Rahm’s and Arne’s Legacies Continue to Damage Chicago Public Schools, Especially in Black Neighborhoods

Corporate school reform was launched in Chicago back in 2004 in the form of a glittery new promise named Renaissance 2010.  By 2010, the school district said, it would close so-called “failing” public schools and replace them with one hundred new schools. Many of the new schools would be charter schools. There was a corporate flavor to every detail beginning with the formal announcement of the new scheme—at the Commercial Club of Chicago.

In Chicago, however, corporate school reform did not end in 2010. It continues to this day.

In Ghosts in the Schoolyard, her profound (2018) history of Chicago school reform, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing contrasts the widespread community grief that has followed school closures—as parents, children, and teachers understood and loved their schools as community and even family institutions, while schools CEO, Barbara Byrd Bennett and her staff brought a technocratic corporate mentality.  Ewing quotes the Chicago Public Schools portfolio planner, Brittany Meadows, justifying (at a formal 2013 hearing) the reason for closing Mayo Elementary School: “(T)he enrollment efficiency range of the Mayo facility is between 552 and 828 students. As I stated, the enrollment of Mayo as of the 20th day of attendance for the 2012-2013 school year is 408. The number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 100)

Ewing dissects the technocratic logic of the school reform imposed on Chicago by Arne Duncan, who ran the district before he became U.S. Secretary of Education and later Rahm Emanuel and a succession of mayoral-appointed school district CEOs: “Meadows closes with the language of logic: ‘This number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.’ Meadows presents this data using an ‘if… then’ statement, explaining the calculation of the metrics without explaining the validity of the constructs involved. In this manner the school closure proposal appears natural and inevitable. Well, of course, since this number is below the enrollment efficiency range, this is what happens next… The logic implied in Meadows’s statement reflects a certain view of reality: the idea that the most important aspects of the educational enterprise can easily be captured in no-nonsense, non-debatable numeric facts. These numbers are taken to be unbiased and a truer representation of what happens in a school building than more qualitative measures… which are seen as overly subjective or unreliable.” (Emphasis is in the original.) (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 101)

Corporate school reform in Chicago, while claiming to be neutral and based on data, has always operated with racist implications. Ewing provides the numbers: “Of the students who would be affected by the closures, 88 percent were black; 90 percent of the schools were majority black, and 71 percent had mostly black teachers—a big deal in a country where 84 percent of public school teachers are white.”(Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Besides Chicago’s school closures, which culminated in 2013, when 50 neighborhood schools were shut down, corporate school reform in Chicago has featured something called “student based budgeting.”  A new report from Roosevelt University sociologist, Stephanie Farmer now documents that Student Based Budgeting Concentrates Low Budget Schools in Chicago’s Black Neighborhoods.

Farmer explains: “In 2014, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) adopted a system-wide Student Based Budgeting model for determining individual school budgets… Our findings show that CPS’ putatively color-blind Student Based Budgeting reproduces racial inequality by concentrating low-budget public schools almost exclusively in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods…  Since the 1990s, the Chicago Board of Education (CBOE) has adopted various reforms to make Chicago Public Schools work more like a business than a public good.  CBOE’s school choice reform of the early 2000s created a marketplace of schools by closing neighborhood public schools to make way for new types of schools, many of which were privatized charter schools.”

Farmer contrasts the way Chicago Public Schools allocated funding across its schools in the past with what happened after Student Based Budgeting was introduced in 2014: “CPS central office provided each school an automatic allocation of teachers, school professionals, and staff positions. The cost of these professionals was covered by the central office, and not individual school budgets. This guaranteed that every school would have a baseline of education professionals needed to operate the school.  Under the new Student Based Budgeting model, CBOE ended the automatic allocation. Instead, schools would receive a stipend based on per student headcounts. Central office would continue to cover the cost of the principal, one clerk and one counselor, but automatic funding for eight school positions was eliminated. Principals had to use individual school stipends to pay for teacher salaries, educational professionals, and staff positions.”

Farmer explains: “Critics of Student Based Budgeting are concerned that it treats every kid the same, regardless of income level… Critics are also concerned that Student Based Budgeting forces low enrolled schools to cut their programs, enriching classes, teachers and support staff… to compensate for the loss of monetary support.  The diminished learning environment pushes parents to seek out other school options.”

In other words, School Based Budgeting causes a downward spiral.

External, non-school related factors also affect Chicago’s school choice marketplace, and Student Based Budgeting exacerbates these other very complex dynamics. Farmer explains: “Our research shows that Student Based Budgeting ignores the unevenness of neighborhood distress, which contributes to declining enrollments. Declining school enrollments are not just a result of student-consumers choosing the best school-product… Many lower-income and predominantly Black neighborhoods are experiencing distress caused by: a low wage labor market and poverty; cuts to the public sector (i.e. public housing and school closures); displacement caused by gentrification and growing housing unaffordability; and crime coupled with racially motivated policing.  These factors form the context in which approximately 250,000 Black people have moved out of Chicago between 2000 and 2016, according to the U.S.Census.”

Farmer concludes: “Instead of giving schools the ‘freedom to flourish,’ Student Based Budgeting sets up schools for the ‘freedom to fail.’…Classrooms are overcrowded, where there are over 40 students in elementary classrooms, because there is not enough money in the budget to reduce class size by hiring additional teachers. Small schools are also forced to pare down their curriculum to the bare bones and cut enriching programs like in the arts, foreign languages, and training in professional trades. Many low budget schools are concentrated in the neighborhoods that also have the highest level of student mobility rates, where students move from one school to another due to factors like evictions or homelessness. Schools with starved budgets are unable to provide institutional supports for these students.”

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is currently negotiating a contract, and the teachers voted last week to authorize a strike in mid-October if the negotiations break down. But the issue is not salaries. Chicago education reporter for WBEZ (NPR) Sarah Karp reports that CTU President Jesse Sharkey “and other union leaders have emphasized that the compensation package will still leave office clerks and teacher aides… who are CTU members—making such low wages their children will qualify for free and reduced lunch… Sharkey repeated Thursday night that the contract fight is about more than pay. Two of the big unresolved issues have to do with staffing and class size limits. The union had started out by insisting that the board of education agree to lower staff-to-student ratios for nurses, social workers and special education case managers. They also wanted a promise in the contract that more librarians would be hired.”

It is impossible to know from outside the district how many of the issues in the contract negotiations can be traced back to Student Based Budgeting and the rest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s corporate school reform legacy.  What is clear is that Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who is, by law, responsible for Chicago’s public schools, has a huge challenge to undo years of corporate school reform policies that have undermined the operation of the nation’s third largest public school district. It is a legacy fraught with racial overtones.