New Research: Corporate Reform and Segregation in Chicago

I came across this article earlier in the summer, and I thought it was one of the best academic pieces I’ve read about school segregation recently. I meant to write about it then, but life intervened as it does. When I was ready to start writing again, I picked up the article, remembered that I enjoyed it, but then realized I was foggy on the details. It was written by researchers at the Chicago Teachers Union, and it covers school segregation in Chicago from 1980-2015 – there’s lots of great/useful analysis. Here’s my best attempt to reconstruct everything:

It starts with two startling demographic trends and basically asks how they could have happened at the same time. So:

  • Black student population in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) declined dramatically: 1981- 240,000 or 60% of all CPS students; 2015- 156,000 students or 39%.
  • Racial segregation in high poverty schools increased: 1980- 38% of Black students attend racially segregated, high-poverty schools; 2015- 53%.

Quick note: the article explicitly focuses on Black-White student segregation. It basically claims that, due to the “overlapping of multiple segregations,” looking at Latinx students is outside the scope of this particular paper, but is nonetheless “crucial to understanding the entirely of segregation in CPS.”

A lot of different factors came together to maintain segregation, but almost all of those factors fit neatly under what would be considered corporate or market-based educational reform. Before diving into the findings, though, here’s key parts of the historical background. I think you’ll see a lot of similarities to other cities:

  • 1980 – Consent Decree: After decades of protest from anti-segregation activists, the city entered into a consent decree with the federal government that included magnet schools, compensatory funding, and integration of school teachers as its primary components.
    • The final plan did not include busing because the Board of Education strongly preferred voluntary desegregation methods over mandatory methods.
  • 1995 – The Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act: Redesigned the superintendent’s role into more of a CEO, gave the mayor full control over school board appointments and allowed the mayor to place schools on probation, which gave the district office more control over school staffing and academic programming.
  • 2001 – School Closures: This is the beginning of a period from 2001-2012 in which 1/4 of highly segregated Black schools were closed or converted to charters. During the same time period, the rate of closure for schools with <75% Black students was roughly 1/20.
  • 2004 – Renaissance 2010: Backed by for-profit education companies and the Commercial Club of Chicago, then-CEO Arne Duncan endorsed the Renaissance 2010 initiative, which included a suite of corporate reforms:
    • a goal to add 100 new schools by 2010 (mostly through charter expansion) and the corresponding closing of “underperforming” schools
    • hundreds of millions of dollars in school construction (that mostly went to selective enrollment/exam schools)
    • a merit-pay system for teacher performance, and an evaluation system that allowed teachers to more easily be rated as “unsatisfactory.”
  • 2009 – Consent Decree Lifted: As in many districts, Chicago’s consent decree was lifted despite falling short of even its modest stated goals.
  • 2013 – More School Closures: CPS closed 50 elementary schools. Again, closures affected Black students overwhelmingly. Of the schools that were closed, 43 served a population of >90% Black students. This was a massive story that is hard to summarize in just a short bullet point.  

You already know where this is going: as corporate policies took hold, segregation increased. And, this was made demonstrably worse after the consent decree was lifted. There’s a lot of great stuff in the article, but here’s what I found most compelling:

1980 (Consent Decree Signed) 1989 2012 2015
Black students in highly segregated, high poverty elementary schools (>90% Black student population & >90% FR Lunch) 38% 45% 60% 53%
Students enrolled in majority White schools (<10% Black student population) 20% 18% 40%

So, how’d this happen exactly? Here’s what’s highlighted in the article:

  • Charter expansion:
    • When charter schools expanded in CPS, students typically moved from a highly segregated public school to a highly segregated charter school, but lost (a) contact with teachers of color and (b) contact with experienced teachers. In 2012, for example, there were 18 charter schools/networks with a student population that was >90% Black and a teacher population that was <15% Black. Meanwhile, also in 2012, a Black student was about 2x as likely as a White student to have a 1st-year teacher (8.9% to 5.3%). That’s a district-wide number. For Black students in charter schools, the likelihood of having a 1st-year teacher was 25%.
    • As cited in the article, a study from the Institute for Metropolitan Opportunity found that charters in Chicago maintained segregation while providing equal or worse educational experiences for students of color. Another study found that student expulsion rates were 10x higher in charter schools than in traditional public schools, potentially contributing to the declining number of Black students in CPS.    
  • School closures:
    • Closure repeatedly displaced students that already were attending segregated, under-resourced schools. Most students ended up at schools similar to the ones they left and, without funding or any intentional plan for desegregation, the receiving schools essentially became next on the list for closure. Imagine that as an elementary student or a parent of one. And, this is all under the banner of parental choice.
    • As noted in another recent study, resegregation has been linked to an increase in dropout rate (check out the Chalkbeat summary here). The same was true in Chicago – after the closings, the Black student population in CPS dropped by 12%, partly explaining the drop from 60% to 53% in that first line above.
    • Update: After a moratorium on school closings, CPS just last week released a list of rules that it may use to guide future closings or mergers. This includes one rare, but notable exception to the norm: the planned merger (for the 2018-2019 school year) of a predominantly White school and a predominantly Black and low income school (the Odgen-Jenner merger).
  • Selective enrollment schools:
    • Remember all that money from Renaissance 2010? You won’t be surprised to know that it didn’t go to the high-poverty public schools that served a majority-Black student population. Instead, magnet schools “received twice the funding of segregated neighborhood schools” and the city also spent a lot of money building selective enrollment schools in White neighborhoods. It created what the article describes as an “educational caste system”: in 2016, White students made up about 6% of CPS as a whole, but were 25% of the students attending selective enrollment schools. This contributed to the increase in line 2 above, of students in predominately White schools.

If you can believe it, there’s more in the article, including a great section on the dual segregation of Black students and Black teachers, which I didn’t have the space to write about here. I highly recommend a full read.

Like any good study, this one offers a lot of data to support a simple/straightforward point: “corporate education reforms have worked to reinforce segregation” in Chicago. For me, the article highlights how the misnomer “school choice” can be so insidious: it allows corporate reformers to basically claim persistence of segregation is the result of individual, well, choices and outside the boundaries of broader social policy. It’s not. In Chicago, as elsewhere, segregation is fueled by racially-motivated state and local policies, policies that work so well to re-segregate that they appear to be deliberately set up for exactly that purpose.

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