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Northside College Preparatory High School is one of CPS’ most highly sought-after selective enrollment schools.

Northside College Preparatory High School is one of CPS’ most highly sought-after selective enrollment schools. The Chicago Board of Education is looking to shift priorities toward neighborhood schools.

Pat Nabong

Chicago could move away from school choice. Here's what that means for parents and students.

The Chicago Board of Education has signaled it wants to move away from a “school choice” system that currently allows students to vie for seats in competitive programs and instead shift back toward neighborhood schools.

Earlier this month the board passed a resolution to set parameters for a five-year strategic plan. Chicago Public Schools will host community meetings in the coming months.

But the announcement is causing alarm across the city from parents who worry that CPS intends to eliminate its selective enrollment programs and charter schools.

Here’s what the school board proposal could mean for public education in Chicago:

What is school choice in Chicago?

Selective enrollment and magnet schools are the oldest types of choice in Chicago. Students have to test into selective schools, while students are chosen for magnet school through a lottery. In CPS, there are 32 stand-alone magnet elementary schools, 14 selective enrollment elementary schools and 11 selective enrollment high schools. These serve about 10% of all elementary schools and 16% of all high school students. The top selective enrollment schools consistently rank among the best in the city, state and nation.

Then, there are charter schools. These are publicly-funded, privately-run schools. Though some of them have proximity preferences, students are mostly chosen through lotteries. They comprise about 15% of all CPS students.

While magnet, selective enrollment and charter schools are stand-alone choice schools, choice in CPS extends way beyond them. There are career and technical high schools, military high schools and tons of specialty programs from fine arts to International Baccalaureate in general education schools. What’s more, almost all neighborhood schools accept students outside their attendance area.

Fewer than 25% of high school students and fewer than half of elementary school students attend their neighborhood school.

Why has Chicago embraced school choice?

Many selective enrollment and magnet schools were created under a federal desegregation court order in 1980 as a way to have at least some integrated schools in a segregated city. That court order was lifted in 2009. Officials have kept an admissions system that seeks to keep at least some of these schools somewhat diverse, but these days these policies are more about access to high-performing schools than integration.

School choice really took off under Mayor Richard M. Daley. His Renaissance 2010 plan opened 100 new charter, magnet and selective enrollment schools, as well as a few neighborhood schools. The argument besides integration is that the school choice movement gives all parents the right to choose where their children go, just like wealthy parents do. School choice advocates say students shouldn’t be trapped in an under-performing neighborhood school just because of where they live.

Why does the board want to move away from choice?

Mayor Brandon Johnson and his school board say school choice has created a “Hunger Games” scenario where competition is fierce to get into those perceived as good schools and students are sorted by ability.

Selective enrollment schools have historically been disproportionately white, Asian and middle class and the top schools are increasingly so. The board will likely look at policies proven to help low-income Black and Latino students land spots.

The end result is that the school system is left with neighborhood schools in poor communities with small populations of students who have particularly high needs. Some of these schools lack racial, socio-economic and ability-level diversity. Johnson and the board contend this is not healthy for students or communities.

So will my child’s selective enrollment or magnet school close?

No. Board members say they don’t foresee the wholesale closing of any one type of school.

But charter schools will face increased scrutiny and more could wind up being closed. Board members say they want these schools to fulfill their promise of providing a better education. While the school district doesn’t spend more money on charter schools than others, they result in the district spreading its limited resources among more schools.

When it comes to selective enrollment and magnet schools, the strategic plan will likely focus on admissions policies and funding.

There is a state moratorium on school closings until 2025.

What’s the vision here?

The district is facing a budget deficit of $670 million starting in 2025 and really addressing long-standing disparities could mean re-distributing money. In the past, neighborhood schools have suffered the brunt of budget cuts as their enrollments shrunk. Under this new way of thinking, that could change.

The board also wants to expand an expensive program that brings activities and services into neighborhood schools to make them community hubs.

Overall, the board wants to make changes that will result in families happily choosing their neighborhood school. They talk about things like setting a standard of what all schools should have whether that’s arts programs or access to social emotional resources — and providing funding based on what schools need to meet this standard.

What does this mean for my child now and down the road?

In the immediate future, nothing specific has been decided. Parents should feel comfortable sending their child to selective enrollment, magnet or charter schools. But keep in mind that could change in the future when it comes to who gets in and what is being offered.

So why is the board doing this now? They have a sense of urgency. In just one year, the terms of Johnson’s appointed board members will expire as the panel expands from seven to 21 members; at least 10 new members will be elected in November. Johnson and his board hope that the strategic plan will keep their vision alive, even as their power dissipates.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on X @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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