My hometown of Chicago has touted itself as a progressive city for many years. We’ve stood firm in our position as a sanctuary city and recently moved towards the legalization of marijuana—pushing a social equity initiative to ensure people in blighted areas have skin in the weed game. We even formed a progressive caucus within the city council in 2013.
We also received national attention and praise for gains in academic performance for public school students. And with the city’s recent adoption of universal pre-k and a fairly new funding formula promising to allocate more money to CPS students, it looks like we’re on track for getting public education right. But as we all know, looks can sometimes be deceiving.
In a recent report conducted by brightbeam called “The Secret Shame: How America’s Most Progressive Cities Betray Their Commitment to Educational Opportunities for All,” researchers compared average math and reading proficiency scores among 12 cities whose citizens largely identify as conservative and 12 cities whose citizens mostly identify as progressive. It was found that the conservative cities were actually faring better at closing the opportunity gap between Black, Latino and White students than progressive cities.
While the report doesn’t dive into the cause of these varying outcomes—and even though Chicago wasn’t amongst the most flagrant offenders—this report absolutely serves as another example of “somethin’ ain’t right.”
I’ve Never Needed Data to Prove Injustice Exists, But Here Are the Receipts
As a Black woman who grew up here, I’ve never needed data to prove these injustices exist—I live, see and fight against them every single day. But numbers don’t lie and this report shows the reality. The fact that in the year 2020, there’s a 28-point gap between Latinx and White students in math and reading proficiency, and even worse, a 36-point divide between Black and White students in Chicago—knowing our students are fully capable of learning when given the proper resources and support—isn’t just a symptom of failed progressivism. It’s the longtime perpetuation of White privilege.
As an education advocate and activist, I’m always down for anything and anybody calling these cities out for their inequities and disservice to Black and Brown students—it gives me more ammunition for when I take shots at our racist public school system.
But this report prompted me to dig a little deeper—and what I realized was that this illusively vibrant and blossoming rose that Chicago calls progressivism actually stems from the rock-solid foundations of White privilege and limiting access to good schools.
My colleague, Maureen Kelleher, documented one example of how White privilege works by contrasting the use—or not—of controlled enrollment in Latinx versus White neighborhoods.
In the early 2000s, there was an overcrowding issue at some of the southwest side schools. To address the problem, CPS first implemented a staggered school schedule which meant that students were rolling into the buildings at different times of the day to control the capacity.
When that didn’t work, the district then started busing some of those Latino students to other schools throughout the city, without regard to parent choice, proximity to their home or the school’s academic performance. That practice ended in 2005.
Years later, the issue of overcrowding arose in three schools on the northside. But instead of making those White families endure the same struggles as the Latino families on the southwest side, the city built annexes and new schools that cost millions of dollars in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds. And conversations around controlled enrollment in those schools seem to have come to a halt due to pushback from those families. I’m thinking their tax brackets and skin color had something to do with the silence.
Recent examples of attempted pushout occurred with the infamous Dyett High School hunger strike in 2014 and the National Teachers Academy fight in 2017. In both instances, the community fought back and won when CPS tried to close the only non-selective enrollment high school in Bronzeville, Washington Park and Kenwood areas and convert a high performing, predominantly low-income elementary school to a high school for new South Loop colonizers.
Despite these success stories, overall we’ve seen more than 50 schools in predominantly Black and Brown communities close in the last decade, thousands of teachers of color bear the brunt of CPS’ mass layoffs—not to mention the persistent and underlying issue of deficient teacher diversity—and Black and Brown communities used as pawns in an ongoing political battle between CPS, CTU, city hall and education reform organizations.
All of these examples—and a laundry list of others—are why we’re seeing a decline in enrollment and the quality of education at schools predominantly on the south and west sides and consequently, an exodus of Black families from Chicago.
Our Kids Can’t Wait
Look, our kids can no longer wait on city leadership and CPS to close these gaps—nor can Black, Brown and low-income families continue to suffer from the prioritization of White privilege in Chicago. I’m shedding light on this plight at the upcoming “Our Kids Can’t Wait” education town hall because as I just said, we can no longer afford to wait. If you agree, be there and join the voices of many other Chicagoans telling our leadership to do better.
A version of this article originally appeared on Education Post.