Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Education Reform in Chicago Public Schools

Theodore Williams III


By Theodore Williams III

October 25, 2013

In 1995, the Illinois legislature, supported by Mayor Richard Daley, passed the Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act (CSRAA). In an effort to provide the mayor with full control over the Chicago Public Schools, this legislation eliminated public input in the selection of the school board members and gave the mayor the responsibility for the choice of its president. Armed with this power, Mayor Daley and the current mayor Rahm Emanuel have embarked upon an aggressive program of educational reform with significant efforts to change the culture of Chicago’s failing schools.   

Chicago is a case study of the impact of urban poverty on public education. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has over 400,000 children, 87% of whom are classified as low-income. This district has long possessed some of the nation’s highest dropout rates, lowest test scores, and steepest rates of crime and violence. For close to twenty years, the two mayors have attempted to counter this phenomenon by raising standards, pouring millions of dollars into schools, aggressively recruiting talented teachers, opening new schools, and closing many existing ones.  If Chicago could change, the reformers believed, the rest of the nation could as well.

However, under this system of mayoral control, Chicago’s public schools have remained largely unchanged. The year following CSRAA, 109 CPS schools were immediately placed on probation. Yet of the seventy-one elementary schools included, their average poverty level was 94%. Most of the schools that were victims of high-stakes testing and closure were those with the most challenged populations, in need of the greatest academic resources. Rather than immediate sanctions, these schools required greater support. They did not receive it. Furthermore, many of the recent reform efforts have involved the expansion of selective enrollment high schools. These schools are high achievers and consistently rank with the top programs in the nation. The problem is that they serve only 10.1% of CPS high school students and are 43.5% non low-income, which makes them substantially better off than the general CPS population. Chicago’s schools, like most of the city, are stellar for one class of its citizens. Yet its poor face a much different reality, one that the mayoral reform efforts only seem to have re-enforced.

This year, Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed fifty local public schools in one stroke.

While efforts to amend a culture of failing schools are commendable in some ways, this policy of closures is clearly the most egregious sin of recent reform efforts. Based on the rationale of underutilization and under-enrollment, this strategy has destabilized communities, had a deleterious impact on educational continuity, and has put students at risk by forcing them to travel greater distances to attend local public schools. Yet weeks later, the city announced requests for a number of additional charter schools and the $17 million expansion of Walter Payton High School, the third highest ranking school in the city. The irony in these developments is clear. How can schools in one area suffer from under-enrollment while others require expansion due to high demand? How can an administration ostensibly focused on educational opportunity and parity divide neighborhoods and jeopardize student safety by shuffling them around the city?

These recent reform efforts are reinforcing a bifurcated educational system that serves a small segment of the population. The mayor’s desire to impact educational outcomes for low-income communities through top-down accountability, school closings, and a focus on expanding selective enrollment schools does little to impact the present inequality of this city. I, along with many other parents in Chicago’s most challenged communities, desire the educational options and increased standards that these reforms efforts reflect. Yet we reject the large-scale destabilization resulting from these reforms, as it is antithetical to the democratic mission of American public schools. Moreover, this approach has largely failed. 

True education reform is holistic. It addresses the entire student, the entire parent, and the entire community. It provides parents with a full array of public, private, and home-school options while simultaneously working to sustain existing schools. It supports high standards while giving all schools the resources needed to reach desired outcomes. It is less about competition than individual development. It understands and protects children and the communities from which they come. Recent CPS initiatives, such as the development of the Family and Community Engagement program and the initiation of Community Action Councils, are inclusive steps in the right direction. However, if their work remains overshadowed by the mayor’s destabilizing and myopic approach, Chicago’s students will remain trapped in the vicious cycle of educational failure from which they have suffered for generations.

- Ted Williams III is a Professor of Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”