Strike Against Inequality

Strike Against Inequality

A strike in the country’s most segregated school district is about more than union politics. 


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.

Shari Nichols-Sweat has been teaching music at Paul Laurence Dunbar Career Academy High School, her own alma mater, for 24 years. She is now Dunbar’s union delegate. “We should have equal access to resources. It is unfair practice, it is unjust, and it is inhumane,” she said. Dunbar students, 98 percent of whom are black, might not get the books and materials they need for class until six weeks after the start of the school year. The school of 1,341 students shares one social worker with several other high schools.

And with the increasing use of computers in education, these divides are becoming even more stark. “There should be technology in every classroom,” Nichols-Sweat said. “That is not so in the African-American community.”

In an attempt to mitigate such growing achievement gaps, minority schools have been the primary target of recent education reform. In 2004, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley announced his controversial Renaissance 2010 plans to "turnaround" struggling schools by gutting the staff or turning them over to private charter companies. The CTU reports that across the 17 schools identified for “turnaround,” 87 percent of the affected students are African-American.

In one of many public protests of the policy, Humboldt Park community members occupied Brian Piccolo Elementary in February when the West Side school was set to close. Ninety-seven percent of Brian Piccolo Elementary students identified as Black or Hispanic. The parent-led movement claimed a victory when CPS officials agreed to meet with them, but CPS ultimately decided to hand Piccolo over to Academy for Urban School Leadership, a private charter program.

“I have yet to hear of one white school that has been turned around or closed. That’s the bottom line,” said Nichols-Sweat, who noted that many of the closed schools are named after famous African Americans. Dunbar is currently on academic probation.

Such policies don’t only impact students of color: African-American teachers are also suffering consequences. Battles over tenure have been a major flash point of the strike. Teachers that are fired to make room for young, less-experienced teachers are disproportionately minorities: African-American teachers have declined by 10 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, 62 percent of new teachers in 2010 were white, compared with 48 percent in 2000. Nichols-Sweat has seen an influx of “young, white” faculty at Dunbar in recent years.

Chicago teachers have highlighted standardized testing as “the primary ‘policy lever’ responsible for apartheid in Chicago schools.” Many education activists argue that strictly teaching to the test results in punitive measures whoch harm both teachers and students in low-achieving schools. Education scholars and activists like Dr. Kevin Kumashiro, founder of the center for Anti-Oppressive Education, argue that closing schools and firing teachers in already under-resourced communities doesn’t alleviate inequality—it perpetuates it.

Let’s hope the reported strike resolution tries to take into account the racial disparities and how they harm the very children on whose behalf the CPS and Mayor Emanuel claim to be fighting. 

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