Chicago Public Schools leaders want to move away from school choice

Students sit at their desks with a wall full of posters in the background.
Students receive instruction during class at Gary Comer Middle School on Wednesday, Sep 13, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat)

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Chicago school leaders want to move away from the district’s system of school choice — in which families apply to a myriad of charter, magnet, test-in, or other district-run programs — according to a resolution the Board of Education will vote on this week.

The move puts in motion Mayor Brandon Johnson’s campaign promise to reinvigorate Chicago Public Schools’ neighborhood schools. On the campaign trail, Johnson likened the city’s school choice system to a “Hunger Games scenario” that forces competition for resources and ultimately harms schools, particularly those where students are zoned based on their address.

District leaders’ goals include ensuring “fully-resourced neighborhood schools, prioritizing schools and communities most harmed by structural racism, past inequitable policies and disinvestment,” the resolution, which was released Tuesday, said.

The board wants to pursue that policy goal — and several others — as part of the district’s five-year strategic plan, which will be finalized this summer. In an interview with reporters on Tuesday, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, Board President Jianan Shi, and Board Vice President Elizabeth Todd-Breland declined to specify changes or say how far they want to move away from the choice system. That’s because they want to collect community feedback on how far the district should go, which would be outlined in a final five-year strategic plan this summer, they said.

The board is expected to vote Thursday on the resolution, which doesn’t create or get rid of any policies; rather, it formalizes and publicizes the district’s goals.

The district wants to “transition away from privatization and admissions/enrollment policies and approaches that further stratification and inequity in CPS and drive student enrollment away from neighborhood schools,” the resolution says.

This marks the first time the board has formally stated it wants to move away from selective admissions and enrollment policies. It says the school choice system, as it exists today, “reinforces, rather than disrupts, cycles of inequity” and must be replaced with “anti-racist processes and initiatives that eliminate all forms of racial oppression.”

Some selective enrollment and magnet schools lack the diversity of the city, enrolling larger shares of white and Asian American students, while others remain largely segregated by race and class.

Martinez said it is painful to hear of students traveling far distances to attend school, or when parents ask if they should get their 4-year-old child tested for gifted programs. He said he can “scream as loud as I can” about all that he believes neighborhood schools can offer to families versus highly sought-after magnet or selective enrollment schools — but “it’s not going to be enough.”

“We see this as an opportunity to, again, build trust, because I want to keep calling that out — that is a huge challenge for us,” Martinez said.

Any number of big changes could be on the horizon, Todd-Breland said.

“There likely will be policies that need to be revised and changed, so the admissions and enrollment policy is on the table as something that through this process of engagement, likely there will be some changes to it,” Todd-Breland said.

Todd-Breland and Shi said they’ve heard many pleas from the community to overhaul the choice system. The board’s goal to move away from school choice is framed in the resolution as a response to the district’s ongoing challenges, such as budget deficits and academic disparities between students citywide and Black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, those who are homeless, and children learning English as a new language.

District leaders imagine prioritizing neighborhood schools to receive more resources and programming. Martinez said universal preschool is one example of an initiative that can draw families into a school.

The system of school choice in Chicago grew over many decades.

Data shows around 56% of elementary school students attended their zoned neighborhood school last school year and 23% of high school students did. Twenty years ago, during the 2002-03 school year, 74% of students attended their zoned elementary school and 46% of high schoolers did.

Many of the district’s most popular magnet and selective schools were created in the 1980s and 90s under a court-ordered federal desegregation consent decree that officially ended in 2009. In the 2000s, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley opened 100 new schools under an initiative known as Renaissance 2010. Most of those schools did not have neighborhood attendance boundaries and many were charter schools run by third-parties.

The expansion of school options also contributed to the mass closure or shakeup of nearly 200 schools, including 50 schools in 2013. Enrollment has further declined since then, but under state law, the district cannot close schools until 2025. Officials would not say if the five-year plan would eventually include closing schools and emphasized their plans to engage communities.

However, Todd-Breland did signal that the board might move to close charter schools.

“If you are a privately-managed school, taking public dollars from our taxpayers that would otherwise go to the other schools that we know need to be invested in because they haven’t [been] for years, and you are not performing at a level that we find to be a high quality educational experience for young people, then why do you continue to exist in this system?” she said.

Nearly half of the charter schools authorized by the Chicago Board of Education are up for renewal this year and dozens more will be next year. If a charter is not renewed, it most likely would close, though operators can appeal to the state.

The previous administration, under the leadership of former CPS CEO Janice Jackson, also tried to reinvigorate underenrolled neighborhood schools. In 2018, the district offered additional funding for specialty programs to local schools looking to attract more students.

Though the current system has long been criticized for stressing out students and families as they compete for spots at the most sought-after schools, many families value having options outside of their assigned neighborhood school. Student admissions to gifted programs rely on a test, while admissions to selective enrollment high schools are based in part on the High School Admissions Test and previous school performance.

The board’s policy priorities come less than a year before Chicago will for the first time elect school board members. State law currently says 10 members will be elected and the mayor is to appoint another 11. That shift is one reason the board is focused on getting a lot of community feedback on their vision, so new board members “understand this is the direction that the district is moving in,” Shi said.

Political shifts, such as this transition to an elected school board, could upend what the current board wants to do, said Jack Schneider, an education policy expert and professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“The last thing you want is to put all of this effort into something like promoting neighborhood public schools and then have a massive change in the composition of the board that then leads to a 180 in priorities,” Schneider said.

The resolution also highlights several other policy goals under the district’s next strategic plan, including creating more community schools over the next five years. These schools provide wraparound services to students and families, another priority for Johnson. It also includes adding staff, ensuring culturally relevant, anti-racist lessons for students and similarly framed professional development for educators, and prioritizing collecting feedback from students and the community.

The board also wants to ask the community’s help in creating plans for “previously closed and currently ‘underutilized’ schools,” the resolution says.

Read the full resolution on page 21 of the board’s agenda posted online.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Reema at

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at

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