The Chicago Charter Blues

The Windy City’s experiment with charter choice falls flat…

bluechicago2Chicago’s grand experiment with education reform dates all the way back to the 80’s—as in the 1880’s. In recent years, Windy City-style reform has meant charter schools, lots and lots of charter schools. So what has the Chicago’s choice-i-fi-cation meant for students? According to a new study, the charter experiment has wrought the unthinkable, producing worse schools that are even more highly segregated than Chicago’s already highly-segregated schools. The study made headlines and raised plenty of eyebrows, not to mention hackles. But can mounting evidence of an experiment-gone-awry shift the city’s reform winds? I recently chatted with Myron Orfield, the author of the new study, to find out.  

EduShyster: Charter schools in Chicago have seen huge growth since 2000. Since I limit myself to a strict diet of only good news stories about charter schools these days, I’m guessing that more choice has meant a win, win, win for kids. Am I right?

Myron Orfield: This was supposed to be an experiment, a medicine that would make the Chicago Public Schools better and it made them sicker. You keep thinking you’ve reached a place beyond which nothing can be worse, and yet the charters have managed to expand the threshold of segregation, expand the threshold of low performance in Chicago. 

EduShyster: Your study is one of several to find that Chicago’s charter experiment has fallen short. But you argue that charters should be thrashing the traditional schools. Is that because of their enhanced excellence?

Orfield: In school desegregation cases, kids who chose to go to voluntarily integrated schools always did better than the kids who were left behind. And social scientists said that it wasn’t fair to compare the kids whose parents chose for them to go to these schools vs. the kids who were left behind because there were all sorts of social capital involved in being in a family where you could make a choice like that. Most social scientists, in fact almost everyone says you can’t compare kids who choose to those who don’t choose. You have to get rid of what they call the selection bias. When charters were started, everyone just assumed that they would do better because of that selection bias And they haven’t.

chicago bluesEduShyster: OK—here’s where I channel charter and education reform advocates and explain patiently that whatever that pesky data says, we know these schools are better because parents are choosing them. I’ll also throw in something about parents *voting with their feet.*

Orfield: That’s in many ways the worst part of the charter experiment: it’s a cruel endeavor. Charters promise parents and kids that they’re going to get something better – but it’s a lie. We now have 10 years of data. We have ten years of kids being told by these very slick sales people that they’ve got the answer, which usually involves citing false statistics.The charters promised from day one that they would do better and that they would be more integrated. If they did that I’d support them. I think that would be fine. But they haven’t done either. And now they’re taking huge amounts of revenue from public schools that are in big trouble and these public schools are almost certainly cutting programs that would be able to help these kids.

We now have 10 years of data. We have ten years of kids being told by these very slick sales people that they’ve got the answer, which usually involves citing false statistics.

EduShyster: I want to pick up the point you just made about charter schools having failed as a response to racial segregation in the public schools. Some prominent education reformers have argued that that really isn’t the charters’ responsibility – that we can worry about that after we’ve put every student on a path to college.

Orfield: I think that segregated public schools in America are a disaster. They are the worst possible thing we can do. Except for segregated charter schools which turn out to be even worse. I think we need more integrated schools and more support for having a more mixed student body, and then do all of the things that we know actually do work in that setting to make the lives of kids better.  But I think just deciding that we’re going to be a segregated society is a disaster.

Blue ChicagoEduShyster: You argue that the trend towards more intense segregation in charter schools is worsening segregation in the public schools. Explain.

Orfield: Charters tend to be, much more than any other public school, single race or single ethnicity—they’re sort of themed that way. In the Twin Cities, for example, this is pushing the public schools to do the same thing in order to compete for market share. So you have low performing public schools in a segregated neighborhood and in come the charter entrepreneurs and they say ‘a Black single race school will be better.’ And kids who are attending not-very-good public schools will try that. So then the public schools create their own single race schools to try to compete and get the kids back. It’s a disaster. It’s a race to the bottom.

EduShyster: I’m struck by the huge gap between findings of studies like yours and the political rhetoric in places like Chicago. For example, one of the gentlemen running to lead my fine home state of Illinois doesn’t just want as many charter schools as possible, he has one named after him.

Orfield: I think you’re starting to see the growth of charters slow because of studies like this, and people are looking at these schools much more carefully. The problem is that charter schools fit what I think of as *political garage logic.* They make perfect sense if you’re sitting in your garage thinking about the future of society. These public schools aren’t very good—we’re going to allow competition, which everyone in America believes in. We have entrepreneurs out there and they’re going to create a model that does better.  But it’s more complicated than that. You know, schools are more than just text books; they’re also social networks for kids. This entrepreneurial model is appealing because we have so many public schools that are struggling, and as they get more segregated they’re going to do worse and worse. Charter advocates are right to criticize the performance of the public schools in these highly segregated neighborhoods, but by making these neighborhoods more segregated and these schools even worse, they’re not fixing the problem.

The problem is that charter schools fit what I think of as *political garage logic.* They make perfect sense if you’re sitting in your garage thinking about the future of society… But it’s more complicated than that.

EduShyster: I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately and I have to say that this may be the most depressing Q and A I’ve ever conducted. Anything positive you can point to? If charter choice isn’t the right choice, what would you do to fix things?

Orfield: I like schools that draw kids together, like the magnet schools in Chicago that are racially integrated and strong. Any schools that pull kids together and that have some extra resources—I think this is the best way to erase the achievement gap. Magnet schools aren’t utopia, but we have 50 years of data and there isn’t anything close to them as far as a model that helps kids. Day after day, year after year, study after study, they do better for kids. Integrated schools work better. People complain about schools that are all poor and segregated in poor and segregated neighborhoods. I want a system that will help everybody, but the heart of the problem in Chicago is that it’s one of the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the country. 

EduShyster: I’ve got a much easier answer: high quality seats! This is where we get rid of the old failing seats in urban districts like Chicago and replace them all with higher performing versions. People tell me that it works great and has no down sides. 

Orfield: Ask these people for an example of where this strategy has worked.

Myron Orfield is the director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Send tips and comments to Note: this is the first in a series of posts about the consequences of Chicago’s grand education reform experiment. You can learn more about my project and support my work here.  


  1. “…we’re going to allow competition, which everyone in America believes in.”

    Well, no, not everyone. But, yes, most of America. And that is the root (or at least one of the major roots) of the moral sickness that is about to kill us all.

  2. A completely dishonest hit piece full of white privilege and misrepresentations of facts by a research for hire who was called out by his own university colleague for creating research that is beneath the dignity of their institution’s brand.

    This is great evidence that you have no intention of being fair.

    1. Sorry you weren’t a fan! Is your complaint about the quality of his research? Or about my interview of him? Orfield’s study was taken very seriously in Chicago and as far as I can tell, no one raised substantive questions regarding his findings. Thanks for reading and weighing in. If there are specific things you think Orfield got wrong, or problems you have with the interview itself, let me know.

  3. Several problems:

    1. You know Orfield sent his own kids to the single most segregated (white) elementary school in Minneapolis, and a private school with $23k tuition, yet you allowed him to get away with talking about how much of a disaster segregation is – with no challenge at all about how he has used white privilege for his own children.

    2. You ignore the fact that his “research” is actually funded with the conclusion in mind by the CTUL. Do you think they would fund and release an objective report about charter schools?

    3. Yes, there has been a response. It appears that are not interested in any other side except for the one that is ideologically aligned with your own. Cool. But, here’s another look:

    It’s just strange that you lack any racial, class, or cultural lens when interviewing Orfield about other people’s children.

    1. Funny, but the article you cite was written by Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. I guess he is also guilty of funding and publishing research with the goals of INCS in mind. Additionally, Mr. Broy lives in Oak Park, and thus is largely immune to the Chicago problems his organization seeks to fix.

    2. Chris: I’m posting this response on behalf of Myron Orfield.

      My oldest son recently graduated from Minneapolis Southwest High School which was 44 percent non-white. When he entered our local elementary schools it was 33 percent non-white. We chose it because it was integrated. I am a product of racially integrated schools that I attended when Minneapolis was under a federal court desegregation order and it changed my life in many positive ways. I recently attended my 35th high school reunion which like my graduating class was diverse and wonderful.

      As an elected official, I opposed the boundary changes that made our local elementary school whiter, I organized a public meeting against it with Isaiah (an interfaith religious group) at my church, spoke at a large public meeting of parents and community members to reintegrate the school. I served on the committee, in which parents recommended to the school board that the school be re-integrated. I went to dozens of meeting to integrate the school. The school promised to do something every year, but did not do it.

      My younger son’s private school was Groves Academy, which is for learning disabled children.

      I responded to the same attack by Chris Stewart in the Daily Planet several months ago in the same way.

  4. Two quick points:

    1) Chicago is so segregated. Charter schools (in my experience) tend to try to set up shop in neighborhoods with the most low income kids because the people in charter schools are attempting to help close achievement gaps (as much as followers of this blog doubt our good intentions). It follows, then, that charters in Chicago tend to be more segregated than the average CPS school since they are mainly setting up in the poorest neighborhoods (which tend to be primarily black or Latino).

    2) Integrated schools are not always the panacea that people think. In Boston, at least, more integrated schools seem to get better results. But when you drill down to racial groups, you tend to see minority kids doing just as poorly in those schools as they do in less integrated schools. The increased scores are a result of high performance by white and/or upper income kids. The same thing is generally true for minority kids or special ed or ELL kids in wealthier, suburban schools in programs like METCO. If you want to talk about false promises…

    I can’t speak to the academics / test score results, as I am not familiar enough with Chicago charters.

    1. A couple of other thoughts.

      When I say segregated, I mean REALLY segregated. I remember driving from Logan Square to West Garfield Park back in the day and every time you cross a train track the population changed. Mexican to Puerto Rican to Mexican to African-American.

      Also, Chicago is HUGE in terms of area. I imagine that most parents would want their kids relatively close to home and not traveling all the way across the city in elementary school.

      On the other hand, I was in two Noble Charter high schools last week and their populations seemed pretty diverse and the staff said kids came from all over the city. But that’s easier in HS, especially since both schools were blocks from the EL.

  5. I’d like to add that while I haven’t taught in Chicago, I have taught in Watts, also now known as South LA and once known as South Central. I even taught at a turnaround charter school there. While there, I met teachers and staff that were just as passionate about strong teaching and learning as my colleagues in traditional public schools in SF and NYC.

    I believe that South LA is home to the highest density of charter schools in the country. Because of this high density and increased access to choice, students move between schools year by year. In some cases, like that of my charter school, schools face declining enrollment due to so much competition between charter schools. When there is steep declining enrollment, programs are cut–school psychologists leave, counselors leave, “wrap-around” services diminish.

    All of a sudden, a school that had $15 million poured into it 9 years ago now is struggling to continue on.

    I see this as so much waste. Waste of talent and resources.

    Competition, in this case, is hurting those who support it most.

    But they will never tell you this. They will blame it all on the pesky district that built a gleaming new high school nearby. A beautiful, shiny school with labs and performances spaces.

  6. I completely agree with Orfield’s stress on the importance of school integration. In the 50s and 60s, I attended racially segregated neighborhood public elementary and middle schools in Chicago, and then an integrated neighborhood high school, due to changing demographics in our area of the city at the time. As Orfeld described of his own experience attending an integrated high school, mine truly changed my life. My friends in high school were black, white, Hispanic and Asian, and since we were all from very different cultural, religious, linguistic and economic backgrounds, we referred to our diverse social group as “The United Nations.” We learned a lot about each other and we bonded due to increased acceptance of our differences, as well as growing awareness of our many similarities.

    After that, attending a diverse college was an important goal for me, despite my father’s objections, and I have lived in integrated Chicago neighborhoods ever since. (Yes, we do have some.) Due to the fear and loathing of differing groups that my father had tried to instill in me, I doubt that I would have ever turned out as I did if I had not had that integrated high school experience. I wish that many more students here could have such a wonderful learning opportunity.

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