When It Comes to the School Funding Lawsuit, Please Don’t Play the “Are they playing the Race Card” Card

It bothers me that whenever anyone has the courage and fortitude to publicly call out racial discrimination, their comments and actions have to undergo a basic test of validity; namely the “Are they playing the race card” test. It always bothers me. And it bothers me that Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and the five parents who joined the district in filing a civil rights lawsuit against the state’s school funding system have had to field versions of that nonsense question.

If you find yourself asking, “Are they playing the race card”, try to remember that the question itself is a kind of microaggression that serves to invalidate and delegitimize the complaint itself and the complainants. The reality is that race is a very real factor in everyday American life. That’s why we have anti-discrimination laws on the books in the first place. And any case in which people protected under those civil rights statutes perceive that they have been illegally discriminated against, they have full rights under the law to bring their complaint before the court to be heard.

There are compelling facts in this case:

  • Chicago Public Schools educate 20% of the children in the state of Illinois, but receive only 15% of the state’s school funding allocation.
  • Since 2009, the state share of funding to CPS has decreased by 8%. Over the same time period, the share of funding for all other districts has increased by 45%.
  • Under current plans, Illinois will spend $2,437 per student in districts outside of Chicago and only $32 per student for students inside the city.
  • And then there is the glaring fact that the district is 90% Black and Latino.

If you have been in America longer than 20 minutes, these facts have to cause you to at least be open to two simple questions:

  1. If the district were whiter, would these realities perpetuate for as long as they have?
  2. Does the system have a disproportionately negative impact on Black and Latino students?

Answers to those questions might vary widely. But the questions themselves should be the source of the public debate and the legal arguments. But, when one starts out by asking “Are they playing the race card”, the conversation moves from a debate over the merits of the complaint to a debate over the legitimacy of the complaint. And that is disrespectful to the plaintiffs in this case and families throughout the city.

If you don’t think that Illinois’ school funding system violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act, that is perfectly fine. But, there are at least five families (and I get the feeling that there are quite a lot more) who are legally protected under that Act and believe that the system has illegally discriminated against them. And they have every right to bring a complaint before the court of law and, frankly, before the court of public opinion. So, members of the public and members of the press should avoid raising questions of legitimacy.

Tell me that there is no racial discrimination in the Illinois’ school funding system. Answer the charge as it has been made. But, don’t try to delegitimize it by playing the “Are they playing the race card” card.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.