School Choice Is Under Siege in Chicago

Published December 21, 2023

School choice is very popular among Chicagoans. In fact, more than 60 percent of Windy City residents support school choice programs. On the other hand, only 33 percent of Chicagoans are satisfied with the city’s public schools.

With this being the case, one would assume that Chicago’s leaders would support measures to increase access to school choice, especially among the city’s minority population, who tend to be stuck in the city’s worst-performing schools.

However, the exact opposite is occurring.

Earlier this year, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson teamed with public school teacher unions to kill Illinois’ lone school choice program: The Invest in Kids Act.

In 2017, the Illinois Legislature passed the Invest in Kids Act, which granted more than 50,000 private school scholarships to households that have incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Most of the students who have received scholarships resided in Chicago. More than half were black or Hispanic. In other words, the Invest in Kids Act was specifically designed to lend a helping hand to families living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, where local public schools are failing to keep students safe and academic achievement is lagging.

According to a recent poll, 63 percent of Illinois voters supported the Invest in Kids Act, including 67 percent of Independents and 60 percent of Democrats. Nearly seven in 10 black and Hispanic voters also supported the program, which will end at the close of 2023.

After the Invest in Kids Act was officially axed, the Chicago Teachers Union applauded the decision, calling it “a significant milestone in the fight for anti-racist, gender affirming, pro-immigrant, equitable and fully funded public schools.”

Then, Johnson and his teacher union allies set their sights on the last remaining school choice option for Chicagoans: The Selective Enrollment Program (SEP). In a nutshell, SEP “provide high-achieving students with a challenging academic experience and admit students based on prior academic performance,” according to the University of Chicago.

Presently, approximately 10,000 minority students and more than 7,500 low-income students are enrolled in Chicago’s SEP. They can attend 11 high-performing high schools.

Katie Milewski, who has children enrolled in SEP, told NBC News Chicago, “The selective enrollment schools are one of the shining stars of CPS. They are actually something that CPS has done right. And it needs to be supported.”

Unfortunately, the SEP is also on the chopping block. On December 14, the Chicago Board of Education passed a resolution “that it will be embarking on the development of a new five-year vision.” Oh, great. Five-year plans always work out well.

Essentially, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) seeks to eliminate selective enrollment based on the ridiculous notion that “selective admission criteria… ultimately reinforces, rather than disrupts, cycles of inequity.” That is absolutely ludicrous. In truth, selective enrollment does the total opposite by allowing high-achieving minority students from low-income households to attend some of the city’s best public schools.

CPS’ new five-year plan is designed to demolish school choice by basically forcing all low-income Chicago families to attend the school CPS wants them to attend. This is all about power.

As CPS admits in the resolution, it aims to move away “from a model which emphasizes school choice to one that supports neighborhood schools by investing in and acknowledging them as institutional anchors in our communities, and by prioritizing communities most impacted by past and ongoing racial and economic inequity and structural disinvestment.”

After reading the entire resolution, I cannot help but notice the hyper-focus on non-academic, social justice-oriented crusades like the Equity Framework initiative, which aims to “create anti-racist solutions that address systemic disinvestment.”

Gee, how about focusing on teaching students to read, write, and perform basic math, which CPS has failed to do for decades. For far too long, CPS has been derelict in its duty to properly educate the next generation. Even worse, Chicago public schools are notoriously unsafe.

There is a reason why Chicagoans overwhelmingly favor school choice and that is because the public education system is failing across the board. It seems to me that CPS is desperate. They see the writing on the wall, which emphatically says more and more Chicagoans desire school choice over the status quo. Of course, CPS, the teacher unions, and others will fight tooth-and-nail to maintain the status quo, however, it would certainly behoove politicians like Mayor Brandon Johnson to lend an ear to the people who voted him into office. Mr. Mayor, the people of Chicago want more, not less, school choice.

Photo by Charles Edward Miller. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.