All eyes were on Chicago this week, as 29,000 teachers took to the streets to strike. Reports are coming in of a tentative settlement, which would be welcome news for Chicago teachers and parents. But there’s still one key fact that the settlement is unlikely to effectively address and that was buried in most mainstream media coverage: Chicago has the most segregated school system in the country.
Almost 70 percent of African-American Chicago Public School students attend institutions where over 90 percent of their classmates share their ethnicity. As Chicago Union teachers call for an end to “apartheid-like” disparity, they assert that what happens in Chicago isn’t just a labor issue: it’s a question of racial justice.
As The Nation’s Matthew Cunningham-Cook reported, most media has been focused on requests for raises and political disputes. But a report issued by the CTU in February, "The School’s Chicago’s Students Deserve," shows that Chicago teachers are talking about more than paychecks and tenure. The report calls for school board officials to address the widespread and long-standing inequities within Chicago Public Schools:
Students and their families recognize the apartheid-like system managed by CPS. It denies resources to the neediest schools, uses discipline policies with a disproportionate harm on students of color, and enacts policies that increase the concentrations of students in high poverty and racially segregated schools.
Even though such rhetoric has been largely missing from strike coverage, “this has to be a story about race,” said Dr. Beth Richie, director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Richie noted that over 90 percent of Chicago Public School students are students of color. “The abysmal resource allocation…is clearly an example of institutionalized racism and structural inequality.”
CPS had a formal desegregation decree until 1980, which mandated that Chicago schools with competitive admission ensure integration through lotteries and quotas. The decree was removed in 2009, when a court determined Chicago Public Schools had achieved "unitary status." Yet according to a recent New York Times analysis, over 80 percent of Chicago students would still have to change schools in order to achieve integration.
Segregation has declined overall in the US in recent years; Chicago actually saw the second largest decrease of any city. But an analysis by Chicago news outlet WBEZ suggests Chicago schools are actually more separate now than they were 20 years ago. The percent of Chicago public schools that are integrated, in which no single ethnicity is more than half of the student body, has dropped from 17.5 percent to less than 10 percent. Chicago Public Schools declined to comment on WBEZ’s findings.
For many teachers on the picket line this week, the end of segregation isn’t an end within itself. It’s more about whether students of color have the same resources and opportunities as their white peers. In Chicago, separate schools are anything but equal.