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An Illinois state senator and Baptist minister organized a Tuesday boycott of Chicago public schools to protest inequities in state education funding.

Hundreds of students skipped opening-day classes and attempted to symbolically register at two schools in affluent suburbs, where they expected to be turned away because they live out of the district. The boycott is scheduled to last through Friday.

“This is civil disobedience at its finest,” remarked one observer quoted in the Chicago Tribune. Another said the scene reminded him of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., 51 years ago, regarded as a major event of the Civil Rights Movement.

Sen. James Meeks, D-Chicago, who is also pastor of Salem Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, organized the protest, along with 85 fellow pastors.

Like many states, most school funding in Illinois comes from property taxes. That means spending per student is much higher in suburban school districts with higher property values. Rural and city schools, meanwhile, must get by on less, often translating into disparities like overcrowded classrooms, outdated textbooks and shortage of equipment like computers.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley criticized people who let their children skip school to join the protest education funding. “It’s very selfish,” Daley told National Public Radio. “Children have to be in school and if they’re not in school the first day, don’t blame the teacher. You should not use children dealing with a political issue of all Democrats in Springfield that can’t make up their mind. It’s as simple as that.”

Chicago School Board President Rufus Williams said the boycott would hurt Chicago financially by reducing attendance for September–typically one of the best-attended months and used as a baseline for state funding.

But supporters said such demonstrations are the only way to draw attention to the plight of inner-city schools.

“We do not believe a child’s education should be based on where they live,” Meeks said. “Three decades of underfunded schools have led to the social ills we face today.”

Meeks is pushing for a three-year, $120 million program to improve the academic standing of low-scoring schools. He urged Gov. Rod Blagojevich to call an emergency session of the General Assembly to fix the state’s school funding formula.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, a recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics ranked Illinois 49th out of 50 states in state funding of public education.

Blogojevich said he agreed with the goal of increasing education funding, but he urged Meeks to call off the boycott. “I think it’s a big mistake to ask kids to miss school,” Blagojevich was quoted as saying at last week’s Democratic National Convention.

Meeks said he would consider calling off the boycott if Blagojevich and legislative leaders would commit to supporting his plan, but he would not accept an “ultimatum” from the governor to do so. If Blagojevich had kept a promise to put $10 billion in education, Meeks told Chicago’s CBS affiliate, “We wouldn’t even be discussing a boycott.”

The boycott effort counters annual attempts by Chicago schools to boost first-day attendance as a way to get students in the habit of coming to school every day. Chicago Public Schools is the country’s third-largest school system, with more than 400,000 students.

Another group of clergy called for a different tactic. Instead of boycotting public schools, the Million Father March urged men to take a child to the first day of school as a show of support.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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