CPS CEO Pedro Martinez

Stop Pretending Tweaking Selective Enrollment Will Get Kids Equity

Last night, I finally got around to watching the video Chicago Public Schools released back in March to explain its proposed options for changing how students are admitted to selective enrollment schools. Take a look for yourself:

CPS leaders discuss possible changes to selective enrollment admissions.

True to form, Chicago Public Schools wants us to think they are all about equity, when in fact they are, at best, barely scratching the surface of creating more equity across the district.  

Here’s an example. In the video, CEO Pedro Martinez asserts:

“Improving the selection process for our selective enrollment schools is a big step forward toward helping every student reach their potential, ensuring every student in every neighborhood receives a world-class education.”

Reality Check: Selective Enrollment Affects Very Few Students

Are you kidding me? According to Chalkbeat, about 15,700 students attend selective enrollment high schools. This is only about 15% of all high school students in the district. When it comes to helping every student reach their potential, tinkering with selective enrollment is peanuts.

Should something be done to increase equity in selective enrollment admissions? Sure. The current system is stacked in favor of children from more advantaged families.

The current system of high school admissions reserves 30 percent of seats for the highest-scoring students, regardless of socio-economic status. In the video, CPS tells us that 73% of those seats go to students in the top two socio-economic tiers. Then, lower-scoring students in those tiers get a chance to be admitted from within their tier. This chart of cut scores shows how this works out in practice.

Of the two options currently under discussion, I prefer the proposal to simply divide all the available seats evenly across the four socioeconomic tiers and fill each quarter with the highest-scoring students in each tier. If you can figure out how to register (I couldn’t!) you can take their poll on the options.

But honestly, this is all beside the point.

While Some Folks Play the System, Most Kids Just Ride the Bus

Admissions to selective enrollment high schools create a classic Hunger Games situation—high demand, limited supply, advantaged families looking to maintain their advantage by working their networks to land coveted admissions for their children, including the high-profile example of former Gov. Bruce Rauner pulling strings to get one of his children into Walter Payton.

Meanwhile, children of families with less wealth and clout go on about their business in a segregated city.

Every fall, thousands of new ninth-graders embark on long commutes because our city’s leaders can’t—or won’t—figure out how to make sure there are quality high school choices in every corner of the city. Over the years, I’ve seen young people from my own neighborhood, Back of the Yards, get accepted to faraway schools like Northside College Prep and Lane Tech, start, and then leave within weeks because the commute is just too draining.

Meanwhile, every spring, thousands of children across Chicago quietly see their hopes of attending a selective enrollment high school dashed. For many of them, there is no backup option that truly meets their needs. 

Meanwhile, Neighborhood Schools Face Budget Cuts

More from CEO Martinez: “While we believe that improving these policies are important [sic], I do want to elevate the strength and quality of our neighborhood schools and our continued commitment to ensuring all students have access to a high-quality school option.”

And what is the district doing to neighborhood schools right now? Cutting lots of their budgets.

What about all that emergency pandemic money to support schools in a time of crisis? CPS hasn’t spent much of it.

Unbelievable. Except it’s totally believable.

Please stop trying to distract us with talk of equity while taking critical resources away from thousands of pandemic-stricken, learning-deprived children. CPS has no business cutting budgets while sitting on pandemic emergency funds. 

This is no time to try launching an equity conversation by offering a handful more seats in a handful of high schools to a select group of poor kids of color. Now’s the time to go big on equity, CPS. At a minimum, you can start by allocating pandemic relief funds to school budgets to hold every school harmless while you figure out a real equity strategy.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez
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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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