I spent the summer working on the Southwest side of Chicago-knocking on doors, organizing, and helping plan education justice events. I met amazing people who care deeply about equity, about justice, about improving the educational opportunity for their children. I saw thousands come out in support of their neighborhood schools. I heard powerful testimonies of the great work happening inside the schools from students, teachers, staff, and parents.
I had not spent a lot of time on the Southwest side before. There is so much good, so much community involvement, so much kindness. It was beautiful.
But I also saw a less attractive side of the area. The SW side has a growing Latino population which is expanding into once formerly white working class or working class sometimes poor Black communities. I saw the tensions as demographics change and the racism or prejudice that arises when people from different backgrounds mix. I met older working white people talk about "those people" (referencing the Latino population) moving in which is why the schools struggle today, how there are only a few of "us" left on the block. I heard from Latino families that would NEVER send their children to "that school" even though it is just a block away with the unspoken understanding that "that school" is where Black students go to school. I met Asians who would never send their children to the closer neighborhood high school because it had too many "bad kids", but instead send their kids farther afield to a school with more middle class and stable families. And at the heart of the battle over charter schools in the area, giving parents "the choice" to run away from the parts of the their community they don't want to associate with. The kids with behavior problems, the kids with disabilities, the kids from deeper poverty or who live in public housing.
In other words, the Southwest side is like every other corner of my hyper-segregated city: race and class throw up seemingly insurmountable divides. Selective enrollment schools certainly fill this role. They are a "life raft" for families that want nothing to do with the "others" in the city, and ostensibly serve as an anchor for the middle class. And the charter movement, at least at face value (ignoring the obvious privatization, union-busting, and profit-motives involved with charters), offer that opportunity to "escape" to more families. Because that's what's equality looks like apparently: giving all people an equal opportunity to discriminate. To divide communities. To force families into cutthroat competition for the scraps of funding allowed to trickle down to the working class.
Now the "who" parents are fleeing is subjective. Sometimes it is the racism of white families fleeing Black kids or Latino kids. Usually it is more subtle. It's about class. It's about degrees of poverty. It's about real fears for safety. A common refrain was anger over the gangs in the area. It's an understanding that a school with shrinking resources, but high special education needs, will not adequately serve all students. It's also about real and demonstrable disparities in funding in certain schools and certain areas. Schools serving more white and middle class students get more funding in this city. So do the charter schools with our ideological Mayor and Unelected School Board in charge. Parents aren't making that up.
Which is why I think it's important to say that parents aren't actually crazy to choose discrimination. It is in fact, in many ways, the only "choice" given, as neighborhood schools are defunded and sabotaged. It's a pragmatic choice.
I don't have the answers on how to overcome these barriers. But I look to the fight for Dyett High School as a beacon of hope for our divided city. The fight for the last open enrollment high school in this city's historic Bronzeville neighborhood is being fought by a coalition of people from around the city. The Hunger Strikers were predominately African-American people from the community, but they were joined by a Mexican-American man from Pilsen, by a white man from Uptown, by grad students and teachers from around the city.
The struggle is what brought this unlikely group of people together, fighting united, for a common cause. I believe it is only being a part of the struggle that will change people's hearts and minds. I've seen parent groups from the north side take up the fight for great schools for ALL children after being exposed to the savage inequalities through the struggle. I've seen African-American, Latino, White, Asian, and people of all backgrounds march united through this city for the schools Chicago's students deserve. When people across the city unite, we become a force that might actually change the realities that try to reinforce our divides.
The advocates of "choice" want us separate. They want us to fight each other. It is that competition which drives profit and the expansion of choice. We must choose a different way.