Studying in Chicago: A Divided Frontier

Chicago has a deep-rooted history of socioeconomic divide and residential segregation. The divide dates back to the 1800s, when working-class residents sought employment in factories in South Chicago.

During the Great Migration of the early 1900s, millions of African-Americans moved to public housing in the South Side, which solidified an economic and racial divide between affluent communities in the North and working-class minorities in the South.

Today, the regional disparity manifests through stark differences in public education between well-funded schools in northern suburbs and poorly-funded schools in the South.

The focus of my project is to investigate education reform in Chicago; ultimately, the primary determinant of student achievement is based on location. Students who live north of the city have access to quality schools, teachers, and resources, which has a positive effect on academic achievement. In contrast, students situated south of the Chicago Loop are placed in schools with fewer benefits, worse teaching, and inferior facilities, which harms student achievement.

One of the most pressing issues that plagues the education system is the lack of resources provided to students in South Chicago. Emma Coleman argues this point in her article Chicago’s Divided Public Schools when she states that education is “largely determined by your zip code” (New America). Specifically, public schools in South Chicago receive less funding and “fewer benefits than the whiter, more affluent North Side,” which has an adverse effect on student achievement (New America). According to data published on the CPS website for the current academic year, the racial breakdown of students in Chicago Public Schools shows that 46.

Get quality help now

Proficient in: Education Reform

4.9 (247)

“ Rhizman is absolutely amazing at what he does . I highly recommend him if you need an assignment done ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

7% are Hispanic, 36.6% are African-American, and only 11% are white (CPS website).

The website posts annual data dating back to 1999, and the metrics have hardly changed over time; in 1999, white students represented only 10% of the school system (CPS website). Steve Bogira explains this data in his article Three Families Tell Us Why They Ditched CPS; many white, middle-class parents “are unwilling to send their kids to the city’s public schools,” and instead they “move to the suburbs” north of the city because the opportunity to receive a quality education is significantly higher (Chicago Reader).

To understand why the divide still exists, I will discuss previous reform plans that failed to improve school quality in the South Side. In 2012, Rahm Emanuel instituted an education reform plan with several components. First, he sought to increase the number of charter schools in South Chicago and close failing public schools; the mayor predicted that increasing the number of privately funded schools would improve teacher quality, facilities, and academic results (The Week). Second, Emanuel extended his plan to high school graduates: “Emanuel wants to make having some post-high school plan a requirement for graduating in Chicago’s public school system…A college acceptance letter…acceptance into the military…a job training program….a “gap year” program with travel or volunteer work or research, or a job offer” (The Week).

Unfortunately, the mayor’s plan did not improve public schools. At the same time, many teachers, parents, and students felt alienated because of the lack of discourse between reformers and those at the ground level. Since Emanuel’s initiative reached Chicago Public Schools in 2012, there was significant pushback from teachers and civilians. On February 3rd, 2017, several hundred demonstrators, including members of the Chicago Teachers Union, “crowded outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office to voice opposition to district cost-cutting policies…enacted by Chicago Public Schools” (Chicago Tribune). Emanuel implemented his reform plan from a distance, and he seemed out of reach from those impacted by his policies. State Representative Will Guzzardi described the dilemma: “State government seems far off and distant and hard to reach, but the decisions” that impact Chicago Public Schools “are governed by factors that happen down there in Springfield” (Chicago Tribune). Emanuel’s policies were implemented without consulting the families who lived in South Chicago, which caused frustration and alienation of the people.

When evaluating the mayor’s decision to expand charter schools, it is important to consider Dale Russakoff’s argument in The Prize. In her book, Russakoff investigates Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to reform public schools in Newark, which involved increasing the number of charter schools. Ultimately, the author finds that charter expansion did not improve student achievement in Newark. Instead, they produced “wide variation in their results,” and contributed to a significant decrease in the budget for district schools (137). Russakoff describes, “[district] schools saw no increase in resources, largely because overall district revenue was shrinking as students left for charters” (137-138).

Emanuel’s plan to increase the number of charters in Chicago produced similar results. In 2012, the mayor “announced $200 million in budget cuts and 1,400 staff layoffs” (The Atlantic). Further, statistics revealed that “Chicago charter school franchises produced wildly uneven results…on state achievement data” (Chicago Sun Times). While charters were implemented to improve academic achievement in Chicago, they produced inconsistent results with student test scores, while also creating large budget deficits for district schools in the South. Due to his inability to engage with the community and reliance on charter expansion, Emanuel’s reform initiative did not raise student achievement in Chicago Public Schools.

Despite Emanuel’s failure to bridge the gap between the North and the South, these problems are historically ingrained into Chicago Public Schools. Richard Daley, who served as mayor from 1989 until 2011, was responsible for passing the Illinois Charter School Law in 1996, which “approved the creation of charter schools in Illinois: 15 in Chicago, 15 in the suburbs and 15 downstate” (Chicago Reporter). Daley initiated the movement towards charter expansion, and Russakoff’s text reveals how this can have an adverse effect on district schools. Going forward, I argue that there must be a cap on the number of charter schools in Chicago.

More importantly, there must be improved communication (through open forums, discussions, etc.) between reformers and local communities in South Chicago, which will build trust with local communities. In order for Chicago to bridge the educational divide between the North and the South, reformers must stop increasing the number of charter schools, while also receiving input from local communities to identify the real problems that plague urban public schools.

Cite this page

Studying in Chicago: A Divided Frontier. (2021, Dec 13). Retrieved from

Studying in Chicago: A Divided Frontier
Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7