April 18, 2024

Jan Resseger: Chicago Begins the Hard Work of Dismantling Neoliberal School Reform

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Chicago was once a leader in neoliberal education reform. Now it’s trying to undo that mess. Jan Resseger blogs about it. Reposted with permission. 

Right now we are watching in real time as Chicago tries to figure out how to undo the consequences of a catastrophic, two-decades long experiment in marketplace school reform.

Chicago’s Board of Education has voted to implement an important first step in Mayor Brandon Johnson’s proposed school district overhaul: the elimination of student based budgeting.

Mayor Johnson seeks to restore equal opportunity across a school district that has become marked by magnet schools, charter schools, elite and selective public schools, struggling neighborhood schools, and neighborhoods without a a public high school or even a traditional public elementary school.

Johnson has prioritized major changes in the Chicago Public Schools, whose problems became especially obvious in June of 2013, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 neighborhood public schools because, as he claimed, they were under-enrolled. Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist explains that, “80 percent of the students who would be affected were African American… and 87 percent of the schools to be closed were majority black.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 54)

Chicago was an early experimenter with school reform. Brandon Johnson, the city’s elected mayor, leads Chicago’s schools as part of the 1994 mayoral governance plan imposed on the public schools by Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Illinois legislature. The Chicago Public Schools adopted universal, districtwide school choice, and the launch in 2004 of Renaissance 2010 (led by Arne Duncan) that involved the authorization of a mass of new charter schools and the subsequent closure of so-called failing neighborhood public chools. Chicago adopted a strategy called “portfolio school reform,” described in a National Education Policy Center brief: “The operational theory behind portfolio districts is based on a stock market metaphor—the stock portfolio under the control of a portfolio manager. If a stock is low-performing, the manager sells it.  As a practical matter, this means either closing the school or turning it over to an charter school….”

Then in 2014, Mayor Emanuel added a districtwide funding plan called student based budgeting. In a 2019 report, Roosevelt University professor Stephanie Farmer explained: “Student Based Budgeting fundamentally remade the approach to funding public schools. Student Based Budgeting is akin to a business model of financing public schools because funds are based on student-consumer demand and travel with the student-consumer to the school of their choice.  (The plan contrasts with)… the old public good approach to financing public schools that ensured a baseline of education professionals in each school.”

Because it is known that aggregate school test scores correlate primarily with poverty and wealth, it was predicable that student based budgeting would put schools in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods on a race to the bottom, leading to schools with tragically limited programming for the city’s most vulnerable students and more school closures.  Farmer concludes: “Our findings show that Chicago Public Schools’ putatively color-blind Student Based Budgeting reproduces racial inequality by concentrating low budget public schools almost exclusively in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods. The clustering of low budget schools in low-income Black neighborhoods adds another layer of hardship in neighborhoods experiencing distress from depopulation, low incomes, and unaffordable housing.”

In late March of this year, WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reported that the Board of Education voted to launch a new plan to determine how much each school has to spend on teachers and programming: “Chicago Public Schools is officially moving away from a school funding formula that pitted schools against each other as they competed for students… District officials… announced (on March 21, 2024) they are implementing a formula that targets resources for individual schools based on the needs of students, such as socioeconomic status and health. They will abandon student based budgeting—a formula unveiled a decade ago under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel that provided a foundational amount of money based on how many students were enrolled…. Under the needs-based formula, every school will get at least four foundation positions, including an assistant principal, plus core and ‘holistic teachers.’… Schools will then get additional funding based on the opportunity index, which looks at barriers to opportunity including race, socioeconomic status, education, health and community factors.”

While undoing a market-based scheme for school funding and operations is clearly a moral imperative, the challenges appear daunting.  Karp continues: “This change was expected as Mayor Brandon Johnson and others have sharply criticized student based budgeting. However, it was unclear how it would play out, especially as the district faces a $391 million deficit for the next school year.  The shortfall is the result of federal COVID relief funds running out… District officials offered no information at a Board of Education meeting… on how the district will fill the budget hole.”

In addition to the threat of a serious financial shortfall, another challenge is the outcry from parents who have over the past two decades become a constituency for charter schools, magnet schools and selective high schools.  Mayor Johnson has tried to reassure parents: “(L)et me assure people that—whether its a selective enrollment school or magnet school—we will continue to invest in those goals… (A)ll I’m simply saying is that where education is working in particular at our selective enrollment schools and our magnet schools, my position is like any other parents in Chicago: that type of programming should work in all of our schools. And that has not been the case. Neighborhood schools have been attacked, they have been demonized, and they’ve been disinvested in, and Black and brown parents overwhelmingly send their children to those schools. So it’s not just demonizing and disinvesting in Black and brown schools, it’s demonizing and disinvesting in Black and brown people—and not under my administration.”

Although school choice plans like Chicago’s were originally premised on the idea of providing more choices for those who have few, in her profound book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Eve Ewing explains that families in Chicago do not have equal access in today’s school system based on school choice: “While choosing the best option from a menu of possibilities is appealing in theory, researchers have documented that in practice the ‘choice’ model often leaves black families at a disadvantage. Black parents’ ability to truly choose may be hindered by limited access to transportation, information, and time, leaving them on the losing end of a supposedly fair marketplace.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 23) Families dealing with poverty and its challenges are more likely to select a neighborhood school within walking distance of their home.

Mayor Johnson and his school board are facing a fraught political battle in the midst of severe budget challenges. Chicago school reform has exacerbated inequality. The families whose children remain in traditional neighborhood schools that have been undermined by school choice and student based budgeting have watched their their schools lose staff and programs their children need. At the same time, families who have benefited from charter schools, magnet schools and selective-enrollment high schools have now become strong supporters of the programs they have come to take for granted.

Mayor Johnson has been very clear, however, about what the past two decades of portfolio school reform, school choice and student based budgeting have meant for Chicago: “What has happened in the city of Chicago is selective enrollment schools go after students who perform academically on paper.  It’s a very narrow view of education. Let’s also ensure that other areas of need are also highlighted and lifted up.  That’s arts, our humanities, technology, trades…  It’s not like we’re asking for anything radical. We’re talking about social workers, counselors, class sizes that are manageable. We’re talking about full wraparound services for treatment for families who are experiencing the degree of trauma that exists in this city.”

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