Chicago Students Boycott First Day of School

Some Chicago students skipped the first day of school, but not to enjoy one more day of freedom. Instead, they hoped on buses provided by local churches to protest how Chicago Public Schools are funded.

A group of Chicago church pastors organized bus trips to two suburban schools this afternoon to call attention to what they call the "disparities" of school funding.

According to the New Trier school district, 150 high school students and 800 elementary students attempted to register at New Trier Township High School and Sunset Ridge Elementary School under the guidance of Illinois State Sen. James Meeks and a group of 85 pastors. The registration was meant to draw attention to the issue.

"Illinois is trying to attract the [2016] Olympics by saying we are a world class city. How can we have a world class city and not have world class schools?" Meeks told from the protest. "We want the city to pay attention to our schools. We want the state to pay attention to our schools."

Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Church in Chicago, who helped organize the boycott, echoed that sentiment.

"We're bringing these children to Winnetka today because we have exhausted other methods," Acree said. "We want the governor and the senate and legislators all across the state to hear our plea. We want them to see the innocent children from Chicago who are victims of apartheid-style education. We want them to see the inequalities and disparities in our system."

According to Acree and Meeks, Chicago Public Schools are grossly underfunded compared with schools in wealthier districts, such as Winnetka, that have fewer minority students. In Illinois, students must pay tuition to attend schools outside their home district.

Chicago Public Schools, one of the country's largest school systems, spent $11,300 per student last year. New Trier High School spent $17,500 per student. Like many districts across the country, public school funding in Illinois is tied to property taxes and land values. The more the property around a school is worth, the more funding it'd likely to get.

"We're hoping to send a message today that a two-tiered school system is wrong. It is wrong for one of the wealthiest states in our nation to have the dubious distinction of leading American in school funding disparity," Acree said.

Although organizers believe the students will be rejected because they live outside the district, parents believe making the trip to the affluent suburb is worth it.

Shayont Gilmore, 31, who's a member of Greater St. John Church, is taking her 7-year-old son out of school today to join the trip to Winnetka. Gilmore's son is in private school. For Gilmore, a graduate of the Chicago Public School System and her husband, making the sacrifice for that luxury is worth it.

"Being a parent, I'm tired of having to pay tuition in order to have a quality education," said Gilmore, who lives on the city's west side. "We can't really afford it, but we make the sacrifice."

Although there are disparities between districts, comparing a district like New Trier to Chicago is misleading, said Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

"If you look at CPS, certainly they're going to be disparities. ... But Chicago is above the state average when it comes to funding," he said. "It's difficult to make those types of comparisons. The enrollment at CPS is 358,000. The enrollment at New Trier is 3,900.

"But I don't think anyone would argue the fact that we do need to reformulate the way we fund education. It creates great inequities in per pupil spending," he said.

Not everyone believes that a boycott involving students during a school day, particularly the first day of school, is the best way to make that point.

"We understand Sen. Meeks' concern and appreciate his desire to dialogue, but anytime school's in session, a child needs to be in school," Vanover said. "You want to start the year off right. The longer you wait to get students in, the less likely they are to come."

Chicago Public Schools, which did not return phone calls to by deadline, echoed those sentiments to The Associated Press.

"Any adult that tells their child not to go to school sends that child down a path that is self-destructive," Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan told The Associated Press. "Yes, we are desperately underfunded. Yes, we need to challenge that status quo. But let me be clear. Adults should fight that battle. Children should be in school."

But for Acree that argument just doesn't hold water. Acree says that this boycott is a last resort to show legislators that Chicago residents are serious about changing schools.

"There's been a great debate in Chicago over whether this boycott is necessary, even though for nearly 30 years we've had growth in disparities across the state of Illinois. You hear these leaders claim that it is wrong to ask children to participate in the boycott," Acree said. "We're hoping to send a message today that a two-tiered school system is wrong. ... It's important for our children to take advantage of this social justice lesson."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.