It Was the Best and Worst of Schools: A Tale of Choice in Chicago

Everyone who lives in Chicago for more than a week knows well that our city is really two cities. I lived in one of them—the Chicago of the North and Northwest Sides—for 17 years. That’s the Chicago where public transit can take you just about anywhere, from Montrose Beach in Uptown to a Lincoln Park mansion to an Albany Park strip mall where a Thai restaurant sits next to a Middle Eastern grocery. That’s the Chicago where aldermen fix potholes, supply garbage cans and issue block party permits without batting an eyelash. It’s also the Chicago where the city’s most desirable choice schools—the most popular magnet elementaries and most competitive selective-enrollment high schools—are located. Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released America’s Best and Worst Cities for School Choice, which ranks 30 U.S. cities as favorable or unfavorable toward school choice, based on politics, policy and supply of quality school choices. Chicago just missed the top 10. A ranking of 11 sounds on the money for the Chicago I just described, but I think it’s too high for the one I live in now.

The Other Chicago

Fordham is right that the quantity and quality of school options in Chicago leaves much to be desired. What they don’t say is that the quality school options are geographically concentrated in the Chicago I described above. For the past 11 years I’ve been living in the other Chicago—the Chicago of the South, Southwest and West Sides. While there are many wonderful and often unsung things that go on in my Chicago of today, most people not from here know this Chicago best from TV news reports of shootings. It’s the Chicago where train lines don’t exist and where waiting for bus transfers can take too much time out of your day. It’s the Chicago where aldermen look askance at your block party request when your block is too close to the shooting that happened a month ago. It’s the place city services don’t serve—from police to pothole repair. In this Chicago, good school options are much harder to come by. While I’m fortunate to have a strong neighborhood school three blocks away, only two of the five schools in the area are of high caliber. The last Catholic school in the neighborhood, St. Joseph’s High School, closed in 1996.

Out of Choices

I’ve shared before how we came to the nearest charter school to our home, in the neighboring community of McKinley Park. We know families who are driving nearly 40 miles a day to commute to our school from the far South Side, near the Indiana border. Before we came off the waiting list, we were driving 20 miles a day to a magnet school on the Near North Side of town. Fordham downgraded Chicago’s school choice climate because Illinois caps charters and to date has no voucher program. But to those of us who live here, other questions are more urgent. Here’s one: Why is Mayor Rahm Emanuel planning a new selective enrollment high school on the Near North Side, when qualified top students on the South Side are spending as many as four to six hours round trip to attend magnet schools far outside their neighborhood? And another: Why are so many parents shut out of choice because they don’t know what school options are available and how to apply for them?

We Need a Better System

To create a single, equitable Chicago when it comes to school choice, a good first step would be to adopt a unified enrollment process like  OneApp in New Orleans. Two years ago, I had 16 schools—magnet, charter, out-of-neighborhood, private and Catholic—on a spreadsheet to track open houses, application deadlines and acceptances. A system like OneApp would make that process much simpler and give families in both Chicagos access to the nation’s 11th-best city for school choice. All families, in all parts of Chicago, deserve strong neighborhood schools and quality options for choices their neighborhood schools may not provide. Fordham’s methodology for assessing city politics of choice—a questionnaire to three people—may have missed the shift in the political winds caused by our impending fiscal crisis. Parent groups, the Chicago Teachers Union and others are circling the wagons to protect district-run schools. Even Crain’s Chicago Business called for a  moratorium on new selective (test-in) high schools “coupled with clear and consistent guidelines for improving current schools and opening new ones.” For school choice to remain relevant in Chicago, city and district leaders need to ensure it serves both Chicagos, all Chicago, fairly and well.  
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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