While some think of school segregation as a thing of the past, segregation remains an ongoing issue for Chicago public school students, Black and Latinx students. School segregation in Chicago today plays a fundamental and active role in restricting educational opportunity, as CTU researchers have documented, including in 2017 in Segregation and Inequality in Chicago Public Schools, Transformed and Intensified under Corporate Education Reform.
The landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, was supposed to end segregated schools. CPS ignored the decision then and continues to do so today. In 1963, over 200,000 students marched, rallied, and boycotted school to protest segregation in Chicago. Of particular note during that period were the city’s infamous “Willis Wagons,” aluminum mobile classrooms used by then superintendent Benjamin Willis to sidestep integration of Black students in desperately overcrowded schools into nearby white schools with plenty of room. Even so, white families moved to the suburbs in droves while banks and realtors profited.
In Chicago, after a century of segregationist practices and decades of political resistance against activists and federal officials, CPS finally signed a consent decree with the federal government in 1980. The district agreed to a plan involving magnet schools with racially balanced enrollments, compensatory funding for segregated schools, and monitoring over the segregation of minority teachers.Although CPS defiance continued even under the decree (which itself was far from what was achievable), the decree meant that a level of federal court oversight over CPS initiatives and policies, with an eye towards mitigating segregating practices, was in place.
Still, despite evidence that compensatory funding had continuously fallen short and desegregation goals had not been met, the consent decree was lifted by a federal judge in 2009. By that time, the numbers of students of color were already in decline at the city’s magnet schools, and Black teachers were both heavily segregated across schools and rapidly decreasing in number.
With the official end of the consent decree in 2009, the racially-based targets at selective enrollment and magnet schools have been replaced by enrollment guidelines based on socio-economic status, and the few marginal programs intended to improve integration have ended. But even prior to the end of the decree, CPS had been focused more on boosting white enrollment by opening well-resourced selective enrollment schools, rather than integrating existing schools. When it opened in 1999, Northside College Prep was the first high school built by CPS since 1980. The selective enrollment school was located in the predominately white Northwest Side of the city and initially only drew students from the North and Northwest sides.
Selective enrollment schools have since become a bastion of privilege for many white students, with CPS investing in selective enrollment schools and allowing them to become less diverse. Although white students were 9% of all CPS high school students in 2021, they represented 24% of students attending selective enrollment schools.
The 1960s’ policy of “anything but integration” repeated itself in the 2010s, with a racist twist. In the past, when Black schools had been overcrowded, students had to learn in ugly, crowded trailers like “Willis Wagons.” But in the previous decade, as schools serving non-Black communities became overcrowded, the district spent hundreds of millions of dollars building new annexes and schools. In 2013, the district closed 50 schools, mostly schools serving Black students in Black neighborhoods and consolidated their populations into other neighboring Black schools. The district claimed that low enrollment was the reason for the closures, but never seriously considered changing school boundaries to relieve overcrowding and underutilization and to foster integration. The Black school communities that were consolidated never received an influx of resources, instead becoming themselves subject to funding cuts through SBB.
School desegregation programs significantly improve educational outcomes for both students of color and white students and also improve postsecondary outcomes, as well as longer-term occupational, health, and earnings outcomes for Black adults that experienced school desegregation. The experience of school desegregation also impacts personal beliefs, decreasing racial prejudice, and instilling commitment to integration, often long after the programs formally end.
Instead of a focus on integration, CPS continues its segregationist policies. The various CPS superintendents carrying out these policies have continued to echo the line that the district is not to blame for segregation. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of CPS during the 2013 school closings, took it as an affront that the closure of 50 predominantly Black schools was called racist. Janice Jackson, CEO from 2017- 2021, defended the district when asked about school segregation, saying “That’s part of the history of Chicago. I don’t think that’s a CPS issue.”
Most recently, CPS has pushed the creation of a high school serving the South Loop community, which has grown rapidly in the past decade with a high-income population. The district intends to build the school on land that used to provide public housing and would cost $120 million to build, enough to double the instructional spending at the nearby predominantly Black high schools, Dunbar and Phillips, for the next decade.
Desegregation as a guidance towards school policy has been abandoned completely, and segregation and all its accompanying injustices have become accepted as the norm, rather than recognized as the deliberate constructions they are.
Segregation, population loss, Black students and Black teachers
Since 2000, the Black population in Chicago has plummeted. Census data has shown that Chicago lost over 180,000 Black residents between 2000 and 2010, and another 85,000 since then. The Black population has also declined across district schools over this period. But just as racism and the impacts of segregation — including the wholesale elimination of public housing — have pushed Black residents out of the city, so have racist and segregationist policies in CPS contributed to their loss. School funding has never been adequate in our schools, but over the last two decades, budget cuts, school actions, and disinvestment masquerading as school choice, have destabilized and decimated our Black and Brown schools.
The decline of Black educators shows the stark impact of racism in our schools and across our wider society. Since 2001, the number of Black teachers has fallen by 57%, from over 10,600 in 2001 to roughly 4,600 in 2021. Their loss was even steeper than the loss of Black students, whose numbers fell by 47% from 224,000 to roughly 119,000 across all CPS schools. But Black teachers remain segregated into predominantly Black schools. This dual segregation has meant both Black students and teachers have historically borne the brunt of racist school policies: school closings, turnarounds, layoffs, budget cuts, and inequitable access to arts, music, and libraries.
“It’s been a shame to see faculty diversity go backward,” Howard Heath, Retired high school teacher, Lane Tech
But another outcome of this continued segregation and massive decline of Black teachers is that Black educators have disappeared from schools where there are few Black students. In 2001, there were 10 schools with no Black teachers on staff. By 2012, that number had more than tripled to 37. Another decade later and there are now 65 schools without a single Black teacher on staff. There are another 70 schools with only one Black teacher. Similarly, schools where both Black students and Black teachers are a small fraction, less than 5% of students and teaching staff, have ballooned from 16 to 112, over a fifth of district-run schools.
Housing unaffordability, continued racism, and the legacies of segregation continue to make it difficult for Black residents to find homes and make community in traditionally non-Black neighborhoods in Chicago. However, this complete disappearance of Black educators from so many public schools across the city points to the district’s failure to prioritize teacher diversity and to have a districtwide plan for mitigating segregation.
School segregation in CPS has been tied to a number of racist policies, but one of the most egregious was the CPS practice of school “turnarounds,” where a school’s entire staff would be laid off from their positions. This policy overwhelmingly targeted schools in Black communities with Black teachers and staff and reached its height during former CPS CEO Arne Duncan’s term as part of his sweeping privatization scheme to open charters and dismember neighborhood public schools under the pretext that they were “failing.” reached a settlement for the creation and distribution of a $9.25 million fund to benefit Black teachers and paraprofessionals who lost their positions as a result of racist turnarounds.The CTU sued the school district for this racist policy, and after 10 years of litigation,
Lack of access to healthcare, racism in access to job markets, inequities in public transit, safety and quality of living are fueled by residential segregation driven by race and class and foment further segregation. Vast inequality affects the entire region of Chicago, with lower-income communities across the south suburbs paying higher taxes for lesser services, while whiter, wealthier communities pay lower tax rates and have well-funded schools. As a result of this cycle of disinvestment and racism, vacant and distressed properties fill low-income communities, and current policies fail to bring in new investment. The pattern of these vacant properties maps directly to Chicago’s history of redlining, much like how CPS’ closure of schools tied directly to the district’s history of disinvestment.
Such disinvestment is further compounded by the racism and inequities built into the property valuation system and the history of outright theft that prevented Black families from building wealth. Today, Black homeowners across Chicago still face racism at both ends — paying a higher tax bill because of inflated assessments, but also facing bias when appraising their homes for sale. Latinx families are unable to build wealth in the communities they call home, due to gentrification and the destruction of affordable housing. The city and CPS must act in concert to counter the segregation and its harms built into our city. This requires a strategy of both integration and investment — including into publicly funded affordable housing, protection of multi-family units, better transit, sustainable community schools, and investment in our neighborhoods’ health infrastructure.
Housing insecurity in a segregated city
The lack of permanent housing has a direct impact on how students are able to learn, grow and interact with educators and their peers in their school communities. Homelessness and housing insecurity continues to be an issue for at least 16,402 students, 5% of the total CPS population. These students may be living on the streets or in shelters, doubled up with family members or living in other temporary living situations.The CPS designation for these students is Students in Temporary Living Situations (STLS).
The 16,402 number is likely an undercount, as school officials are often not aware of all the students in these situations. Still, this is the highest count in several years, and a 68% increase over last school year’s numbers. Unhoused students are not equally dispersed throughout the school system. Black students, who make up less than 40% of CPS students, are 80% of STLS. Chicago’s long history of racist housing discrimination (and its continuation) is no doubt part of the driver of those troubling numbers.
Supporting our homeless students: STLS Advocates
In its 2019 contract with CPS, the CTU won a provision that set up an STLS advocate for schools with 75 or more STL students. They also agreed to pay stipends to STLS liaisons, who have other responsibilities but work with homeless students in schools with fewer than 75 STLS. These advocates and liaisons make sure students are able to take advantage of services designed to assist them, and may point students towards social-emotional resources. While there are 10 schools with more than 100 STLS, three are without an advocate. All of these schools lack an at-risk student coordinator position, five do not have a case manager, and none have a school nurse or social worker full time. CPS must do better for these students.
Homelessness among Chicago’s students is directly related to the disappearance of affordable housing in the city. Chicago has lost more than 5% of its affordable housing stock since 2014. Lack of affordable housing in Chicago (as well as school closings) has caused thousands of families to leave the city, particularly Black families, contributing to a decline of 73,000 CPS students in the last decade.
The reality is that housing is an education issue and the issues of affordable housing and homelessness directly affect Chicago’s schools and their students, families, teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff.
Close to half (40%) of Chicago households spend more than 30% of their income on housing. This undercuts funding for vital needs that include food, clothing, transportation, and medical costs, not to mention extracurricular activities for their children.
Average rental prices for a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago have risen 7.3% in the last year, and are now at $3,242. Buying a house is even more prohibitive, as home prices increased by 8.6% in 2021 and 34% over the last five years. The average price of a single family home in Chicago is $329,000 and in the most “affordable” (for some) neighborhoods, the median price is $175,000.
Furthermore, the lack of affordable housing causes families to move frequently and/or live in substandard housing. In 2019, 5.7% of Chicago children tested positive for elevated blood lead levels, which can lead to cognitive impairment and is caused by lead water pipes and lead paint in the home. Students’ living conditions, their health, and their stability all impact their ability to focus on school, learn effectively and grow into thriving adults.
A Chicago Tribune story highlights the story of one such student, excerpted here:
The first time Lockett experienced homelessness, he was 11 or 12. His mother’s boyfriend kicked out her and her children. Though they quickly found a place to live nearby, he said, they couldn’t afford it for long. The next six years were a blur of relatives’ homes, friends’ couches and homeless shelters.
“The thing about shelters is they give you a certain amount of time to be there,” Lockett said. “People think it’s like a place to stay forever.”
After their time was up, a family friend found them a house across town, near 52nd Street and Ashland Avenue. It had roaches and rats and the stove barely worked, and sometimes the heater didn’t work at all. But it was his home for the rest of high school. He and his sister woke around 5 a.m. to catch the Ashland bus, which could take an hour, or a little less if they got the express. His mom would care for the baby while his sister was in school.
No child should have to endure this kind of instability and hardship. The CTU will continue to advocate for more services for these students and for more affordable housing in the city
- During the pandemic, some families were able to receive help from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. However, from February 2020 to September 2021, the cost of buying a house rose 20%. Most working class families trying to buy homes need help.
- Renters are impacted by rising home prices as well, but federal pandemic relief no longer exists. Housing assistance needs to be expanded.
- Chicago needs to implement Bring Chicago Home, a proposal for a one-time tax on homes sold for $1 million or more. The money from the tax would be dedicated to programs and housing to alleviate homelessness.
- CHA’s Section 8 housing program needs to be expanded and their vouchers need to provide access to rentals throughout the city, potentially making a dent in Chicago’s housing segregation.
- Convert closed schools into affordable housing.
- Lift the ban on rent control. The Illinois rent control act prohibits cities from instituting rent control policies, which limit how much landlords can raise the rent. Without rent control, Chicago’s rents have become unaffordable for many.