The promise of public education is one of access and opportunity for millions regardless of background, origin, or ability. The reality, even before the COVID pandemic, falls far short of that vision. Despite these challenges, educators are expert at teaching courage, wonder and beauty in a world often ravaged by ugliness and inequity. That’s why we insist on meeting the full needs of our students in order to allow them a full range of opportunities to develop their full potential. The challenge of COVID in schools is layered on top of an “old normal” full of budget cuts, punitive discipline policies, staff shortages, scripted curricula, and school closures that created uncertainty and anxiety for students and families. From this perspective, COVID is not a cause of conflict in schools but instead an accelerant that has made things harder on all fronts.

As has been the case throughout U.S. history, educators, parents, and students have waged fights for the improvements they not only need, but more important, deserve — before the pandemic and during the pandemic. While educators and parents want our students to be curious, self confident, considerate of others, knowledgeable, and to work hard to expand their abilities, those who lead education typically have other objectives. They seek to minimize spending on schools; implement rigid and uninspiring canned curricula that churn out potential workers; deny and obscure the real and complicated racial, economic, and social history in our country; and keep grassroots communities from having real agency in running schools. The playbook may change but the goal remains the same: take the public out of public education and continue to convert those precious public dollars into profit points for corporate contractors and insider consultants. From this perspective, the COVID pandemic is a crisis that should not  be wasted instead of an opportunity to reshape public education that honors the sacrifice of millions who have lost so much.

The evidence for how powerful elites want schools to move forward is clear: provide some short-term money to get through the rest of the immediate challenge but don’t expand public services, as part of the endless neoliberal austerity agenda to financialize and hollow out public education. In Chicago, that means that CPS, which has received $2.8 billion in pandemic relief funds, will use those funds for short-term expenditures rather than make a commitment to invest in equitable staffing and support today while planning for the long-term. To put that problem into perspective, CPS is annually $2 billion short of what is needed to provide a full and well-rounded education for the students the district serves. But rather than investing the federal windfall and determining a sustainable path forward to support students’ recovery, the mayor and district leaders are already cutting school budgets at a time when student needs have intensified.

To make matters worse, there’s been no proposal for a desperately needed expansion of public education services, unlike every other time in U.S. history when there has been a similar disruption. After the Civil War, Black Americans created hundreds of their own schools to teach generations what had been illegal, how to read and write. During the Great Depression and after World War II, public high schools expanded (doubling the number of high school grads between 1930 and 1950) and the GI Bill expanded access to college and higher education. The COVID19 pandemic has killed more than 1 million people (and counting) in the U.S. alone —  more than those killed in either the Civil War or World War II — and greatly reduced life expectancy. The social movements waged by millions in the wake of those earlier calamities meant real and collective improvements in lives. We need a similar response, a massive investment in public education that honors the sacrifice of people who survived and the memories of those who didn’t.

This paper lays out such a response. In it we describe the challenges that continue to confront Chicago’s public schools. We point to the resources and support our students need for their recovery from the social and economic challenges that existed prior to the pandemic and the specific challenges arising from the pandemic. We propose sustainable methods for funding schools in the longterm to create the stability and predictability that students, parents, and educators need for success. And we examine the longterm consequences of racial segregation, a policy and condition that continues to impact practically every facet of civic, economic, and social life in Chicago.

Central to conversations about CPS over the last 10 years has been “what do we do about declining enrollment?” That is a difficult question tied to thousands of individual decisions. The crux, however, is that continued instability, unpredictability, and insufficient resources — both in the schools and in large swaths of the city’s working-class and Black and Brown communities — are what push people to leave CPS and head to other school districts. Those school districts have a perceived competitive advantage. Eliminate the advantage by resourcing schools appropriately, and the impetus to leave the city evaporates.

There are clear elements of what would keep students and families in the Chicago Public Schools, some of which are school-based and some of which are neighborhood based. In schools, we need appropriate staffing for our students’ needs and appropriate class sizes to meet them; curricula that is engaging and challenging and culturally responsive; consistent and predictable services for students with disabilities and English learners; a broad suite of activities that provide learning opportunities outside of the classroom; mental and physical health resources in every school; and a climate of safety and support in every school. In neighborhoods, we need real public safety, housing that is affordable and stable, jobs that pay living wages, healthcare that is accessible to everyone, transportation that gets people where they need to go, and an environment that has clean air, clean water, and addresses the coming climate crisis.

In short, we need a systemic solution — the schools and city our students deserve. The  pandemic and our efforts at recovery provide a golden opportunity to make that happen.