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Meeks wants vouchers for 50,000 students

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Arguing that Chicago Public Schools are “broken’’ and that parents deserve a “choice,’’ mayoral challenger James Meeks said Wednesday he would offer $4,500-a-year vouchers to 50,000 low-and-middle-income Chicago families to use toward private school tuition.

If he is elected mayor, Meeks said he would also offer full-day kindergarten and character education in all Chicago Public Schools and double the time spent on reading and math in first through third grades. Full-day kindergarten would be financed in part by cutting bonus pay for teachers with master’s degrees.

The 90 minutes of daily reading time — up from 45 minutes currently — is designed to make certain that students read at a third-grade level by the time they finish third-grade.

The Chicago Teachers Union would be given one year to develop a policy “with teeth” to “identify and dismiss” teachers who are not performing. If the union cannot or refuses to meet that deadline, Meeks said he would ask the Illinois General Assembly to mandate a policy to weed out bad teachers.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said she’s already working on a “redesign” of the union’s teacher evaluation. But she also wants to make certain that administrators are “properly trained so evaluations are meaningful.”

As a state senator and minister of a massive South Side church, Meeks has led the charge for school funding reform and school vouchers to give parents a way out of schools that fail their children.

Although most of the top mayoral contenders have introduced education plans, Meeks hopes his activism on the topic could help him gain credibility with voters.

During a news conference outside the mayor’s office Wednesday, Meeks argued that Chicago Public Schools are “broken” and that it’s high-time to give families “a choice in their child’s educational future.”

“We have 47,000 students in magnet schools. We have 36,000 students in charter or contract schools. Why not give at least 50,000 students a choice to attend any school of their choosing while we’re fixing this broken educational system?” Meeks said.

“I see nothing wrong with giving children and their family a choice. I like hamburgers. I like McDonald’s. But I’m glad that I can go to White Castle every now and then. ... Competition can only make us better. We should not be afraid of embracing vouchers for school choice.”

Low- and middle-income students would have the first crack at vouchers under Meeks’ plan. The $4,500 stipends, provided by the state, could be used to pay private school tuition.

Meeks said the $4,500 stipend would come from state funds.

“One of the good things about the voucher bill I was pushing in Springfield is we were taking $4,000 from CPS, but we were leaving $7,000 with CPS — which is the reason that the Chicago Public School system never came down and testified against the voucher bill. They understood that they would be receiving $7,000 for a kid who was not there. So it would help reduce class size,’’ he said.

But Meeks’ plan to give vouchers to 30,000 students in the lowest-performing and most over-crowded Chicago Public schools went down in flames earlier this year in the Legislature amid heavy opposition from teachers unions.

The legislation drew only 48 votes in the state House, far fewer than the 60 votes necessary to pass what would have been the largest urban voucher program in the country.

But Meeks argued that the results would be different if the plan was backed by the newly-elected mayor of Chicago.

Lewis said she understands Meeks’ “frustration” with school funding in Illinois. But, apparently referring to school vouchers, she said, “encouraging CPS to shirk its responsibility to educate all of Chicago’s children isn’t the solution.”

Meeks also promised to lead a nationwide search for an educator to serve as a permanent replacement for recently-departed Schools CEO Ron Huberman. CPS hasn’t had an educator at the helm since Daley’s 1995 school takeover.

Meeks has also introduced legislation in Springfield that would strip Mayor Daley of the control he has had over CPS since 1995. But now that he’s a candidate for mayor, he’s changed his mind.

“Under [Daley], our school system was not working. ... Schools — they’ve not been his thing. Everybody can’t excel in every place. You just can’t do it,” he said.

“As mayor, I think that I could do a job — a very good job — in making sure that all of our children learn.”

Mayoral candidate and former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico’s education plan also includes a voucher plan for 50,000 students.

Chico would give parents of students in chronically-failing elementary schools a $3,717 voucher and offer $7,500 to parents of high school students to use toward private or parochial school tuition.

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