Reverend Senator Presses for School Reform in Illinois

Published April 8, 2010

Chicago is a company town where the main business is government. A key subsidiary of The Company is the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the city’s largest local employer.

Like most big cities, Chicago dominates its state. Chicago Democrats hold all five state constitutional offices and the top posts in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly, where they preside over sizeable majorities (veto-proof in the State Senate).

So it is in the unlikeliest of places on the unlikeliest of political landscapes that legislation to provide school choice to 22,000 children in Chicago’s worst-performing elementary schools is advancing through the Illinois General Assembly.

Equally unlikely is the steward of this legislation.

‘The Reverend Senator’

The political muscle that pushed a modified school choice plan for Chicago out of the Illinois State Senate in late March with bipartisan support (33-20 vote: 19 Republicans, 14 Democrats) was James Meeks, “The Reverend Senator” as he is called, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Meeks is an African-American Democrat from Chicago’s South Side who ministers at Salem Baptist Church, home to the largest African-American congregation in the city. Meeks also serves as the executive vice president of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow-PUSH Coalition.

Meeks’ embrace of school choice comes not as an epiphany but through his experiences as a leader and state legislator.

Just two years ago, Meeks represented a conventional Democrat position on education, leading a contingent of public school families and students to New Trier High School in the wealthy, white, suburban enclave of Winnetka to protest alleged funding disparities between schools there and those in poor minority communities.

For his first five years in the state senate, Meeks, like so many of his brethren in Springfield, regurgitated the talking points of the teachers’ unions.

But something changed.

Not Beholden to Unions

As I have come to know him, I’ve found two qualities that separate Meeks from most of his colleagues in the Illinois General Assembly: He is intellectually curious, and he is his own man.

Meeks paid attention to the awful results of simply pouring more and more taxpayer money into CPS while leaving it structurally unchanged. He noticed teaching children how to read and write seemed to be far down the list of priorities for the leadership of the teachers’ unions, well behind salaries, pensions, and work schedules.

Meeks began openly discussing a disturbing paradox: CPS is a system no one in charge wants to defend but which no one in charge wants to change.

If those in authority do not want to defend the system but refuse to change it, he realized, then someone’s interests are being served by the status quo and it clearly isn’t the students’.

Taking an Educator’s View

Meeks was especially aware of this dysfunction because he too is an educator. Part of Rev. Meeks’ megachurch operation is Salem Christian Academy, a pre-K through 8th grade elementary school Meeks has operated since 1990.

The superior performance of his students at Salem Christian relative to similarly situated minority children in CPS schools with superior resources further solidified Meeks’ view that competition is at the very least a critical component of comprehensive K-12 reform.

The additional good news for school choice proponents is that The Reverend Senator does nothing meekly.

Consider one of his more recent reviews of the teachers’ unions in Chicago: “The BDs [Black Disciples] are not the biggest gang problem, the GDs [Gangster Disciples] are not the biggest gang problem, the Vice Lords are not the biggest gang problem, the Four Corner Hustlers are not the biggest gang problem…. The biggest gang problem in Chicago is the Chicago Teachers Union,” he said.

Heresy does not begin to describe Meeks’ break from orthodoxy.

During a recent interview I had with Meeks on WLS-AM in Chicago, a caller said she was afraid providing scholarships to children in poor-performing schools might lead some of those schools to close. Meeks responded, “If they’re performing that poorly, maybe they should close.”

Meeks has backed his rhetorical flourishes with substantive action. Last year, after Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) brass threatened to stop giving Meeks campaign contributions if he continued pressing for school choice, Meeks abruptly sent CTU a check for $4,000, equalling all the contributions they had previously made to him.

The unmistakable message from Meeks to CTU was, “Keep your blood money.”

Changing the Conversation

Despite the progress Meeks has made, it would be a mistake to conclude the wind is at his back. It isn’t.

The teachers unions remain extremely powerful. There are plenty of legislators happy to take their campaign cash and do their bidding—including Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who opposes scholarships such as those provided by Meeks’ legislation.

Then again, even after Meeks lowered the scope of his bill to win votes in the Senate, few thought he would prevail, especially in an election year.

In that light, what has transpired so far is a success. Rev. State Sen. James Meeks’ efforts are changing the conversation on K-12 reform in Illinois. And Meeks understands that once you change the conversation, you’re a step closer to changing the policy.

Dan Proft ([email protected]) is a host and featured political commentator on WLS radio in Chicago.