A Short Narrative of Public Education in Chicago Today

From the ‘Worst’ to ‘Extraordinary’

The recent history of public education in Chicago is complex. In 1987, President Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennett, called Chicago the worst school district in the nation. While Bennett’s statement was untrue, it can be seen as a starting point for a vast and ongoing series of reforms that have by many measures improved student performance in Chicago. In fact, in 2015, the Education Trust dubbed Chicago one of three “Extraordinary Districts” in the US, citing its impressive student-learning gains from third to eighth grade and highlighting its productive applied research relationship with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

The first local school council members are sworn in at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Reporter/Bill Stametz)

However, school reform is also highly contested in Chicago, where its price, many argue, has been an erosion of equally dramatic innovations in community schools and mechanisms for family engagement. In fact, Chicago is the only school district in the nation with Local School Councils (LSCs), which were created as part of the 1988 Chicago School Reform act. Each public school has its own LSC, comprised of an elected team of parents and community members, who work in tandem with school officials. Chicago LSCs have real power: they control how some of their schools’ budgets will be spent, they devise School Improvement Plans, they evaluate their principals, and they even select their schools’ principals from among a pool approved by CPS.

Participatory Democracy in Action or Neoliberal Experiment?

If LSCs are a paragon of participatory democracy in public education, they coexist uneasily with—or perhaps at odds with—the “school choice” movement, which is also thriving in Chicago. The logic of school choice suggests that families should consider schools across the city for their children, without necessarily privileging their neighborhood schools. School choice was further formalized as a district priority in 2017, when Chicago launched its “GoCPS” common application, a one-stop application that students use to apply for high schools all across the city.

Students and parents from Lafayette School march down Division Street to Alderman Robert Maldonado’s Office in Humboldt Park. (Photo courtesy of WBEZ/Bill Healy)

School choice threatens the idea that a thriving neighborhood school is a community asset, by situating schools not as public institutions, open to all, but rather as sites competing for students and education dollars. Amidst this erosion of the idea of community schools, Chicago has also been the site of a painful series of school closings and consolidations, notably in 2013, when CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools. A five-year moratorium was thereafter put on school closings in the city and the results of the closings and mergers have been contested. In the intervening years, a number of selective-enrollment, contract, and charter schools have opened in Chicago, raising suspicions about the district’s commitment to neighborhood schools. The moratorium was lifted in late 2017—in response, at least in part, to real concerns about under-enrolled schools—and the closings and mergers seem set to begin again.

The Need for Family Engagement

For families, negotiating education choices in Chicago is not easy. Some neighborhoods no longer have a viable neighborhood school. While families may have more choice, they also have more responsibilities, and in a very real way, more reasons to be on edge. Families have been involved in hunger strikes and other protests against centralized decisions that affect their neighborhoods; they have also come together in efforts to help make district-mandated mergers succeed, like that of Jenner Academy of the Arts and Ogden International School of Chicago.

Chicago Families for Equity in Education is an alliance that helps families learn about their rights and develop their civic leadership capabilities, so that they can make educated choices for their families. We also think it is important that families participate fully in their schools during this very complex time for education in Chicago, in Illinois, and in the country. We encourage families to learn, to engage, and to use their voices—and to together make the schools they want.

One of the original hunger strikers who successfully organized for a new high school in Little Village in 2001, speaking at an event in March 2018.