Chicago Sun-Times
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Column: School funding inequity a civil rights issue

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You can make a lot of noise, but the battle for civil rights doesn't become real until you take it to the courtroom.

On Wednesday, a new wave of black leaders followed that model when they stepped up with Cheryle R. Jackson, CEO of the Chicago Urban League, as she announced the group has filed a lawsuit against the State of Illinois and the Illinois Board of Education.

"What concerns us is how the state school system flat out violates the civil rights of minority children," Jackson said.

"We have an educational system in Illinois that discriminates against minority children and those who should be held responsible for overseeing it have done nothing or very little about it."

Four years ago, as Gov. Blagojevich's chief of staff, Jackson would have had to defend her boss' record on education funding, but today, Jackson is among an elite group of activists who are poised to make education a 21st century civil rights crusade.

Joining Jackson was the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., and the Rev. Leon Finney, both of whom have seen a fair share of teacher strikes and civil protests tied to education.

But Cheryle Jackson also had a younger crop of ministers who pastor huge congregations. They included the Rev. James T. Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago; the Rev. Byron Brazier, pastor of Apostolic Church of God; the Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ; the Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, and the Rev. Stephen Thurston II of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church.

Although Meeks declined to link the lawsuit to his proposed boycott, the gathering offered a visual that could put pressure on Gov. Blagojevich and members of the General Assembly.

These pastors lead large congregations, and members of their congregations tend to be politically active.

Although Meeks' call for a boycott of the first day of school Sept. 2 may have put him at odds with the Chicago Board of Education and local activists who are gearing up for its "Million Father March," he has raised public awareness of school funding inequity.

Because the Chicago area is still pretty much segregated -- both racially and economically -- most Chicago Public Schools parents have no idea that their children are going to schools that are inferior compared to schools in wealthier districts.

Over the past couple of weeks, Meeks' plans to try and enroll children at New Trier High School and Sunset Ridge Middle School in Winnetka has brought both cheers and jeers.

Wednesday's press conference seemed to be an effort to focus attention on the funding inequity -- something even CPS Chief Arne Duncan could agree desperately needed fixing.

"I was proud of how black people can move together in unison and are continuing to put pressure on the same point," Meeks said of the gathering.

The lawsuit will add to that pressure.

For the first time, the public is being told that the state's current school funding formula isn't just unfair; it is the result of a scheme.

"The State's failed school funding scheme has left many school districts, particularly those who serve high concentration of low income and minority students, with a mounting educational crisis," the complaint claims.

Until now, the school funding disparity has been endured like a necessary evil.

But now Meeks and others argue that given the high drop-out rates, low college attendance rates, and high incarceration rates, those concerned about this issue can no longer sit back.

The lawsuit could create a sense of urgency that will force parents to take notice.

Jenner & Block, a firm that is known for its aggressive representation of government officials, intends to seek a temporary injunction that forces the General Assembly to tackle the problem sooner rather than later.

In other words, Meeks ain't playing.

Because time is running out for lawmakers to fix the problem, it's too late for a community consensus.

Still, this lawsuit provides an opening for every local official -- from Mayor Daley to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger -- to correct a wrong perpetrated long ago.

Contrary to what you hear, the vast majority of minority parents do care about their children's futures.

This battle is for them.

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Mitchell published on August 21, 2008 12:10 PM.

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Leave it to Illinoisans to make a fool of themselves is the next entry in this blog.

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