The Right Choice: Keeping Chicago’s Public School Options Open

May 31, 2024 3:09:55 PM


The Right Choice: Keeping Chicago’s Public School Options Open

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, my parents chose my schools based on what they felt was best for me, not simply the "best" school by general standards. That personal experience shapes my view of today's educational landscape, where "school choice" now includes not only school vouchers and charter schools but also a variety of traditional public school options.

Expanding options empowers parents to tailor education to their children's needs, considering factors like location, programs, culture, test results, and other outcomes. Despite this, proposed policies by the Chicago Board of Education seek to limit choices, risking the educational diversity that benefits our community.

Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) website currently states, "Families are not restricted to schools that are close to their home and CPS offers a wide variety of elementary school program options outside of their [zoned] neighborhood school."

Forty-four percent of elementary school students attend schools other than their zone school, an increase of over four percent over the past four years. For high schools, “Students can apply to attend any high school program at any school.” About 75% of CPS families choose to send their students to a school outside their assigned zone; for Black families, the number climbs to a whopping 83%. The overwhelming majority of CPS families choose a public high school for their children not dictated by a CPS map.

At the elementary level, CPS offers ten programs falling within four broad categories: Charter, Choice, Selective Enrollment, and Service Leadership (as none of these programs or categories use the moniker “Neighborhood Schools,” it’s unclear which schools would be considered as such).

For high schoolers, CPS provides seven types of schools: Career and Technical Education, Charter, Citywide, Contract, International Baccalaureate, Neighborhood, and Service Leadership. Within these categories, CPS offers arts, job training, college prep, STEM, single-gender, and military schools, among others—providing significant public school choices. This is a very good thing for students and their families, but it’s now coming under fire.

A resolution passed by the Chicago Board of Education to “transition away from privatization and admissions/enrollment policies and approaches that further stratification and inequity in CPS and drive student enrollment away from neighborhood schools” is confounding and contradictory. Such a move could result in public schools not being classified as Neighborhood Schools, ending up with fewer students, supports, and resources, or closing altogether.

Their decision might destabilize schools like Whitney Young Magnet (ranked among the nation's best by U.S. News & World Report), Urban Prep (with a 100% college admission rate), Wendell Phillips (Illinois State Basketball Champions), and ChiArts (whose scholar-artists' performances have reached millions globally). These schools are Selective Enrollment, Charter, Career & Technical Education, and Contract, respectively, and they have low-income, majority-minority student populations from neighborhoods across Chicago.

Instead of accusing these schools of causing "further stratification and inequity," CPS should elevate and emulate their best aspects. Improving struggling schools shouldn't involve undermining successful ones. CPS can't bring some schools up by pulling others down.

Although CPS claims they don’t intend to harm non-neighborhood Schools, its actions tell a different story. The district has already cut budgets, limited school bus service, and lobbied in Springfield against having the authority to modify admissions policies for selective enrollment schools. CPS also continues its efforts to close or weaken charter schools.

On the other hand, CPS currently operates a school-choice program whose breadth of accessibility outpaces other large school districts like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami-Dade. CPS frequently (and rightfully) touts the various successes of its “choice” schools. And since 2018, CPS has invested over $5 million in GoCPS, the high-school application program that matches students to schools (with an algorithm as mysterious as TikTok’s). In short, CPS currently operates and promotes a vast public-school choice system but simultaneously argues that that same system leads to inequity and privatization and deflects resources from neighborhood schools. Somebody, please make it make sense.

Given this, decisions by Mayor Brandon Johnson’s handpicked Board of Education warrant cautious treatment. In a few months, Chicagoans will elect half of the Board of Education members; two years later, all members will be elected.

Major policy adjustments should wait until the fully-elected School Board is in place. The Illinois House was right to pass HB303, which prevents significant changes to selective enrollment schools and extends the moratorium on school closures until 2027, when the elected Board is seated. 

Illinois State Senate President Don Harmon should not have trusted Mayor Johnson’s assurances that schools will not be closed or underfunded. Johnson's promises lacked transparency and contradicted actions already taken, making legislative oversight essential to protect all CPS students' interests. Instead of being swayed by Johnson's last-minute plea to trust him, Harmon should have listened to his colleagues in the General Assembly and called the bill for a vote by the Senate so Governor Pritzker could have signed it into law.

Chicago's educational future depends on maintaining diverse and high-quality school options. The current CPS trajectory risks further enrollment decline as parents lose agency in choosing public schools for their children and lose faith in CPS’s ability to provide quality education. To ensure CPS offers the best opportunities for all students, parents should be able to continue to choose from various public school programs, and any critical changes should await a fully elected school board.

Policies that limit the agency of parents striving to provide the best education for their children do a disservice to families. What’s more, such initiatives contradict what the data and Chicago parents demonstrate: a desire to choose their child’s school from myriad public school options.

A Public Agenda report found that most Chicagoans believe students should be able to choose their public schools. This finding is most pronounced at the high school level, where 93% of students submitted GoCPS applications.

Instead of succumbing to policies that narrow the richness of Chicago's diverse educational landscape, let’s advocate for strategies that uphold choice and quality in public education. Every child deserves the opportunity to thrive. Our responsibility is to ensure CPS continues giving them that chance. One way to do so is by choice.

Tim King

Tim King is the founder of Urban Prep Academies.

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