Protesting standardized testing abuse in the Chicago Public Schools, Bob Simpson
Given what is coming toward us in the Donald Trump/Betsy DeVos administration, one might be tempted to join Chicago’s democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel as he congratulates himself over his positive influence on the city’s public schools. However, those of us who have lived under Emanuel are suffering the consequences of atrocious education policies. The fundamental educational models of both Emanuel and the Trump/DeVos team are based in the same narrative: education in neighborhoods of color is broken, and can only be fixed by outside saviors with a clever master plan. But, be wary of rich and powerful folks with plans to save the day!
In a recent op-ed Emanuel rightfully observes the folly of the school voucher programs Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos advocates. Overall, private schools don’t perform as well as public schools, and students in need, in particular, are injured by vouchers, which drain money from school systems. But Emanuel ignores how voucher programs are harmful for the same reason that his school choice programs are harmful: they destabilize public schools and their students’ education (disproportionately impacting students of color and those in poverty) while providing a separate, unhelpful alternative to the vast majority of students (disproportionately kids of color who live in poverty) who participate.
On its face, school choice is supposed to be a system in which parents can select among a variety of quality school options. Any semblance of authentic choice in Chicago, however, has been directly undermined by an educational world where “choice” means that a small group of handpicked elites chooses, and community voices are silenced.
In 1988, after decades of struggle, parents of color in Chicago won power over schools through legislation creating Local School Councils (LSCs), which are entirely elected by the parents, communities and educators at a particular school. A council consists of a majority of parents with educator and community representation. At the high school level, students can also elect representatives to the council. LSCs have decisionmaking power over principal selection and evaluation, use of certain school funds, and direction of school goals and programming. Monthly meetings are public and held at a time chosen by council members.
Emanuel—and Mayor Daley before him—pushed for a massive transfer of power in schools away from communities and parents and into the hands of private operators. Every single new school opened or turned around in the name of increasing choice has disbanded the LSC and installed an unelected board. The Chicago Public Schools are led by an unelected school board appointed entirely by Emanuel. Board members are not Chicago Public Schools (CPS) parents or educators, but are largely elite funders, including private contractors, the school's’ debt holders, and Emanuel’s mayoral campaign contributors. Their monthly public meetings are held during the school day making it difficult for students and educators to attend.
School choice advocates commonly make the argument that charter schools improve access to better education for students of color who live in poverty. In Chicago, the exact opposite has occurred. Northwestern university researcher Dr. Mary Pattillo found that parents in both neighborhood and charter schools did not feel empowered, nor that they had much choice.
My former students say that the charter schools they have attended downplay civic engagement and empowerment in favor of working to improve individual test scores.
And yet, even with additional private resources, charter schools continue to lag behind or perform no better on standardized tests than their neighborhood counterparts. The President of the Chicago Principals Association, Troy Laraviere, found that CPS officials changed charter school data to improve perceptions of school performance.
Charters in Chicago have turned to a marketing approach to try to build membership and influence. Recently, CPS central office and Noble Street Charter Network were caught stealing private student information for use in Noble’s marketing campaign. The CPS Board of Education imposed no penalty on Noble.
The Chicago mayor proudly points to his policy work around principal training. This seems like a strange choice as Emanuel’s 2012 handpicked CEO of schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, is facing jail time for accepting bribes. She shifted principal training contracts to a provider who, in addition to being her former employer, had assaulted students and used racial slurs. Chicago Public School is currently having difficulty attracting and retaining principals. At the school where I substitute teach, we currently do not have a principal at all.
The 2012 Chicago neighborhood school closings were the largest in the nation’s history, despite wide opposition. The closings were based not on school performance, but on the city’s claim that the schools were not crowded enough. Despite protests by thousands of students and parents, and no real plan for students to safely attend new schools, the closings were approved. The cost of the closings was far more than was projected.
Even in places where the schools have not been closed outright, families face depleted school options. Round after round of massive cuts has meant that students lose the stability of a consistent teaching staff, along with the quality support programs that help them through trauma and difficult experiences. In the last several rounds of cuts, schools lost staff and teachers despite increases or no change in student enrollment. I think of this each week as I read the dozen or so messages from my former students at Brighton Park Elementary School. They have great teachers left at the school, but who is running the trauma writing groups or the literary magazine that I led in my classroom?
Emanuel’s representatives are currently undertaking a campaign to “streamline” special education by removing support for students with disabilities (despite being in direct violation of federal law). Data from Raise Your Hand, an independent CPS parent organization identified 84 percent of schools as receiving special education cuts. A survey by the Chicago Teachers Union showed that 70 percent of schools no longer have the funds to adequately meet students’ needs.
Even as Emanuel says “mission accomplished,” Chicago schools are facing $215 million in cuts on top of the multiple rounds of deep cuts we have faced over the past year. Emanuel continues to cultivate his national media image while the children under his authority suffer. Chicago education is in a crisis that Emanuel and school choice advocates helped create. But it is not good enough to stop them—we must build a strong, positive education system for all of our students.
Here’s what we must do:
Return decisionmaking power and real choice to communities.
- Fight for an elected Board of Education
- Re-establish Local School Councils in all schools
- Add student members to all LSCs and create a student leadership program that will develop student policymakers in every school
- Develop alumni networks to advise policymakers at the district level. Focus especially on students who attended high-need schools.
Align resource distribution with community needs and educational best practice.
- Determine the basic rights afforded all students (i.e. a teacher in every classroom, toilet paper and basic supplies, clean classrooms, access to healthy food, basic health care and recess time, a safe commute to and from school, etc.)
- Establish a “students first” policy where no bank or creditor gets paid before students’ basic needs are met
- Ask debt holders to forgive district debt so students have access to educational opportunities
Create a public education system that supports students.
- Fight for “Grow Your Own” programs that prepare educators and principals from communities of color and poverty
- Teach a real (un)Common Core of necessary tools for surviving this society, including mental health and self-care education, civic engagement, politics, protest and activism.
While Emanuel and DeVos and Trump fight each other over who gets to dictate the direction of the education system, let’s do what we can to develop and grow our own community visions for educational justice—visions in which we lead rather than follow our oppressors.
Xian Franzinger Barrett is a stay-at-home parent who previously taught Writing, Sexual Education, Law, History, and Japanese Language and Cultures in the Chicago Public Schools, and received numerous teaching awards, including being selected as a 2009-2010 U.S. Department of Education Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow. He is a founding member of EduColor and Progressive Education Fellow for Chicago.