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State Sen. James Meeks greets Fenger High School Principal Elizabeth Dozier Monday.

On a tour of Fenger, north suburban parents confront a new ground zero

by Sofia Resnick, Kelsey Snell and Danny Yadron
Oct 20, 2009

The beating death of Derrion Albert, captured on video last month, made Chicago synonymous with teen violence.

On Monday, a dozen parents from the north suburbs were given a tour of Fenger High School, where Albert was a student. Led by four principals and state Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat who is pastor of House of Hope Church, the tour’s point was to zero in on the best solution to the problem.

Most agreed that what is needed most is money.

Sen. James Meeks squired a busload of members of United We Learn, a North Shore suburban parents’ organization, to explore the gap between high-achieving suburban schools and struggling schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. State Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora) also was on the tour.

Meeks warned the group at the start of the tour not to focus the day’s discussion on the violent event that took place steps from Fenger’s door, but, rather, on the elephant in the room.

“The key word is funding equity,” Meeks said. “Not youth violence."
Money is an issue because public schools in Illinois are largely funded by property taxes. Schools in neighborhoods with few property owners and many residents below the poverty line can’t keep up financially -- or academically -- with schools in affluent neighborhoods.

However, many taxpayers and elected officials, like Lauzen, argue that school funding is a local issue and raising taxes statewide to address the problem is inequitable in different ways.

This year Fenger joined a districtwide program designed to transform Chicago’s lowest performing schools into quality learning centers. School administrators described different strategies and programs they have employed to bring the percentage of students who meet and exceed Illinois school standards up from 2 percent reported in 2008.
Meeks argued that the issue facing Chicago's schools was deeper than the stories reported on the nightly news. The deep problem is that poor schools lack the necessary funding to provide their students a proper education, Meeks said.

“Forget social justice,” he said, “the right answer is the numerical answer.”

On Jan. 13, Meeks introduced legislation to amend the Illinois school funding structure. The bill, which never got to the floor of the senate, would increase corporate taxes to fund schools and redistribute property taxes.

Though Lauzen repeated his agreement with Meeks that schools in poor neighborhoods should be improved, he said he would not support increasing state money for CPS without budget line items for each planned expenditure.

“Money is important,” Lauzen said, “but the question becomes how is the money being spent, and is there ever going to be enough?”

Fenger officials, however, said they knew just how to spend the money.

An assistant principal said the money spent on each student is not limited to books, supplies and the teacher’s time. Fenger must also provide food, bus passes, medicine and additional security to ensure students’ well being.

The principal mentioned that many students were absent Monday because of a violent incident over the weekend; fear kept them home.

Lauzen said he understands the fear, but his responsibility is to his constituents.

“I fully appreciate how hard it is for people [in my district] to make ends meet, and they’re sick of state and local government wasting their money,” he said. “I’m not angry, but the people I listen to are angry.”

The debate over funding drove United We Learn member Lee Goodman to tears. The father of two said his children received a wonderful education at Glenbrook North High School and found the inequities unbearable.

“It hurts to hear a conversation about whether we will fund education,” said Goodman, who lives in Northbrook. “It’s very difficult to face the fact that we don’t make that kind of opportunity available everywhere. Where’s the difference between those kids and my kids?”