Fifty years ago, in 1963, more than 200,000 students stayed out of school in Chicago to protest segregation and inequality.
That was nearly half of all students in the Chicago school district, and the event became the largest civil rights protest in the city’s history. Segregation was at the heart of the 1963 protests and marches, but what’s happening in Chicago’s public education system today is eerily reminiscent of the past.
Then: Black neighborhood schools were outdated and overcrowded. Some students, because of the overcrowding, attended less than a full day of school so that other students could attend in shifts. Many students attended class in hot, small mobile units.
Now: According to The New York Times, Chicago was still the most segregated school district in the country as of 2012. In fact, the district has many schools that remain unintegrated.
The district faces a $1 billion deficit, and as a result, this year 54 school programs and 61 school buildings (mainly in poor, minority areas and some, ironically, built in 1963) will close. Teachers are being laid off, and as a result, class sizes are increasing. Many of the schools have no air conditioning, and more than 150 schools have no libraries.
This week some principals, attempting to deal with huge budget cuts, have proposed even charging a fee if students want to attend a seventh-period class. And kids can forget about enrichment classes.
As an editorial in the Chicago Tribune noted, “Even though Chicago has a longer school day, it may not be filled with the kind of instruction—the fundamentals plus art, music and PE—that students need.”
Like in 1963, Chicagoans are not sitting idly by. School closures, layoffs, and teacher contracts have led to many protests in the last few years.
In 2012, teachers went on strike after a contract negotiation with school administrators over pay, evaluations, and benefits failed following eight months of talks.
This April Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools boycotted the state-mandated test, PSAE, and protested citywide. In late June, this same group spoke out against “unjust and illegal school closing and draconic budget cuts” at the city’s Board of Education meeting, according to its Facebook page.
Last week 100 protesters gathered outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house on the Fourth of July to fight against the direction of the city, including the closures of the public schools.
So why is it that Chicago public schools have been in this continuous state of disarray?
The problems are caused by a complicated mix of education policies and political agendas. In the 1960s, racial issues played a huge role in shaping the district. By the 1970s, the district had major money problems, and the School Finance Authority was established to oversee the district’s complex financial challenges.
The creation of local school councils in 1988 began a power shift in the way Chicago ran its schools. They had the ability to select and evaluate principals, develop and maintain a school budget, and create a school improvement plan. Some of these councils wielded major power over their schools while others lacked leadership.
Then in the 1990s, according to Kate Phillippo, assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Education, Mayor Richard M. Daley got the power to appoint a CEO to oversee the Chicago Public Schools. This majorly shifted the direction of the school district. In turn, the mayor also appoints the CPS Board of Education.
“The mayor then had a much more prominent voice in education policy,” Phillippo told TakePart.
This all meant that a mayor’s political interests could also get played out in the education realm. That system is still in place today. Chicago also doesn’t have school board elections because of this system.
“Education is a civic issue but there’s less of a chance for citizens to have a voice about public education,” Phillippo said.
Chicago’s schools didn’t get into this complex mess overnight, so the district is unlikely to step out of the quicksand anytime soon. However, Phillippo said there is a lot of organizing occuring in the city, including the possiblity of drafting a Democratic candidate to run against Emanuel in a primary. There is also a movement to restore school board elections.
Phillippo has spoken to many people who are shaken by the turmoil in the district. Some don’t have the option to leave the school system, others are headed out of town.
“Not everyone is angry and indignant about moving to the suburbs,” she said. “They want their kids in public schools and they will move forward to hold the district accountable, but people really don’t know what will happen.”
This week, activist and education groups are gathering in Chicago at the national conference Free Minds, Free People to talk about the city’s educational past and focus on the future.