Illinois Legislature Begins to Repair the Damage of Chicago School Reform

The detour into what we call corporate, test-based public school accountability began in Chicago. It involved an explicit effort to disempower unionized schoolteachers. And underneath it all was a corporate strategy that made assumptions about the wishes and needs of the city’s parents without consulting them.

According to Steven Ashby and Robert Bruno: “In November 1994, the Republicans gained a majority in the Illinois General Assembly… As 1995 opened, the new legislative session created a frenzy of anti-Chicago teacher ideas… After Mayor (Richard M.) Daley’s reelection to a third term in April, Republican leaders urged him to present a plan for school reform… Daley and the Republicans promptly negotiated a broader takeover of the Chicago school system. The plan gave the mayor a large measure of control over the system, which he had long sought… The new law did away with the School Board Nominating Commission, permitting Daley to handpick his own five-person school board. The position of superintendent was also eliminated, and Daley now had the sole power to appoint a school ‘chief executive officer.’ Further weakening the influence of the Chicago Teachers Union and its role in reform, at the mayor’s insistence the law also amended the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act… by banning teachers strikes for eighteen months, prohibiting bargaining over class size, layoffs, staffing and teacher assignments, eliminating seniority as a factor in filling teacher vacancies and limiting teacher rights to file grievances.” (The Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike, Cornell University. Press, 2016, pp. 28-29)

I have been tracking school reform since the mid 1990s, and my clipping file on the Chicago Public Schools is larger than any other. First the new plan disempowered Chicago’s groundbreaking local school councils, which sought to engage parents, teachers and the community in the life of the neighborhood schools.  Then came Renaissance 2010, the massive experiment in the expansion of charter schools and simultaneous closure of the neighborhood schools identified by standardized test scores as “failing.”

Rick Perlstein describes the launch of Renaissance 2010 by the city’s corporate establishment: “Travel back with me, then, to July of 2003, when the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago—comprised of the chairman of the board of McDonald’s, the CEOs of Exelon Energy and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two top executives of the same Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, two partners at top-international corporate law firms, one founder of an investment bank, one of a mutual fund, and the CEO of a $220.1 billion asset-management fund: twelve men, all but one of them white—published ‘Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools.’ (which declared:) ‘Chicago should have at least 100 charter schools… These would be new schools operating outside the established school system and free of many of the bureaucratic or union-imposed constraints that now limit the flexibility of regular public schools.’ Lo, like pedagogical kudzu, the charters came forth: forty-six of them, with names like ‘Infinity Math, Science, and Technology High School,’ ‘Rickover Naval Academy High School,’ ‘Aspira Charter School,’ and ‘DuSable Leadership Academy of Betty Shabazz International Charter School.'”

Since 1995, Chicago’s mayors and their appointed school boards have experimented in ways that damaged the city’s neighborhood schools, many of them shut down under a “portfolio school reform” plan that operated according to a theory similar to a business portfolio—eliminate the “failing” investments and buy more new, shiny charter schools. The mayor’s appointed board of education launched something called student-based budgeting at the same time the new charters were being launched and marketed with glowing promises. When students left for a charter, the schools which lost enrollment lost funding, class sizes exploded, nurses were laid off, libraries were shuttered, and substitute teachers were even hard to find as the schools declined. A downward spiral began to accelerate, and at the end of 2013, the school district’s mayoral-appointed board closed nearly 50 schools, over 80 percent serving African American students.

The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across 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.” “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.”

But something has begun to change in this spring of 2021. Twenty-six years since an Illinois legislature launched Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 1995 school reform plan, another Illinois Legislature has begun to turn turn away from corporate school reform.

In April it was reported that, “Defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill… restoring the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain with the city over a wide range of issues, including class size, layoffs and the duration of the school year… The measure repeals Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which has restricted the CTU’s bargaining power since 1995, when state lawmakers gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the school district after several long strikes.”

In May, Mayor Lightfoot’s appointed board of education terminated its long contract with the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) to turnaround the city’s so-called “failing” public schools. School “turnaround” was a central part of the ideology of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and Arne Duncan’s 2009 Race to the Top program. School districts were required under federal law to identify the bottom 5 percent of public schools according to their standardized test scores and to turn them around quickly. Chicago turned many of its so-called “failing” schools over to AUSL, a city-wide consultant.  Chalkbeat‘s Cassie Walker Burke explains this history: “Tapped in 2006 to steer improvements at some of the city’s lowest-performing schools, the Academy for Urban School Leadership’s roster currently includes 31 schools on the South and West Sides that predominantly serve students from low-income families. Of the network’s schools, 20 campuses—or 65%—were in good standing last school year and had one of Chicago’s higher school ratings… but the remaining 11 were flagged for remediation or probation under that system.” Walker Burke describes Bogdana Chkoumbova, Chicago’s chief schools officer, explaining why school district leaders have chosen to terminate AUSL management of the schools: “She said that in school-level meetings about the transition plan, parents and educators said they hoped to see district takeover improve school culture and climate and prioritize restorative justice practices. Participants also said they hoped phasing schools back to district oversight would yield better collaboration with other schools and school leaders.”

Then last Wednesday, June 16, the Illinois House voted to approve a bill already passed by the Illinois Senate to begin the process of restoring an elected school board to the Chicago Public Schools. The Sun-TimesRachel Hinton reports: “Chicago will soon have an elected school board thanks to a bill passed by members of the Illinois House Wednesday over objections from Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The House voted 70 to 41 to advance the bill, handing another loss to Lightfoot, who has been vocal in her opposition to the prospect of an elected board. The bill will soon head to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has voiced support for an elected board and is expected to sign the legislation… House Bill 2908, as amended, would create a 21-seat board in January 2025, initially split between 11 mayoral appointees—including the board president—and 10 elected members.  Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, said the bill isn’t perfect but ‘this is a down payment on democracy.’… In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union said the vote ‘represents the will of the people, and after more than a quarter of a century, moves our district forward in providing democracy and a voice to students and their families'”

Obviously the restoration of the fully elected board of education will be a long process fraught with several years of complicated politics. But there has been real concern in Chicago about the suppression of the voices of parents and teachers and the locus of power in Chicago in the powerful corporate establishment bent on pursuing ideological school reform for over twenty-five years.

In a profound 2018 book exploring the widespread closure of neighborhood schools during the years of mayoral governance, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of school closures across Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—the meaning for teachers, grandparents, and students. Ewing contrasts their love for storied community institutions with the technocratic arguments of school district officials: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

Stunning New Book Contextualizes Tragedy of 2013 School Closures in Chicago’s Hyper-Segregated History

Eve Ewing’s new book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, explores the blindness, deafness, and heartlessness of technocratic, “portfolio school reform”* as it played out in 50 school closings in Chicago at the end of the school year in 2013. After months of hearings, the Chicago Public Schools didn’t even send formal letters to the teachers, parents and students in the schools finally chosen for closure.  People learned which schools had finally been shut down when the list was announced on television.

Eve Ewing, a professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and a former teacher in one of the closed schools, brings her training as a sociologist to explore this question: “But why do people care about these failing schools?” (p. 13)  In four separate chapters, Ewing examines the question from different perspectives: (1) the meaning for the community of the closure of Dyett High School and the hunger strike that reopened the school; (2) the history of segregation in Chicago as part of the Great Migration, followed by the intensification of segregation in thousands of public housing units built and later demolished in the Bronzeville neighborhood; (3) the narratives of community members, teachers, parents and students about the meaning of their now-closed schools in contrast to the narrative of the portfolio school planners at Chicago Public Schools; and (4) the mourning that follows when important community institutions are destroyed.

We hear an English teacher describing the now-closed school where she had taught: “I never considered us as a failing school or failing teachers or failing students. I felt like pretty much everyone in that building was working really hard for those kids…. Trying to push them forward as far as they could go.” (p. 135)

And we hear Rayven Patrick, an eighth grader speaking about the importance of Mayo elementary school at the public hearing which preceded the school’s closure: “Most of my family have went to Mayo. My grandma attended. My mother, my aunt. I came from a big family. The Patricks are known in Mayo. Like, we have been going there for so long. Over the years I have watched lots of students graduate, and they were able to come back to their teachers and tell them how high school has been going. Most of them are in college now, and I see them come to the few teachers that are left at Mayo and tell them of their experience of college and high school. This year I will graduate. And most of the students at Mayo… They’re family to me.  Little sisters and little brothers. I walk through the hallway, and every kid knows who I am. I’m able to speak to them, and I honestly, I wanna be able to watch them graduate.” (pp. 108-109)

Ewing also shares the justification for the 50 school closures by Barbara Byrd-Bennett, then Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed school district CEO: “But for too long, children in certain parts of our city have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom because they are trapped in underutilized schools. These underutilized schools are also under-resourced.” (p. 4)

Throughout the book, teachers, students, parents, and grandparents point out the irony that Byrd-Bennett has criticized their now-closed school for being under-resourced.  She is herself the person with enough power to have changed the funding formula that left some schools with ever-diminishing resources. Community members also complain again and again that at the same time neighborhood public schools are being shut down, the school district has been encouraging rapid growth in the number of charter schools.

But Ewing, the sociologist, also examines the justification read at the school closure hearing by Brittany Meadows, the Chicago Public Schools Portfolio Planner.  Here is just a short section of Meadows’s explanation: “To understand the enrollment efficiency range of a facility, Chicago Public Schools utilizes its space utilization standards which are located in your binder at Tab 14. The enrollment efficiency range is plus or minus 20% of the facility’s ideal enrollment.  For elementary school buildings, the ideal enrollment is defined as the number of allotted homerooms multiplied by 30…  As such, the enrollment efficiency range of the Mayo facility is tween 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.  This number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.” (p. 100)

Ewing responds to Meadows’ presentation: “Meadows closes with the language of logic: ‘This number is below the enrollment efficiency range’….  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 rate, 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 (teacher observations, for instance), which are seen as overly subjective or unreliable. These quantifiable facts are also seen as a necessity—perhaps an imperfect measure, but a needed force for decision making….” (p. 101) (Emphasis in the original.)

Not only Ewing’s chapter about the Bronzeville community’s grief for its closed schools but also the entire book portrays the enormity of the historic mistake of technocratic, top-down school reform in Chicago. You must read Ghosts in the Schoolyard to hear the sadness of the children and their families and the despair of the teachers.  At the end of her story, Ewing wonders: “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (pp. 158-159)

*The think tank that promotes portfolio school reform is the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Under portfolio school reform, a school district manages traditional neighborhood schools and charter schools like a stock portfolio—opening new schools all the time and closing so-called “failing” schools. CRPE says that portfolio school reform is a “problem solving framework” that operates as a cycle: “give families choice; give schools autonomy; assess school performance; schools improve or get intervention; and expand or replace schools.”