Chicago Public Schools funnels extra money to magnet and test-in schools, and continues an expensive busing program for them, even as the schools do less to accomplish their goal of creating pockets of integration in an otherwise segregated school system, a WBEZ analysis shows.
The analysis looks at who is attending these schools and who is being bused to them a decade after a federal judge ended a court order that dictated the school district take steps to integrate them by race. That court order, called a desegregation consent decree, had been in place since 1980.
Most of the city’s 78 magnet and test-in schools — including classical, gifted and selective enrollment — were created under the decree as a way to lure in a diverse group of students. But even after the court order was lifted, school district officials said they believed integration was important, and they started integrating by the socioeconomic status of children.
Since then, they continued busing and extra funding for magnet and test-in schools and also added 13 new ones. This year, the school district plans to spend $50 million for busing and extra positions at these schools, which serve 62,000 students.
But a WBEZ analysis finds only about 20% of magnet and test-in schools meet the racial makeup goal set out in the court order, compared to 35% a decade ago. Under that definition, the goal was for white students to make up between 15% and 35% of the student body and black, Latino and Asian students to make up between 65% and 85%.
Six schools of the 65 in existence 10 years ago went from being considered integrated to not, while only one of the new schools has that mix of students. Among the schools no longer meeting this definition of integrated are Skinner North Elementary School, which opened in the last decade, and Walter Payton College Prep High School — two schools often named as the best in the city and the state. They have both seen significant increases in white students.
Some magnet and selective enrollment schools have programs for neighborhood children as well and, as they have become more popular, those schools have shifted to become less diverse.
Also, it is questionable whether busing is increasing the diversity of magnet and selective enrollment schools. More than 74% of students whose neighborhood school is majority black are bused to majority black schools; 43% of students whose neighborhood schools are majority Latino are bused to majority Latino schools and white students largely only take the bus to mixed or majority white schools.
More than half of all black students are bused from neighborhood schools that are more than 90% black students to magnet and selective enrollment schools with 90% or more black students. And a third of the students whose magnet or selective school is diverse are bypassing a diverse neighborhood school.
For example, Ann Socha sends her daughter to the regional gifted program at Coonley Elementary School in North Center. Over the past decade, Coonley, which also has a neighborhood program, has become more white and affluent.
Meanwhile, Socha’s neighborhood school, the school where the bus drops off and picks up her daughter, is more diverse than Coonley.
But she said she sends her daughter to Coonley because it has an accelerated curriculum and all the bells and whistles, from dance class to a nurse.
Parents want choices
School district officials say they no longer see integration as the primary goal of these magnet and test-in schools. Students are selected for test-in schools based on achievement, while magnets choose by lottery. Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said she considers these schools as one more option in a school system that believes parents should have choices.
“In some respect, it still does serve the purpose for diversity, but I wouldn’t say that alone is not the goal,” McDade said. “Sometimes, even when you have a strong neighborhood program, a magnet or selective school may be offering something that the parent may be seeking out.”
Rather than focus on these schools, McDade said it is more important to look at who has access to good schools and different types of programs anywhere in the city.
But many parents still see magnet and test-in schools as offering higher quality and as better resourced.
Niketa Brar, executive director of Chicago United for Equity, said multiple surveys show many people in the city believe magnet and test-in schools are given unfair advantages over neighborhood schools. She said few see the schools as havens of integration anymore, but rather symbols of a two-tiered system.
“It is one of the core ways in which we see in our everyday lives racial injustice playing out,” she said.
She said magnet and selective schools have been used as a way to allow families to avoid the problems of the public school system. This is especially true in gentrifying neighborhoods, she said, where parents put their children on buses to be driven away from their local schools.
“They become little havens of white people feeling like they are participating in the public school system while actually keeping their children segregated from the impacts of a local neighborhood school that have the same resources that every other child in their neighborhoods gets,” she said.
But it is not just white families that want a way out of neighborhood schools.
Joan Dowd picks up her granddaughter from a bus dropoff in South Shore most days. She attends the accelerated gifted seventh and eighth grade at Morgan Park High School.
Dowd thinks school integration is important, though Morgan Park, like her neighborhood school, serves almost all black students.
But Dowd says what’s most important is quality — and she thinks Morgan Park is the best option.
“At least here you got an opportunity to choose,” she said. You don’t have to "send your child to the neighborhood school, knowing it’s under-performing, and be stuck.”
Limits of a segregated city
McDade went to Whitney Young High School, one of the selective enrollment schools, and valued that experience. She thinks the diversity that she encountered at Whitney Young is important and says the school system should foster it where possible.
But she said the school district operates in a segregated city, so there’s only so much that can be done.
In recent years, CPS has opened more magnet and selective enrollment schools in communities across the city, giving even more students new options, even if they are racially isolated. This way, students don’t have to travel for hours to and from school, like McDade did.
Also, McDade argues many neighborhood schools have improved and many now get extra funding for specialties, such as fine arts or International Baccalaureate programs.
“Students don’t necessarily have to leave their neighborhood to get access to the kind of quality programming that once was only found in a magnet or a selective enrollment program,” she said.
But lots of families still make that trek. Brenda Delgado, who has two daughters and lives in Washington Park, said she did not consider sending her daughters to the neighborhood schools.
“They do not have the level of resources,” she said. As evidence of this, she said the school district has closed schools in her neighborhood and then closed schools that took in students from those closed schools.
Her daughters have gone to selective enrollment and magnet schools, most on the North Side or in the center of the city. Delgado said her daughters did not qualify for busing because the schools were too far away from her house. The school system only buses students between 1.5 and 6 miles away from the school.
She said the busing would be more effective in increasing diversity if it was expanded.
At the same time, some magnet and gifted schools have become so popular they are drawing more applicants from their neighborhoods, therefore shifting to look more like them.
That’s what parent Ramona Alcalá sees at Inter-American Magnet School in Wrigleyville, which has long had a majority Latino student population. It has a dual-language program, where students are taught in two languages.
But Inter-American is drawing more white families, which she said is changing the culture of the school. She said she thinks that the admissions policies are leading to the demographic shifts, not only at Inter-American, but at other test-in and magnet schools.
“You can’t look at them and say they are not benefitting white middle-class families — so should we continue the programs?” she asks. “I think we should revisit the policy to make sure we continue to have equitable access to them across the city.”
Not enough white students
Even the expert who helped devise CPS’ new admission policy 10 years ago agrees with Alcalá that it has led to some of the changes in the racial makeup of the schools.
It also comes down to a limited supply of white students. Just like now, when CPS entered into the desegregation consent decree three decades ago, the school district has too few white students to spread around and make all schools integrated. At the time, about 16% of students were white.
In the court order, Chicago agreed to create “the greatest practicable number of stably desegregated schools, considering all circumstances in Chicago.” The school system also agreed to provide additional funding for racially isolated schools.
In 1980, the school system put in place an admissions process that used racial quotas. But even under the court order, schools in black and Latino areas of town often did not get applicants of different races or ethnicities, creating magnet and selective schools with little diversity.
During the 2000s, Chicago Public Schools repeatedly asked for the consent decree to be vacated. Among other arguments, the school district noted the population of white students in the public school system had dwindled to below 10% and that it had done what it could.
School officials said at the time that they wanted relief from spending so much money on magnet and selective enrollment schools, especially busing. According to Catalyst, a now-defunct education publication, Chicago in 2009 was spending $23 million on busing for these specialty schools and another $50 million on extras for them.
School district officials, however, said they valued diversity and promised to continue supporting the magnet and test-in schools.
Education expert Richard Kahlenberg from the nonpartisan think tank The Century Foundation was brought in to help the school system come up with a new admissions policy. In a 2007 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court had precluded schools from using race as a direct factor in school assignments, though there was still some room to make it a factor in other ways.
In 2009, the school district abandoned racial considerations altogether and put in place a complicated system that aims to integrate schools economically by considering a student’s socioeconomic status as determined by where they live. School district officials also argued that socioeconomic status would be a proxy for race.
“There was a recognition that socioeconomic integration was beneficial in its own right and also that it has a potential to bring about greater racial integration,” Kahlenberg said.
Kahlenberg said he is not surprised there have been shifts in the racial makeup of these schools. But he was surprised that fewer low-income students go to these schools. Currently, about 57% of the students at magnet and test-in schools are low income. The school district average is 77%.
Kahlenberg said it is troublesome if that means some students are not getting equal access to the magnet and test-in schools, many of which are seen as the best in the city.
He said that might be a sign of a problem with the way students are chosen for these schools. He said Chicago went with a system that uses a student’s census tract to determine their socioeconomic status, but that it might be better to gather some characteristics from individual families. For example, parents could be asked their education level.
There’s also been a decrease in black students at the top selective enrollment high schools. Kahlenberg said this is disturbing.
“Talent is distributed across races, so there needs to be a better way of identifying talent when you see a strong decline in any racial groups representation,” he said.