How Karen Lewis’ own story follows the arc of Chicago’s contentious education history

PHOTO: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis in 2016

This fall marks 55 years since a massive student boycott to protest segregation in Chicago schools, and six years since a strike aimed at improving conditions for teachers. A new book by University of Illinois at Chicago historian Elizabeth Todd-Breland examines that history that unites those two events — and how that history relates to the racial politics of education policy change in Chicago. This excerpt is from the epilogue of “A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s.”

In the fall of 1968, a black student boycotted Kenwood High School on the South Side of Chicago for several consecutive Mondays. She did not act alone but was part of a movement of tens of thousands of black students at high schools across the city.

These were not spontaneous walkouts. Her father drove her and her friends to and from organizing meetings where the students outlined their demands for more black teachers and administrators, the incorporation of black history into the curriculum, and improved facilities at predominantly black schools in the city. Her parents worried that she would be arrested but encouraged her and supported her activism. Collectively, these boycotts nearly shut down several predominantly black schools in the city and compelled the superintendent of schools to concede to a number of the students’ demands.

In 1968 this lone student’s voice would not necessarily have stood out among the many young voices of protest in the city. In the 2010s, however, it would be difficult to miss her. This high school student was Karen Lewis (née Jennings), future president of the Chicago Teachers Union and the face and voice of the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike that once again brought the city’s education system to a halt and elicited concessions from previously intractable city authorities.

Karen Lewis’s political trajectory maps onto much of the history documented in this book. Her parents were black migrants to Chicago who became CPS teachers. While not on the front lines of black teacher organizing, her parents were part of a generation of black educators who struggled against racist barriers to certification and leveraged the hard-earned benefits of unionization for employment gains.

Lewis attended Kenwood, a high school born of desegregation debates during the mid-1960s and founded as an intentionally integrated school. But Lewis’s protests at Kenwood in 1968 were for Black Power, not integration. 

When she first started teaching chemistry in CPS in the 1980s, Lewis admired [Chicago’s first black Mayor] Harold Washington and CTU President Jacqueline Vaughn as leaders and symbols of black political power, but she wasn’t particularly involved in the union. Lewis’s political trajectory underscores the permeability of different black political ideologies and the importance of understanding black political perspectives historically, intergenerationally, and relationally, rather than oppositionally and out of context.

Lewis benefited from the earlier struggles of black teachers, but the bulk of her teaching career during the 1990s and 2000s coincided with the decline in black teacher organizing. Lewis worked at two selective enrollment schools: majority-white Lane Technical High School on the North Side and majority-black King College Preparatory High School on the South Side. She supported the idea of using magnet and selective enrollment schools to promote integration but also acknowledged the failure of that strategy.

Mayor Richard M. Daley had brokered labor peace with the CTU while stratifying public schooling with new charter, selective enrollment, and magnet schools. In 2008, dismayed by increased privatization and attacks on public education, Lewis started attending reading groups, speaking out at Board of Education meetings, and working to restrict charter school expansion with a new CTU caucus, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. Lewis recalled that working with this group “reminded me of my student activism days in the sixties, so I felt like I was right back to where I started from. It was just like this full circle thing.”

The emergent Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, initially organized by white leftist teachers, participated in citywide progressive coalitions and organized alongside parent and community groups across the city that were pushing back against school closings, the proliferation of charter schools, and issues related to racial and economic inequality that impacted CPS families, the majority of which were low-income black and Latinx families.

In 2010, CTU members voted to replace the by-then complacent CTU leadership with Karen Lewis and the other members of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. This signaled a renewed commitment to the type of community organizing forged by Lillie Peoples and other black educators during the 1960s and 1970s. The insurgency of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators developed from the ground up with teachers, parents, and community members working together. Teachers were once again organizing in the communities where their students lived, fighting back against city education reform plans that disproportionately impacted black communities.

As a primary antagonist of the corporatist regime in the city, Lewis’s trajectory is firmly situated in Chicago’s long history of black protest politics and community organizing. However, running parallel to this history is the formidable history of more top-down autocratic political and corporate power.

Nationally, Republicans and Democrats have come together to support neoliberal education reform policies. These policies encouraged reforms that prioritized competition, privatization, school closings and “turnarounds,” charter school expansion, and a reliance on standardized testing. Democratic president Barack Obama, a Chicagoan and the first black president of the United States, ran on a platform of change in 2008. However, in the realm of education he largely advanced the policies of his predecessors, nationally and locally: Republican President George W. Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind law at the federal level and Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Renaissance 2010 education reform policies in Chicago.

Together these policies opened the door for high-stakes testing, school closings, and the expansion of “school choice” through charter schools. Obama appointed Arne Duncan, CPS CEO and Paul Vallas’s successor, to serve as the U.S. secretary of education, further elevating Chicago’s corporate-style education policies as a model for education reform efforts nationally.

Duncan oversaw Obama’s major education initiative, Race to the Top, which mirrored on the national level many of the policies that Daley and Duncan had administered in Chicago. Race to the Top required states looking for federal education funds to compete, and emphasized new standards and accountability measures, charter school expansion, and test-based assessment of teachers and schools. While Chicago policies and officials contributed to the Obama administration’s national political agenda, Obama administration officials also cycled back to Chicago—most significantly Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s White House chief of staff.

Buoyed by Obama’s blessing, Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago in 2011. Emanuel furthered Mayor Daley’s Renaissance 2010 plans, embracing corporate education reform and “school choice” plans that opened new charter schools and “turned around,” consolidated, or closed more than 150 public schools, including the closure of approximately 50 schools in 2013— at the time the largest intentional mass closure of schools in recent U.S. history.

In engineering the school closures, Emanuel argued that the logic of corporate reorganization and the market necessitated right-sizing measures to remedy the city’s failing school system. However, Emanuel and his school officials toggled inconsistently between justifications for closing schools based on under-enrollment or “under-utilization” and closings because of academic underperformance.

As had been the case for decades, black students, parents, and communities were dissatisfied with the status quo in many of their under-resourced neighborhood schools. However, they questioned why the schools had to be closed instead of improved. The CTU and community members also questioned definitions of under-enrollment that assessed full utilization at over thirty students to a classroom. In accounts by city and school officials, the history and policies that displaced and depopulated black communities and produced under-enrolled schools were erased.

Adapted from A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago by Elizabeth Todd-Breland. Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Todd-Breland. Published by the University of North Carolina Press.  Used by permission of the publisher. 

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”