jolondon Jamerson, mother of seven and Bowen local school council chair, is one of them. Her first five children all graduated from city schools and city community colleges. Her last two children, twin daughters, are now at Bowen.
Jamerson believes a better strategy to show state legislators how strong city schools are is to have as many kids as possible in school on opening day. The strength, she says, is in the numbers.
"That is what we can use to make the point," she says.
A local school council member for 10 years, Jamerson said that one neighborhood child had approached her saying, "You helped me get to school. And now you want me to not go to school"
Jamerson says she looked at the child and responded: "No. You're going to school."
Paul Bowker, a Chicago-area journalist with 25 years of experience, covers Chicago Public Schools for the Daily News.