By: Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner

Most people are aware of the Chicago Teachers Union’s virulent opposition to school choice. CTU president Karen Lewis says school choice is “a joke.” She calls the U.S. Secretary of Education, who supports choice, “a nightmare.” And she’s happy to invoke the race card whenever she needs to.  

What’s less known, though, is that the Chicago Public Schools and the CTU have been practicing a corrupted version of school choice for some time, and it’s done little to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of CPS students. Instead, it’s led to perverse consequences that actually perpetuate the systemic failures of CPS, leaving far too many students without an education.

A recent Chicago Tribune article on CPS’ underpopulated schools revealed that more than half of all CPS students now attend schools that are outside of their assigned neighborhood boundaries. That’s because a majority of kids take advantage of the district’s rules that let them attend other schools, from charters to magnets to other neighborhood schools.

And in some of the worst performing schools in the city, more than 90 percent of students have fled their assigned neighborhood schools in search of a better education.

The numbers themselves prove parents’ enthusiasm for school choice. Even district CEO Forrest Claypool agrees: “Parents … don’t really care about neighborhood enrollment boundaries — they care about quality choices for their children. I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s central to social justice, that parents have choices. That’s important, and that they be quality choices.”

His last line reveals where the district stumbles. CPS offers nothing but a false choice for most students that can’t access a high-quality CPS school.

Examining CPS’ underpopulated schools

The Chicago Tribune’s in-depth look at Chicago’s underpopulated schools analyzed the 17 high schools across the district that have seen dramatic drops in student populations and have recorded particularly low test results.

For example, just 250 children currently attend Tilden High School, which has the capacity to house nearly 2,000 students. Its enrollment over the past decade has shrunk by over 80 percent.

It is one of the many schools that have seen enrollment drops of 70 to 90 percent.

In total, the enrollment of the 17 schools has dropped from nearly 20,000 in 2008 to just over 4,600 today.

These schools are shadows of their former selves. Their buildings are nearly empty, and on average are filled to just 20 percent of capacity.

The test scores at these schools are some of the worst in the district. At Tilden High School, only 5 percent of students scored high enough on the ACT last year to be considered “college ready.” At Gage Park, just 4 percent are. Across the 17 schools, not a single one had more than 8 percent of students ready for college.

Any shrinking school that so completely fails to educate its students would be closed in any sane world, whether they are traditional, charter or private. But in the CPS system, they linger on.

Going anywhere but their neighborhood school

Most people might draw the conclusion that these poor neighborhood schools lost students due to neighborhood depopulation.

But as it turns out, the collapse in those schools’ student populations had little to do with out-migration.

Again, take Tilden High School as the example.

It has more than 2,300 high school students inside its attendance boundaries, according to the Tribune. But only 250 of those students choose to go to Tilden. Instead, the overwhelming majority of students in the attendance boundary went to 147 different high schools within CPS. Most students and their families simply don’t want to attend Tilden.

The same can be said for the 36,000 students living in the attendance boundaries of the 17 underpopulated schools examined by the Tribune.

A staggering 92 percent of those students opted to attend schools other than the assigned school in their neighborhood. That compares to an average of 70 percent of students in high schools across CPS choosing to go somewhere else – still an overwhelming percentage.

In all, the Tribune’s analysis found that 52 percent of all CPS students don’t attend their assigned neighborhood school. Instead, they attend other neighborhood schools, specialty schools, magnet schools, selective schools or charter schools.

That fact is remarkable. It reveals the blatant hypocrisy of unions and government officials who spew so much venom opposing school choice in Chicago.

Officials oppose school choice unless they control the choices

Chicago politicians and unions often frame their opposition to school choice around the issue of good students abandoning their neighborhood public schools for private schools.

They say choice would ruin the practice of mixing the best students with those with lower educational outcomes – which helps struggling students perform.

Ultimately, they say giving parents the ability to choose where to send their children will destroy public education and the community relationships that revolve around neighborhood schools.

It’s a funny argument to make, considering that over half of Chicago’s students already choose schools outside the boundaries of their neighborhoods – and that many of the schools in low-income areas are nearly empty.

Yet the system that CPS and union officials have set up can hardly be called “school choice.”

Real choice would allow students to take their money and go to the school of their choice, whether traditional, charter or private. But what officials have done is offer most students the ability to attend a regular CPS school in another neighborhood – which oftentimes is hardly better than the student’s original school.

Choosing between two equally bad options within the CPS system isn’t a choice at all. It’s why most CPS students are still failing to learn despite not attending their neighborhood school.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education’s Illinois Report Card, 3 of every 4 CPS students don’t meet standards in reading or math. Two-thirds of CPS third-graders are not reading at grade level. The achievement gaps between white and minority students in Chicago are still significant. Only 30 percent of CPS students graduate college-ready. And more than 70 percent of CPS students who enter community college require remedial coursework in reading and math.

The conclusion to reach from all those sad statistics is simple: a vast majority of Chicago students are not getting the education they need to be ready for the world – no matter which CPS school they attend.

Ironically, even some of the students attending one of the 17 underpopulated high schools the Tribune examined came from a neighborhood with another underpopulated school. About 1,700 students have simply traded one underpopulated, poor-scoring CPS school for another.

Top achieving students in CPS face a different situation entirely. In contrast to a vast majority of their peers, top students get to attend the district’s magnets and selective schools – selective enrollment schools that students have to test to get into.

The selective enrollment policies at the district’s best schools accomplish exactly what district and union officials argue is the biggest problem with school choice: that it creams the best students from the general population.

CPS’ perverted system of “choice” separates the top performers from the lowest performers. And what’s worse, it doesn’t give low performing students the opportunity to choose a better school outside the CPS system like real school choice would.

The reason why officials maintain this false choice is simple. It’s all about the money, and it always has been.

CPS officials placate parents with the illusion of choice while still keeping the student – and the money that comes with them – in the failing CPS system.

If you love them, let them go

CPS Chief Education Officer, Janice Jackson, has gone on record saying it’s wrong to keep schools that are rejected by a vast majority of their neighborhood’s parents and students open: “To keep (those schools) open, in my opinion, is more inhumane than deciding to close a school.”

And she’s right.

But it’s even more inhumane to keep real school choice away from each and every student at CPS.

Whether it’s the collapsing finances, the learning gaps for Chicago’s minority kids, the teacher strikes, or Mayor Rahm Emanuel caving to the unions, they are all a sad reminder that too many of Chicago’s 380,000 public school kids are trapped in a failed system.

The system is all about money and maintaining the status quo. As such, choice is a real threat to the dual monopolies of CPS and the CTU, because student and parents might not come back.

The message to union and district officials – who always say “it’s for the children” – is simple: If you love them, let them go.


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2 years ago

Very apparent what the pecking order is in all IL school districts–whatever best serves the union goal of maintaining the power to provide outlandish salaries and pensions to all union members, and to sell their voting block to the highest bidder. Closing schools that are 80% empty is of little concern to union members; consolidating schools decreases union jobs, and taxpayer problems are never considered as union problems. Last on the list of concerns for unions?? The students. First sign that goes up at strike time–Save the Kids. A fully transparent scam overseen by the Madman himself. Pathetic.

2 years ago

Another issue is there needs to be more vocational / trade options for students not on a college track.

There are many good paying blue collar occupations such as auto mechanics, carpentry, plumbing, HVAC, electrical work, flooring, painting, welding, bricklayer, concrete work, roofing, manufacturing, heavy equipment operator, etc.

There is a big shortage of high school classes in the building trades in particular.

How about opening a building trades school in Chicago.

All trades under one roof.

Why are these kids being left behind.

Some countries are far ahead of the US in vocational training for high school age kids.

2 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Here is a building trades high school program in Chicago that has formal alliances with building trades labor unions.

Is it possible to have a building trades school for high school kids in Chicago that does not have formal alliances with building trades labor unions?

Probably not at this point.

2 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Mike, there’s been lots of talk about doing just what you suggest. And I think you are absolutely right. But I don’t think we’ve seen the evidence that it’s happening. Will need to dig and see where it all stands.

2 years ago

I love it when sharkey’s on tv ranting on about the closing of neighborhood schools when he has his kids in cps selective enrollment

2 years ago

When will there be talk of privatizing the public school system? Many believe privatizing means a religious affiliation which public money can not fund them according the the Illinois Constitution. I would like to know if a private PUBLIC hybrid school system could be adopted- sponsored by either a local corporation or a group of private AND public retired teachers who are the BEST at what they do. In the preamble of the state constitution it states (PROVIDE OPPORTUNITY FOR THE FULLEST DEVELOPMENT OF THE INDIVIDUAL) Does CPS guarantee this? Do private schools? Who if fact would be best for… Read more »

2 years ago

What’s the student/teacher ratio at these under-enrolled schools? We’ve always heard the argument that educational outcomes improve when there are less students in the classroom, allowing teachers to give more personal attention to each student. Seems like that might not be the case here.

Mr. Common Sense
2 years ago

Does anyone have any data on what percentage CTU Teachers enroll their own kids in private schools?…anyone?…Bueller?….Bueller?….