Dollars For Scholars: Rev. Senator James Meeks Seeks Support for Catholic Schools

My first encounter with Rev. Meeks was rather comical…there are two organizations on the South Side of Chicago named House of Hope, one a shelter run by Catholic Nuns, and the other a 25,000 member mega-church led by Rev. James Meeks.  Driving to drop off some items for the shelter, I called the number I had for the House of Hope and was greeted by one of Rev. Meeks staff.  After a quick explanation, the staff member gave me the correct address for my delivery.  A few hours later, I received a call from another  Rev. Meeks staffer asking if there was any way they could help with the (Catholic) House of Hope Shelter.

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Rev. James Meeks is the Senior Past at Salem Baptist Church, a 10,000 seat, televised, politically active congregation in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago.  He is also an Illinois State Senator and the head of the Senatorial education committee.  As Senator, Meeks is known as a partisan Democrat backing the party line in the sometimes fierce Illinois State Senate.  Rev-Sen. Meeks has been a leader of public demonstrations to increase funding for Chicago Public School students that, truthfully, have not been effective on a variety of levels.

However, starting late last year, Rev-Sen Meeks changed tactics in his quest for improving public school education.  Disgusted by neighborhood violence, and generations of failed schools in the City of Chicago, Rev-Sen Meeks has become a champion for funding students above the education system.  Today’s Chicago Sun-Times (lightly) touches on some of his proposals for reforming education.

A proposed state bill by Sen. James Meeks could signal the end for the Local School Council.

“I think they are radical changes,” the Chicago Democrat said Wednesday of the two bills now in Senate committees. “Isn’t that what the president ran on — change? America has voted for change.”

Hundreds of parent-led local school councils would be stripped of the critical power to pick principals under a bill introduced this week by the Rev. James Meeks, head of the Senate Education Committee.

Plus, up to 42,000 students at 65 of the city’s lowest-scoring public schools would be entitled to tuition vouchers to attend private or parochial schools under an amendment Meeks said he is planning to another bill.

“I think they are radical changes,” the Chicago Democrat said Wednesday of the two bills now in Senate committees. “Isn’t that what the president ran on — change? America has voted for change.”

To put it bluntly, the Local School Councils are a disgrace, corrupted via insider trading and a complete disservice to the students. Good riddance, but the more thorough fix is in Rev-Sen. Meeks plan to provide Dollars for Scholars. Under a preliminary proposal, $6500 would be provided to students aligned with 65 of the lowest performing public high schools in Chicago. The money would be available to younger grades as well, encompassing the grade schools which feed into the 65 high schools.

Sounds good, but Rev-Sen Meeks has made it much more interesting by attaching a capital expenditures reimbursement of up to $3500 per student per year for building and facilities for the schools receiving new students, bringing the total payments close to the full cost of education. The funds would be used by parents to chose any type of accredited education for their children, including Catholic and Christian Schools, Jewish Schools, Charter Schools and unaffiliated private schools.

Rev-Sen. Meeks recently spoke to a crowd at the Illinois Policy Institute about his plans, describing this as not a Republican or Democratic issue, rather an effort to educate children. This Monday, I shared a cab with a member of the Big Shoulder’s Fund, a support organization for Catholic Schools in Chicago, who explained to me that his great-grandfather campaigned for public support of parochial schools in 1909. I explained that this time we have broad leadership (and a catchy Dollars for Scholars slogan!). It’s election year in Illinois, so maybe it is time for a new alignment behind education and a turn away from an impasse as old as the public school system itself.

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