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Executive Summary

At the most basic level, families across Chicago just want their schools to work. That means having a reliable way to get to school, arriving at a safe space, having trusted staff (and enough trusted staff) in the school building, and for their students to have a good learning experience. Instead, one Chicago family experienced this during the second week of school:

 

That child missed breakfast, got to school but too early to go inside, and had an incredibly tough morning even before the school day began. We can all imagine what the rest of the day looked like.

The child’s bus misadventures are unacceptable, but they are not an accident. They are the result of decades of history in a city that is both enormously wealthy and deeply segregated — a city that professes tolerance and a commitment to equity, but has yet to deliver on that promise of equity for hundreds of thousands of public school children and their families. Despite our city’s great wealth, our public school district is underfunded by 30%, while students go without vital needs that range from access to school nurses and social workers to school libraries with librarians and wraparound trauma support. The funding shortfall is even more acute in largely Black and Brown schools on the South and West sides.

What parents really want is stability and predictability. The pandemic exposed and amplified that truth. What the history of schools in Chicago demonstrates is that only some parents get that privilege. The vast majority of families — families who get school closures, or a school without a librarian, or a school where there is no nurse — get uncertainty, as they are not the ones with a voice in how schools are run. Educators who work in schools, the real experts on curriculum and instruction and how students learn, do not get a voice, either.

Instead, non-educators make decisions. In Chicago’s case, nearly 30 years of mayoral control of schools, supported by billionaires and corporate elites, has resulted in the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, repeated attacks on staff of color, an emphasis on punitive testing and boring curriculum, the destruction of thousands of units of affordable housing and the predictable loss of student enrollment, and a pursuit of school choice and school accountability that resulted in a severe — and also predictable — educator shortage, just to name a few.

Now we face a new attack by the same actors with the same playbook and the same goal: destroy public education. These folks pay lip service to equity at the same time they claim learning about Black students is divisive and that recognizing the fundamental humanity of trans students is an abomination. What they don’t talk about is how the real goal of school choice is to recreate and reinforce segregated schools and undermine the profession in order to depress wages for a workforce that remains 75% women.

That blueprint for schools is a failure for anyone not benefiting from white supremacy. Instead, we propose a different path forward, one that recognizes our students’ humanity and their need to recover from the pandemic. Our students need not just a better — and better-resourced — school day, but a joyful school day. Every school needs not just a nurse, a social worker and a librarian — goals we have yet to meet today — but also art and music educators, robust athletics programs, a transformative curriculum, and the trauma and restorative justice support that students need. A more joyful day includes less standardized testing that robs students of educational engagement and less punitive measures for both students and educators. A joyful day in an adequately resourced school creates a space that offers students the opportunity for exploration, dialogue and curiosity, built on a school community that provides care, nurturing, trust and love.

These are the minimums that wealthy districts offer their students — essential pieces that have long been treated as “optional” and typically absent for thousands of Chicago’s public school students. Our majority Black and Brown and low-income students deserve the same rich academic and social-emotional resources, and enough educators to give every child the individual attention and support they need.

Instead, our students continue to go without, and our neighborhoods continue to suffer the unnecessary burden of inequity and disinvestment that neglected public schools only intensify. Segregation and inequality in Chicago has historically dovetailed with educational disinvestment, and while all school communities are suffering, our Black and Brown working- class students continue to confront the most harm from disinvestment and failed city leadership.

The ongoing denial of equity to the nearly 90% Black and Brown students at CPS amounts to nothing less than a continuation of the racism, segregation and neglect that for far too long has characterized Chicago‘s public education system.

This paper paints a better path forward and the road to real equity for our students and families. We build on the understanding that our schools play an integral role as neighborhood anchors and critical civic resources, and that equitable cities require truly equitable public school communities.

When we first released “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve” in February 2012, we argued for truly equitable education for Chicago’s public school students based on hard data, solid research, proven strategies and clear needs. That report laid out the harms of segregated schooling, racist probationary policies, acute staff shortages, chronic underfunding and more. In the last decade, our union has partnered with grassroots groups, advocacy projects, sister unions and neighborhood organizations to lessen some of these harsh realities.

And we’ve made real progress. We won a certified school nurse and social worker in every school by the conclusion of our current contract, along with mechanisms to ease overcrowded classrooms and better support tens of thousands of students who are unhoused. In Springfield, we passed a new school funding formula that is pumping hundreds of millions of additional dollars into our schools. And we won the right that every other voter in the state has: the right to elect our own school board beginning in 2026.

Unfortunately, the mayors who control our school district have not followed the path of hard evidence and documented need. Instead, the period of Chicago’s 25-year experiment in mayoral control has been one of willful instability: school closures, racist school turnarounds (where the entire staff was fired and forced to reapply for their jobs), contract outsourcing that resulted in filthy schools, massive charter school expansion at the expense of neighborhood public schools, a huge expansion in standardized testing, the loss of hundreds of school clubs and programs, the undermining of career and tech education, and repeated budget cuts in the form of district-wide cuts or schoo-lbased cuts or both. Twenty five years of mayoral control has demonstrated the devastating consequences of leaving every school decision ultimately accountable to only one person. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the consequences of those decisions.

To be clear, the pandemic made school hard across the country, but it was especially hard for students, including hundreds of thousands of students in Chicago who attend segregated and under-resourced schools. They continue to face a set of two challenges: healing from the pandemic and healing from traumas that existed well before the pandemic. For instance, a student at Maine South HS in Park Ridge, has access to nine counselors, an in-school health clinic, and class sizes of 19 students to 1 teacher. At Maine South, 86% of students are white while only 5% of students are considered low income. A student at Steinmetz High School in Chicago, on the other hand, just eight miles away, where 90% of students are Brown or Black and 85% of students are low income, attends a school with half as many counselors, no health center, and larger class sizes. The pandemic hits those two student cohorts much differently, and it’s clear which students face a much harder path forward. It’s equally clear what makes that path easier.

The students at Steinmetz deserve the same opportunities as the students at Maine South. All students deserve to have a stable and predictable school career, one with a staff that isn’t subject to constant turnover, one that includes a broad and rich series of learning experiences, one that includes appropriate wraparound supports, one where learning occurs in a clean environment with appropriate pandemic mitigations.

This report lays out what post-pandemic schooling should look like for students across Chicago and the country, done in a way that honors the sacrifices that so many have made during the last two-plus years. Short-term fixes for “recovery” are not enough to mitigate both the harm of the pandemic and the harm of decades of segregation and disinvestment. Instead, the path forward requires a long-term commitment to students’ real needs, done in a way that recognizes the fundamental humanity of all students, not just those who happen to live in a select few zip codes:

  • Every school should have appropriate pandemic mitigations, especially as the virus continues to mutate, with robust safety protocols — including access to high quality masks, school-based safety committees, improved ventilation and air filtration, comprehensive vaccine access, and COVID testing to identify risks.
  • Every school community needs stability, instead of today’s inconsistent short-term staffing for a single year or less of educators and support staff who are often cut the following year because of chronic funding shortfalls.
  • Every school should be fully staffed to meet the acute and ongoing physical and mental health needs of students, including a full-time nurse and social worker (at a minimum) in every school, available to all students.
  • Every school should be fully staffed for instructional time, including teacher assistants to lower class size and appropriate numbers of substitute teachers.
  • Every school should have a full-time librarian to support student learning and students’ development of critical thinking skills — particularly important in this period of rampant misinformation.
  • Every school should have a full-time technology coordinator to assist students and staff in technology integration and training.
  • Every school should have rich and engaging curricula that recognizes students’ backgrounds and the rich history of Black Americans, Latinx families, and the important role of immigrants from across the world.
  • Every school in Chicago should be a sustainable community school, one that respects and listens to stakeholder voices and connects community resources and community organizations to schools to build a vibrant and stable school community that goes beyond the walls of the school building.
  • Every school should have a restorative justice program that centers understanding and healing and provides the resources necessary to make such a program a reality.
  • Every school should have stable, predictable, and equitable funding to ensure that the resources they need are there now and into the future.
  • The Chicago Public Schools must develop a comprehensive capital plan that assesses current school needs, prioritizes those with the greatest need, and orients schools toward a future where renewable energy, improved energy efficiency, and climate appropriateness are centered.
  • Every school needs a vigorous arts program including fine arts, music, drama, and/or dance classes because these classes encourage creativity, self-awareness, and joy—attributes that cannot be evaluated by standardized tests but are crucial to children’s development.

Finally, for decades Chicago’s mayors have kicked the can down the road regarding the district’s ongoing structural deficit. That failure of leadership must end, and CPS must work with stakeholders — educators and support staff, parents and their students and families, grassroots groups and community partners — to at last provide the progressive revenue to fund the schools our students deserve.

Credits

CTU Officers

  • Stacy Davis Gates, President
  • Jackson Potter, Vice President
  • Maria Moreno, Financial Secretary
  • Christel Williams-Hayes, Recording Secretary

CTU members who worked on this document

  • Diane Castro
  • Kimberly Frey
  • Elana Jacobs
  • Dominique Horton
  • Nick Limbeck

Staff who worked on this document

  • Kurt Hilgendorf
  • Sarah Rothschild
  • Pavlyn Jankov
  • Carol Caref
  • Christine Geovanis
  • Erica Clark
  • Nathan Goldbaum
  • Eric Ruder
  • Rebecca Martinez
  • Ronnie Reese