Equity & Diversity Opinion

Why All American Teachers Should Care About Chicago

By Marilyn Rhames — October 23, 2013 5 min read
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I don’t like to make assumptions, but I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. So I’m going to take a risk here and treat every educator who reads this blog post as someone who is not a deliberate racist. I have to state that upfront because the goal of this post is to inform you of the chronic, insistent grip racism has had on Chicago’s educational policies going back 50 years, and how it could corrupt all of America.

Some people like to blame charter schools for the recent demise of 50 traditional neighborhood schools in Chicago. They claim that education in Chicago was on the up-and-up before the charters came in and began “privatizing” public education nearly 20 years ago. I disagree.

Twenty years ago, when I was a student in CPS, there were no such thing as charters. Since my family could not afford private school and I was not savvy enough to test into a “gifted” program, I had no choice but to attend the neighborhood school in my poor black community. My elementary school ran on a shoestring budget and was always under-resourced and under-performing. I didn’t have a language, art or music teacher until high school, but some of my primary teachers were talented in those areas and tried their best to expose me to a bit of culture.

That was also Chicago public education 50 years ago.

Yesterday, October 22, 2013, was an important day in Chicago history. It was the 50th anniversary of “Freedom Day,” in which some 250,000 students, mostly black, boycotted the Chicago Public Schools for Jim Crow-like segregation policies that kept them stuck in their overcrowded schools and prohibited them to cross carefully crafted neighborhood boundaries to occupy the many empty seats in white schools. About 20,000 parents and children also marched in the streets.

In fact, in 1963, even racially mixed schools like north side’s Lincoln Park High School (formerly Waller High School) had white students learning in the classroom while black students received instruction in trailers in the school’s parking lot. We’re talking Chicago, not Little Rock, Arkansas!

That’s Chicago-style education, then and now.

So why should every teacher in America care about Chicago’s brand of education? Because you won’t find a more American big city than Chicago. We are city folks mixed with a whole lot of country blood. We’re still an industrial city, and yet we’re also an intellectual beacon that boasts of some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. Not only is Chicago the nation’s central transportation hub , but just south of our city is some of the most fertile land for agriculture and coal mines in America. For these reasons and more, Chicago attracts some of the highest concentrations of ethnic people from all around the world.

What happens in Chicago doesn’t stay in Chicago. Good or bad, it makes international news.

So how we educate our children in this city often makes us an automatic model for other urban school districts. When we grossly under-fund minority neighborhood schools—or worse, shutter schools on a mass level despite the cries of its citizens—we tell the rest of the country—and the world—that minority kids don’t matter all that much. When schools on the central and north sides of the city that house large white populations are abundantly staffed with language , art, and music teachers and modern facilities, we tell the rest of the country—and the world—that white students are more worth the investment. The racism in the Windy City is now just more covert.

Charter schools did not start this problem. I wish it were that simple. In 1963, charter schools were not yet in our collective social consciousness, yet the problems we face are almost exactly the same.

Racism is why education in Chicago is so screwed up. It’s a difficult villain to slay because its tentacles have infected every economic, social, and spiritual facet of our city. For more than 50 years, Chicago politicians like former schools superintendent Ben Willis promoted this separate and unequal education system, and our leaders in various parts of city government have been preserving the status quo ever since.

It’s extremely difficult to turn this jumbo ship around; Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, died in office of a heart attack in 1987 trying to do just that.

Neighborhood schools in Chicago will never be truly integrated because neighborhoods in Chicago are so tightly segregated. For much of the city’s history, unscrupulous housing practices prevented the sale of homes in white neighborhoods to black families. Once that practice was outlawed, “white flight,” in which whites simply move out when people of color move in, became the norm.

That wouldn’t have been so awful if white flight didn’t also come with the city’s gradual disinvestment in communities of color. As many neighborhoods have become more gentrified, poor people have been pushed out through economic means.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to notice that schools in minority communities have smaller staffs and fewer resources than schools in the white communities. I’m told by sources within the Chicago Public Schools that the data documenting such funding disparities are so heavily coded in complex formulas and jargon that only professional statisticians could decipher them.

So 50 years later, we remember “Freedom Day,” in which a quarter million black students protested the segregation policies of the Chicago Public Schools. Please watch the video of the protests: The glasses, hairstyles, and fashions have changed but the message is as fresh today as it has ever been.

I love my native Chicago, and I’m doing what I can to try to make it better for the next generation of African American children, like my two daughters and my expectant son. Schools that tackle racism head on are better for children of color and are better for white children, too. Schools that address racial conflict head on create fundamentally better learning environments because they help children become better people. What good parent wouldn’t want their children growing up understanding that there’s inherent value of every human being, regardless of their skin color?

But let me make a plea to all educators across this great country: Let’s stand united. Don’t be distracted by the superficial charter school vs non-charter madness, or other arguments about “education reform"—see the root cause of our country’s education woes for what it really is: institutionalized racism. We should support any school that is serving minority students well, and demand better of those that aren’t.

If we don’t, the whole of American public education will look just like Chicago—racist, segregated, and not too ashamed of it.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.