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Home arrow Media Center arrow Multi-Pronged Approaches to Education Reform: The South Carolina and Illinois Examples
Multi-Pronged Approaches to Education Reform: The South Carolina and Illinois Examples

by Michael Rebell, National Access Network,
August 2008

Litigation is often necessary to spur education funding reform, but successful litigations—and especially successful remedies to adequacy cases—usually involve coordinated media, public engagement, and political activities. Recent events in South Carolina and Illinois demonstrate how multi-pronged approaches, involving both legal and nonlegal tactics, combine to promote education reform.

South Carolina:
Since 1993, South Carolina has been entangled in legal proceedings in Abbeville County School District v. State, a case that is challenging the constitutionality of the state’s public education system. The State Supreme Court held in 1999 that the state constitution calls for the General Assembly to “provide the opportunity for each child to receive a minimally adequate education,” which includes the opportunity to acquire, among other things, the ability to read and write, comprehend mathematics and physical science, and understand economic, social, and political systems. In 2005, the trial court declared that the state had indeed failed its constitutional responsibilities to provide adequate preschool education and other interventions through grade three. In regard to the plaintiffs’ claims of educational inadequacy for all other levels of schooling, however, the court found in favor of the state. Cross appeals of all of these issues are now pending before the South Carolina Supreme Court. Oral arguments took place in June, and a final decision is expected in the fall.

As the Abbeville case proceeded, a number of educated advocates began to rally around the cause. They developed creative means for raising the visibility of the issues, and by doing so, developed a large body of grassroots supporters. In an effort to focus media and public attention on the many educational inadequacies present throughout the state, a documentary entitled, “The Corridor of Shame,” was produced. The term “corridor of shame” refers to the schools located along South Carolina’s Interstate 95. The film showcases the poor learning conditions present in these poor, rural, South Carolina schools. The documentary has reached both state and national audiences. After seeing it, Presidential candidate Barack Obama was visibly moved and commented: “Windows have been broken, ceilings have caved in, roofs have leaked, bathrooms have not worked. When a child goes to a school that’s crumbling, is it any wonder that she gets a sense her education is not important?”

The documentary’s vivid depiction of decrepit schools directly contradicts the Abbeville trial court’s 2005 ruling that the state schools are operating in a manner that affords students the opportunity to a minimally adequate education. The significant discordance between the court’s decision and the reality of many classroom situations in South Carolina led organizers to initiate additional efforts to heighten public awareness of these problems. Efforts aimed at illuminating unsuitable learning environments took many forms. A student photography exhibit featuring images of unsuitable public school facilities, was displayed throughout the state. Additionally, a signature petition drive, entitled “Goodbye Minimally Adequate,” has been organized to pressure the legislature into making changes to the state constitution. Recently, the state legislature serious discussions regarding school reform proposals. The final results of these deliberations are yet to be determined.

Tensions are rising in Chicago as the first day of school, September 2, approaches. Usually a day associated with school buses, cafeteria lunches, and the excitement of a fresh start, the first day of school this year in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs may play out very differently from the classic opening day pattern.

At the end of July, State Senator James Meeks announced a plan to stage a large-scale protest in which up to 125 buses full of students from the Chicago Public Schools will attempt to enroll in the New Trier, an affluent district located approximately an hour outside downtown Chicago. Meeks stated that the purpose of the protest is to shed light on the, “ever growing school funding inequalities between rich, white and poor, minority school districts in the state.” The funding disparities between Chicago’s urban and suburban schools are staggering. In the suburban district of New Trier, students receive nearly $7,000 more per year than students in the Chicago Public Schools. Meeks describes a system of “two-tiered schools—white and affluent on one side, and black, brown and poor on the other…That’s an injustice and it’s immoral.”

The proposed school protest has aroused much controversy. Addressing the problematic and ineffective funding situation of the Chicago Public Schools presents a double-edged sword: the status quo of school funding in Illinois is unequal and potentially harmful to the education of urban, Chicago youth, yet Meeks’ attempt to expose the current school funding inequities by means of a first-day-of-school protest is, many school district and state officials argue, potentially reckless and counterproductive to the welfare of the students’ educations. Rufus Williams, president of the Chicago Board of Education stated, “It’s the right issue. It’s always the right time. But the method of keeping children out of school is one that we [the Chicago Board of Education] are diametrically opposed to.” Similarly, Chicago Public Schools chief, Arne Duncan, stated that, “We’ve worked extraordinarily hard…to build a culture where every single day matters. And that first day, that first week, does set the tone…for what happens the rest of the school year.”

The community of New Trier is preparing for the arrival of the protesters. Linda Yonke, the New Trier Township High School Superintendent, referred to the boycott as “an educational opportunity.” Teachers throughout the district have been provided with booklets on school funding issues to educate themselves and their students. The students and parents traveling in from urban Chicago will likely gather in the schools’ gymnasiums, and the district is planning to provide cookies and beverages to them while they wait.

Thus far, little progress toward education reform is taking place in the state legislature. A Special Session of lawmakers took place on August 12, 2008, but was quickly adjourned.

Despite the many hands that have been raised in opposition to Senator Meeks’s dramatic demonstration, the Senator has accomplished something significant: Illinois’s problematic school funding formula has gained state and national attention. As Illinois Senator Christine Radogno stated, “I think it’s a shame that we [the Legislature] have to be pushed to the brink by public pressure to do the right thing.” However controversial his tactics, Meeks has succeeded in raising public awareness about education issues. Additionally, his proposed street theater has substantially boosted publicity for and interest in the major new case that was filed by the Chicago Urban League and the Quad County Urban League last week which sets forth major adequacy and racial discrimination claims in the Illinois education system. (See article: Major New Case Filed in Illinois)

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