Skip to main content

Janresseger: Can Support for Neighborhood Public Schools in Chicago Be Restored When School Choice and Charters Have Become an Entitlement for the Wealthy?

Is it politically possible to undo school reform that has indulged privileged families and to return to a more democratic system that serves all children well?  That is the question Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and his appointed school board are grappling with right now.

Although its proponents claimed school choice would remedy racial and economic school segregation and expand opportunity for our nation’s most vulnerable young people, it turns out that even without vouchers, universal school choice—including myriad charter schools and selective admission public schools—primarily creates educational alternatives for already privileged children. In the final sentence of their concluding chapter, the authors of  The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity describe the inequitable impact of vouchers, but their words speak more broadly to the unjust impact of school choice itself: “Today’s voucher policies have, by design, created growing financial commitments of taxpayer money to serve a constituency of the relatively advantaged that is redefining their subsidies as rights—often in jurisdictions where neighborhood public schools do not have the resources they need.” (The School Voucher Illusion: Exposing the Pretense of Equity, p. 290)

No school district in the United States has epitomized this dilemma more than Chicago, under the school reform scheme created by Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Illinois legislature in 1995. Key elements of Chicago school reform have included: mayoral governance with an appointed school board, universal school choice, school ratings and rankings based on test scores alone, an array of selective admissions schools, expansion of charter schools, and the addition of student-based budgeting, by which the district invested in schools with rising enrollment and reduced funding for schools as their enrollment dropped.  The whole scheme was called a “portfolio school reform” plan, by which the school district would manage traditional public schools and charter schools like a business portfolio, investing in the winners and shutting down the “poor investments” as the number of charter schools was expanded.

Emergence of Efforts in Chicago to Remedy Inequity Driven by School Choice

Brandon Johnson, a former Chicago public school teacher and Chicago Teachers Union official, was sworn in as Chicago’s new mayor on May 15, 2023 on a platform that explicitly addressed the inequity driven by mayoral governance and portfolio school reform. The Illinois legislature had already formally begun to phase out mayoral governance and launch a fully elected school boardEducation Week‘s Libby Stanford explains: “Starting in November 2024, Chicago voters will elect their first school board members in nearly 30 years, after state lawmakers passed a law backed by the city teachers’ union that phases out the mayor’s control over the city’s public schools. By 2027, voters will have elected all 21 members of the board…  In Chicago, the end of mayoral control is the result of decades of opposition from teachers’ union leaders, including influential former president Karen Lewis. Opposition intensified as then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools in 2013. The school closures… affected primarily Black and Hispanic students….”

While mayoral governance continues this year, however, Johnson took advantage of his power as the new mayor to install a school board whose members share his own priority for increasing equity across the district’s schools.  Last July, WBEZ’s, Sarah Karp, Nader Issa and Fran Speilman quoted Johnson describing his new appointments: “It’s my honor to bring together such a diverse group of people from community, business, philanthropy, and elsewhere to collaborate around a vision for our schools that ensures every student has access to a fully resourced, supportive and nurturing learning environment.”

Even before Johnson reshaped Chicago’s board of education, board members had begun to address serious injustices in school district policy. On April 18, 2023, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that school district CEO, Pedro Martinez announced that in the 2023-2024 school year, the district would begin phasing out student-based budgeting, which has put traditional public schools in the poorest neighborhoods on a downward spiral by allocating a significant amount of each school’s funding based on enrollment. As schools in poor neighborhoods have lost students to district-wide school choice, their schools have lost more than their share of teachers, support staff, and programming. “Martinez said the vast majority of schools, 82%, will see increases next year… During the 2023-24 school year, the portion of the budget allocated based on school enrollment will decrease to 43%… I am optimistic that over the next year or so, we’ll have enough knowledge to be able to fully go away from SBB… (H)e added that CPS understands ‘a purely enrollment-based funding model shortchanges smaller schools.'”

On April 26, 2023, the Chicago Board of Education replaced its system for ranking and rating its schools based solely on standardized test scores, which, in the aggregate, have been shown across the country to reflect primarily the level of family and neighborhood income. WBEZ’s Sarah Karp explains the Chicago Board of Education’s decision to revise its school rating system: “The Chicago board of Education on Wednesday voted to replace its school rating policy with one that’s intended to provide information about a range of school characteristics, from how students perform on state tests, to whether instruction is rigorous and student centered, to whether a school environment is healing. The new accountability policy officially drops a system that labeled schools from a high of 1+ to a low of 3… That rating system, called the SQRP (School Quality Rating Policy), was sharply criticized for relying too heavily on test scores and unfairly branding schools. In the past, the labels were also used as justification for closing schools. ‘Part of what started this was our communities being very clear about the harm that they felt from a rating system that didn’t just make them feel like it was something wrong with their schools, but something deficient with them as people, as communities, as parents,’ said board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland… Rather than being punitive, CPS board members say CPS’s new accountability policy focuses on improving teaching and learning as well as creating an optimal educational experience… The new system will provide parents as many as 25 measures for each school.” Karp defines the new system in the words of Alfonso Carmona, CPS’s chief portfolio officer: “Despite including some long-standing measures, the new policy…. will also share information on the opportunities for students to ‘engage in academic, athletic and arts based enrichment,’ as well as how well the school supports the ‘physical, social and emotional health of students.'”

December 2023: Chicago Board of Education Sets Five Year Plan to Move Away from School Choice

In December, the Chicago Board of Education released a five-year strategic plan that will significantly reduce school choice itself. WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reports: “Mayor Brandon Johnson and his school board say school choice has created a ‘Hunger Games’ scenario where competition is fierce to get into those perceived as good schools and students are sorted by ability. Selective enrollment schools have historically been disproportionately white, Asian and middle class and the top schools are increasingly so. The board will likely look at policies proven to help low-income Black and Latino students land spots. The end result is that the school system is left with neighborhood schools in poor communities with small populations of students who have particularly high needs. Some of these schools lack racial, socio-economic and ability-level diversity. Johnson and the board contend this is not healthy for students or communities.”

Karp outlines the complexity of Chicago’s school choice: “Selective enrollment and magnet schools are the oldest types of choice in Chicago. Students have to test into selective schools, while students are chosen for magnet school through a lottery. In CPS, there are 32 stand-alone magnet elementary schools, 14 selective enrollment elementary schools and 11 selective enrollment high schools. These serve about 10% of all elementary students and 16% of all high school students… Then, there are charter schools. These are publicly-funded, privately-run schools… They comprise about 15% of all CPS students.  While magnet, selective enrollment and charter schools are stand-alone choice schools, choice in CPS extends way beyond them. There are career and technical high schools, military high schools and tons of specialty programs from fine arts to International Baccalaureate in general education schools.  What’ s more, almost all neighborhood schools accept students outside their attendance area.  Fewer than 25% of high school students and fewer than half of elementary school students attend their neighborhood school.”

It is easy to imagine that the Chicago Board of Education’s proposal to end school choice is politically controversial. Here is how Karp describes the Board’s response to parents’ reaction: “So will my child’s selective enrollment or magnet school close? No. Board members say they don’t foresee the wholesale closing of any one type of school.  But charter schools will face increased scrutiny and more could wind up being closed. Board members say they want these schools to fulfill their promise of providing a better education. While the school district doesn’t spend more money on charter schools than others, they result in the district spreading its limited resources among more schools.  When it comes to selective enrollment and magnet schools, the strategic plan will likely focus on admissions policies and funding. There is a state moratorium on school closings until 2025.”

Mayor Johnson and the Chicago Board of Education deserve enormous credit for trying to restore equity across the Chicago Public Schools.  But the mayor and members of Chicago’s school board continue to face a politically fraught series of choices on top of a projected budget deficit Karp reports will be “$670 million starting in 2025.”


This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...