Why Donald Trump isn’t the biggest threat to the Black community on the 2016 ballot in Chicago

Let me tell you why Donald Trump is not the biggest threat to the Black community on the 2016 ballot in Chicago.  There is a seemingly harmless ballot question aimed at limiting access to high quality school options in Chicago that I believe presents a much more real danger in the long run.  Let me explain.

First of all, while it does seem clear to many people in the Black community that a world with President Trump would present a number of challenges for the Black community, we have to acknowledge the fact that there is little chance that Donald Trump is actually going to win the presidency.  Sure the media is spinning up a close race that is going to come down to the wire (remember that most of these “news outlets” are connected to television stations that are going to sell a bunch of ads during their “wall to wall” coverage of the election).  But, most of the people who have experience working in presidential elections are confident that Hillary Clinton will become the first woman President of the United States.  That is exactly what a very experienced GOP political strategist told Chicagoan David Alexrod on a recent podcast.

But, let’s say for instance that the impossible does happen on Tuesday night and Trump wins.  What are the threats that we face from his presidency?  Sure, Trump pledges to reinstate the practice of “stop and frisk” policing (one of the most racist and predatory policies in recent memory).  But, the practice has already been ruled unconstitutional.  Trump could become president.  But, he can’t overrule the courts on matters of constitutionality.  And Trump says that he will roll out a “Deportation Force” and build a great wall on the Mexican border.  Of course these policies would cause tremendous social unrest in neighborhoods where we live and in the surrounding communities.  But let’s remember that no matter who the president is, Congress still exists.  And again, so do the courts.  And so do the people.  There is just no way that such ridiculous policies would just sail through unfettered.

We could go through each of the dangerous policies that Trump has put forward over the course of the election and we would find that they are so overtly racists, unconstitutional and sometimes so down right stupid that he would have a much more difficult time implementing them than he has had running a presidential campaign.  A reality we most likely don’t have to worry about because he is likely not going to win.

So, what about this ballot question?

Well like I said, it is seemingly insignificant and has gone mostly unnoticed (props to the good folks at DNA Info for covering the story back in August).  But, isn’t that one of the attributes of dangerous stuff?  You never see it coming until it is too late.

The question asks residents of some communities in Chicago whether or not there should be a “freeze” on charter schools in their ward.  The measure has gotten a lot of support from local groups that collected signatures to get it on the ballot and probably has a good chance of winning.  So what’s so dangerous about a non-binding referendum that is only on a few ballots in the city?

I’m glad you asked.

This is more than just a question on the ballot.  It represents an increasingly well organized, increasingly well-funded and increasingly effective movement to end school choice in Chicago before it ever really starts.  This measure will be another feather in the cap of this movement.  And this movement could be perilous for the Black community in this city.

Here’s the deal.  

Across the state and across Chicago Public Schools, academic proficiency rates are depressingly low.  38% of students are proficient in English and Language Arts (ELA) in Illinois and 29.7% in CPS.  In math, 28% are proficient statewide and only 21.6% in CPS.  But, it gets more depressing.

When we look inside of these figures, you can see which students are truly suffering.  The lowest scores in CPS come from African American students who receive free and reduced lunch.  Among these poor, Black youngsters only 18.5% are proficient in ELA and 11.6% are proficient in Math.  The second lowest scoring group is poor Latino students.  The third lowest (with only 40.5% proficient in ELA and 27.2% proficient in Math) is African American students who DO NOT receive free and reduced lunch.  That means that the entire Black population in CPS is performing in or at the very bottom in CPS.  That’s enough to make a Black man cry.

When compared to non-selective schools in CPS, charter school students in all 3 of the lowest performing subgroups do better (charters don’t outperform non-selective district schools among Latino students who don’t receive FRL).  The current education system in Chicago is not working for poor and working class, Black families.  School choice is showing promise for success with our students.  We should be leaning into this approach, not trying to curb it.

I do have some criticisms for the current choice movement in Chicago.  First of all the limited approach to choice in the city has created a situation in which the Whitest, the wealthiest and the most politically connected have the greatest opportunity to get schools approved.  Make no mistake; these schools are already serving Black communities better than traditional public schools simply based on their ability to tailor the experience.  But, I am certain that there are more innovators out there and many of them are indigenous to our community.  

The school district, city and state government and the philanthropic community should be finding ways to open up the RFP process and provide the kind of capacity building support needed to access this untapped potential in education.   We shouldn’t spend time and money doubling down on strategies that have not worked.  And the concept of a large unit school district, a bloated union contract and a one-size fits all approach to teaching and learning does not work for Black communities.

We celebrate the fact that the graduation rate in CPS is up to 67% among Black students in Chicago.  And in one sense, we should.  But, think about it…I have 3 children.  If I can’t feed any of them one day and then the next day I can feed two of them, somehow the improvement still feels like complete failure.  67% success looks good on paper, but it doesn’t feel good when the 33% look like you and live with you and are you.

The most insidious danger about this impending moral victory for the anti-school choice movement is that if you are Black there is little you can do about it…even if you believe it is wrong.  The question, which will certainly be pointed to as another reason that school options are bad, is only on the ballot in the 49th Ward.  Only 2% of Chicago’s 900,000 African Americans live in the 49th Ward (and yes charter schools serve a disproportionate number of poor and working class Black families).

There is a clear and present danger to the Black community on the ballot in Chicago this year and it is not Donald Trump.  It is sneaky little ballot questions designed as a tool to snatch from us one of the greatest opportunities we have to build a solid future for our children and our community…access to high quality school options.

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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.