In Chicago, roughly half of all students attend the school for which they are zoned. But at the high school level, that number drops to 27 percent, a sign that Windy City families are embracing school choice.
Chicago: A Choice District, from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), illustrates that choice has had a significant impact on education in the 20 years in which students have had the freedom to choose.
In 1988, Chicago public schools were considered the worst in the nation. In response to this educational crisis, selected-enrollment and charter schools were launched in the 1990s. Through the Renaissance 2010 Initiative, Mayor Richard M. Daley and Chicago Public Schools worked together to close low-performing schools and open 100 new ones, most of which were charters.
Chicago families have embraced these options.
In 1996, the year the state charter law was enacted, charter public schools served 76 students. Today, that number exceeds 64,000 across the state. While demand and supply have both increased, the majority of students who opt out of the school for which they are zoned choose to attend a different school in the same district.
“In Chicago, parents are very savvy,” said Jelani McEwan, director of external affairs for INCS. Chicago is neighborhood-driven, so several generations will live in the same area and be zoned to the same school. “When they’re making decisions about their kids in the context of their historical perspective, you’re seeing them make these incredibly savvy decisions on how to move their kid around.”
“Movement follows quality,” McEwan said, noting that the best schools keep 70 percent of their students. The lowest performing schools retain only 17 percent. “The trend of student mobility really does follow the quality of a school.”
There are, however, areas of the city that do not provide enough high-quality options, and these are almost exclusively in low-income neighborhoods. “When families face competing priorities,” the study says, “such as safety, logistical ease, and academic rigor, some are forced to sacrifice academic outcomes due to the constraints on their resources, information, or mobility.”
Mary Pattillo, Harold Washington professor of sociology and African-American studies at Northwestern University in nearby Evanston and faculty affiliate at the Institute for Policy Research, looked at a predominately African-American neighborhood in Chicago to explore the utilization of school choice.
She found that the lower level of engagement with school choice “did not stem from a limited worldview or reluctance to make sacrifices for their children’s learning, but rather reflected real safety risks, coordination impossibilities, economic hardships, and concerns for their children’s special circumstances. In each of these cases, parents exercised individual agency by weighing options and making the best decisions they could, under the circumstances.”
Striving to equalize quality in education means changes that will affect entire communities, not just families with children in schools. For that reason, McEwan said, communities need to be more engaged with education. “I’m constantly running up against this idea that chartering is something that happens to the community rather than something the community leads on, and I’m working to try to build coalitions of people to say ‘no. We could join together as a community, think about what it is we’d like to see in terms of what the educational ecosystem looks like in our neighborhood, and use chartering as a tool to be able to achieve that vision.’”