Jeffrey Phillips, an inmate at Cook County’s new state-of-the-art jail here, is 37 years old. Yet it was not until he enrolled in remedial classes at the $100 million facility four months ago that he first began to read.
“I was in the Chicago schools but I never got an education,” Mr. Phillips recalled last week in a jailhouse interview. “I always thought that I was really dumb, but when I got here I found out I wasn’t.”
Mr. Phillips’ story drove home a point the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. stressed last week during a three-day conference here aimed at boosting the nation’s investment in educating poor and nonwhite children.
Saying it costs about $17,000 per year to incarcerate inmates such as Mr. Phillips--about $10,000 more than the city’s high schools typically spend per pupil--Mr. Jackson called the well-appointed maximum-security facility “an extension of our failed school system.”
“Everything that should be in our schools is in our jails,” Mr. Jackson said during a tour of the jail on Feb. 23.
Mr. Jackson and other conference organizers said it was no accident that so many prisoners nationwide come from underfunded city school systems that offer their mostly minority students far less than wealthier, whiter suburbs provide theirs.
In hopes of calling attention to these gaps, conference organizers crafted a 10-point plan designed to give students from disadvantaged communities the help they need to attain high standards.
“These disparities are at the root of our achievement gap and our gaps in expectations,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “There’s a common-sense link that people with money understand whenever they’re asked to part with it.”
Gulf in Tax Base Cited
The conference, titled “Closing The Gap” and held at a community college on the city’s South Side, was co-chaired by several big-city schools chiefs: Baltimore’s Walter G. Amprey; Carolyn Getridge of Oakland, Calif.; and Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the Chicago schools.
The council, a Washington-based advocacy group representing 48 of the nation’s largest city districts, also helped organize the event.
Mr. Jackson stressed that the widespread reliance on property taxes to pay for schools fosters inequities that fall even more sharply along lines of class than race.
“When I was growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, the gap based on race, as bad as it was, was not as severe as the one now based on the property tax,” he said. “While there’s clearly a black-white division, there is a have/have-not polarization that is even more pronounced.”
A bus tour on the conference’s opening day featured stark contrasts. Participants first visited the spectacularly equipped Glen Brook South High School in the tony northern Chicago suburb of Glenview, then toured the cash-strapped Ziebell Elementary School tucked amid run-down mobile homes in Polsen, a suburb just south of the city.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, author and school-equity advocate Jonathan Kozol, and scores of urban educators and activists joined the tour.
Although Mr. Vallas played a prominent role in the conference taking place in his hometown, he and Mr. Jackson often differed in how they chose to articulate the needs of urban schools.
Action Plan Proposed
Mr. Jackson stressed the importance of more money and exhorted school officials not to dilute that message with excessive emphasis on better management. Mr. Vallas, who was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995 with a mandate to clean up the failing Chicago system, argued that only improved accountability would lend city schools sufficient credibility to garner greater funding.
By Feb. 25, these overlapping messages had coalesced in a 10-point call for action that listed modernizing crumbling schools and the need for “higher standards, sound management, and accountability” as the top priorities.
Other items included better training and salaries for teachers; programs to promote multilingualism and character development; greater parental involvement; improved early-childhood education and health services; and giving students the skills and knowledge needed to “pursue jobs and create wealth.”
In a speech to the conference shortly before the plan was announced, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley denounced the “pernicious belief” that poor and minority children are incapable of superior performance. “We cannot continue to have a dual system of education--high standards for some and a dead-end track for others,” he said.
Mr. Jackson, the president of the Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, hatched the idea for the conference in January after a national debate over the Oakland school board’s adoption of a new policy on the teaching of “ebonics,” or black English. (“‘Ebonics’ Vote Puts Oakland in Maelstrom,” Jan. 15, 1997, and “Oakland Board Revises ‘Ebonics’ Resolution,” Jan. 22, 1997.)
Organizers hope to follow up the conference with efforts to mobilize parents and churches, lobby President Clinton, hold congressional hearings, and press Congress for more funding to improve school facilities.