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Closing or Widening? Examining the Racial Achievement Gap in Illinois

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March 12th, 2018

Students of color in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district face compounding racial and socioeconomic disparities that widen the achievement gap.

A recent Stanford University study reports that CPS students as a whole are improving from third to eighth grade faster than 96 percent of districts in the US, but the learning rate fails to bridge the achievement gap between its white students and students of color. On the surface level, the upwards trajectory shows a promising trend for a school district with historically low test scores. Black and latino students however, are hounded by segregation on socioeconomic, legislative, and systemic levels that hinder educational equity regardless of corporate educational reform.

It is difficult to pinpoint a singular cause for the achievement gap in Chicago Public Schools, but segregation by both race and class plays a huge role in student success in the long term.

Research shown in another Stanford report revealed that high concentrations of low-income students is the largest predictor of racial achievement gaps in education. In CPS, 86% of students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunch (FRL), an indicator of low-income status. Students in low-income and poverty situations face instability inside and outside their home, which inevitably overlaps with school performance.

Districts with higher student needs require more money to recruit and retain high quality teachers and to provide support programs and services to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet, while higher need districts require a higher total revenue per pupil than surrounding districts, the State of Illinois spends less on CPS than it does the rest of the state’s public education.

The State has two distinct funding systems for public education: one for the City of Chicago and the other for the rest of the State. In a suit brought against the state by CPS and five district parents, the stark disparity in allocation between the two sources is made clear:

In Fiscal Year 2016, the State spent 74 cents to educate Chicago’s children for every dollar the State spent to educate the predominantly white children outside Chicago. Combining all sources of funding from the State, in Fiscal Year 2016, the State spent $1,604,828,661 on CPS. The State spent $9,012,574,633 on all other school districts. CPS, therefore, received just 15% of the State’s $10,617,403,294 in education funding, despite having nearly 20% of the students, according to Fiscal Year 2016 Illinois State Board of Education (“ISBE”) enrollment records.

This points to a disparity not only in socioeconomic terms but shows where the issue intersects with racial segregation. Approximately 96 percent of students of color attend majority-poverty schools and also make up the major of the district population. To break that down, CPS is 37.0% African American, 46.8% Hispanic, and 6% Other.

Beyond the lack of funding, clustering students with socioeconomic disadvantage in racially homogeneous schools will inevitably impede student performance.

A report by the Economic Policy Institute states that “schools that the most disadvantaged black children attend are segregated because they are located in segregated high-poverty neighborhoods, far distant from truly middle-class neighborhoods.” In sum, generational poverty condensed to specific neighborhoods through formal or informal gerrymandering only adds to the achievement barrier.

Historically, Chicago’s black communities are most harshly impacted by policy driven segregation. That this segregation translates into the city’s school district is no surprise. There are schools in CPS that are majority black in terms of population and staff and these tend to be the most intensely segregated, a special issue by Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) argues.

Four in five black teachers in the districts are in schools with majority black populations, which is ideal for students of color. However, as the CTU report shows, the district’s black teachers are typically the first impacted through layoffs and school closings, which only reinforces educational disparity.

Looking at the 2013 closure of 50 schools, “94% had majority Black student populations; 86% were intensely segregated schools with a population of students over 90% Black; and more than 70% of closed schools had both majority Black students and teacher populations.”

This is troubling in terms of representation in the classroom, a more nuanced but no less important factor in closing the achievement gap.

While the district is approximately 90% students of color, over 50% of its teaching staff is white. Studies show that having a person of color teaching students of color reflects positively in long term educational achievement. Yet, despite the well-meaning efforts, recent studies show that white teachers may bring unconscious biases to the classroom. This might come as lower expectations for students of color than for white students.

It’s unclear where this issue lies on the priority list for Chicago Public Schools mounting problems, but evidence suggests bridging the racial gap is possible by eliminating racial bias through teaching training program and hiring a more diverse teaching force.

In the face of four more schools closing, there’s hope that the district’s efforts will shift to individual student populations to make educational equity a reality.

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