On Tuesday evening’s PBS NewsHour, I was surprised as I listened to an interview about the tragic gun violence in Chicago last weekend to hear the speaker name public high school closures as among the causes. Certainly exploding economic inequality, poverty, lack of jobs, the presence of street gangs, and other structural factors are contributing to this long, hot summer in Chicago. But Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, blamed Renaissance 2010, a now-20-year-old charter school expansion program, for today’s violence.
Professor Williams expressed particular concern about the phase out of neighborhood high schools: “(Y)ou’re seeing the violence on the West Side and the South Sides of Chicago because, about 20 years ago, in the early 2000s, the city of Chicago implemented some very, very bad public policy. The most damaging of those policies was the policy of Renaissance 2010, when Chicago basically privatized, through charter schools, neighborhood public elementary and high schools. It became a serious problem, because many of the high schools and communities that had long traditions of street organizations caused young African-American males to be afraid to leave out of their communities, going to new schools throughout the city of Chicago. So, basically, from the early 2000s, too many young Afrcan-American males haven’t been going to school, meaning that they don’t have life prospects. They can’t get jobs. They’re self-medicated to deal with the stress in their community. And it’s driving a lot of the violence.”
The other speaker in the NewsHour‘s interview, Tamar Manasseh, runs a volunteer organization providing community meals at the corner of Chicago’s 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue—meals that provide food, and meals that try to build community to compensate for the destruction of community institutions. Ms. Manasseh explained: “And it’s not just about the kids. It’s about the wellness of the entire community… There are 100 other organizations just like me who are out here every day in their own way making a contribution to making communities better… Englewood will not have any public schools in the fall. And these kids that Professor Williams spoke of, they will have no options of a public high school in Englewood.”
The research literature has documented that in Chicago, Portfolio School Reform and the subsequent expansion of school choice has been undermining public schools, which have previously been central institutions binding communities together. This PBS NewsHour interview is the first I’ve seen in the mainstream press to connect the dots between the expansion of school choice and the shredding of the fabric of Chicago’s neighborhoods.
What was Renaissance 2010? After mayoral control was established in 1995 in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced one of the first Portfolio School Reform plans—to launch marketplace school choice by quickly adding privatized charter schools. In a climate of competition, the school district would encourage families to choose a school. Then the school district would manage the district like a stock portfolio—phasing out weak schools and schools that would become under-enrolled due to competition. The school district would keep on authorizing new charter schools to keep marketplace competition alive. Renaissance 2010 was managed by none other than Arne Duncan, who later became the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and after that, U.S. Secretary of Education.
The complication was that many very poor neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago were already losing population, and the expansion of competitive school choice accelerated the under-enrollment of neighborhood schools. Later, in May of 2013, Chicago Public Schools closed 50 “under-enrolled” schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides. These are the neighborhoods where today three more high schools are being closed and then consolidated in 2019 into one new high school. Now that Renaissance 2010’s Portfolio School Reform-School Choice plan has been operating for more than a decade, people are paying attention to what have, apparently, been its long-term consequences.
Here is how the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research describes the impact of the 2013 public school closures on Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” The report continues: “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”
The Consortium on School Research continues: “When schools closed, it severed the longstanding social connections that families and staff had with their schools and with one another, resulting in a period of mourning… The intensity of the feelings of loss were amplified in cases where schools had been open for decades, with generations of families attending the same neighborhood school. Losing their closed schools was not easy and the majority of interviewees spoke about the difficulty they had integrating and socializing into the welcoming schools.” “Even though welcoming school staff and students did not lose their schools per se, many also expressed feelings of loss because incorporating a large number of new students required adjustments… Creating strong relationships and building trust in welcoming schools after schools closed was difficult.. Displaced staff and students, who had just lost their schools, had to go into unfamiliar school environments and start anew. Welcoming school communities also did not want to lose or change the way their schools were previously.”
Jitu Brown is a Chicago educator and community organizer. He was also one of the leaders of a 34 day hunger strike in September of 2015—a hunger strike that eventually forced Chicago Public Schools to reopen Dyett High School as the only open-admission public high school in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
When the school reopened in September of 2016, this is what the Chicago Tribune’s Marwa Eltagouri and Juan Perez Jr. reported: “Families living nearby once again have an open-enrollment high school in their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to worry about their children taking buses or trains to far-off schools. And they don’t have to send their kids to privately run charter schools if they want to take honors or Advanced Placement classes. A first day of school at Dyett wasn’t supposed to have happened this fall. But after a yearslong protest by community leaders that included a 34-day hunger strike, Chicago Public Schools reversed its decision to close Dyett at the end of the 2014-15 school year.”
Eltagouri and Perez quote Jitu Brown describing the need for Dyett High School to reopen: “When you go to a middle-class white community you don’t see charter schools, contract schools or alternative schools. You see effective, K-12 systems of education in their neighborhoods. Our children deserve the same.”
Jitu Brown is also the Director of the National Journey for Justice Alliance. Brown addresses the tragedy of school closures in his Forward to a new report, Failing “Brown v Board” published in May 2018 by the Journey for Justice Alliance: “In education, America does everything but equity. Alternative schools, charter schools, contract schools, online schools, credit recovery—schools run by private operators in the basement of churches, abandoned warehouses, storefronts; everything but ensuring that every child has a quality Pre-K through 12th grade system of education within safe walking distance of their homes.”