Arne Duncan and the Chicago Success Story: Myth or Reality?

By Jitu Brown, Eric (Rico) Gutstein, Pauline Lipman

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

When ex-President Bush was elected in 2000, he brought with him former Houston Superintendent of Education Rod Paige to be Secretary of Education. He also brought the “Texas miracle” — supposedly increased test scores attributed to Texas’ strict accountability system. All eyes smiled on Texas as those measures quickly became part of No Child Left Behind, passed into law in 2001 by both political parties. Before the end of Bush’s first term, Paige would leave in disgrace, thanks to revelations of cooked scores, forced-out students, and other barely legal means of inflating test results.

With the appointment by Barack Obama of Arne Duncan — a noneducator from the business sector who was Chicago’s “chief executive officer” — as U.S. Secretary of Education, this phenomenon may repeat itself. For the past several years, Chicago’s model of school closings and education privatization has received national attention as another beacon of urban education reform. This may have special relevance as the number of schools “identified for improvement” by NCLB criteria grows, numbering 11,547 nationally in the 2007-08 school year. Other school districts across the U.S. have already undertaken programs similar to Chicago’s — New Orleans, in the wake of Katrina, has had a massive privatization of schools (see the special report on New Orleans in Rethinking Schools Vol. 21, No. 1), New York City has proposed closing and phasing out schools using criteria similar to Chicago’s (e.g., test scores), and Philadelphia has followed suit as well, with a number of new charter schools. As Chicago Mayor Daley said in a 2006 press conference, “Together, in 12 years we have taken the Chicago Public School system from the worst in the nation to the national model for urban school reform.” The Chicago Commercial Club’s Renaissance Schools Fund Symposium, “Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market in Public Education,” in May 2008, was attended by school officials from 15 states. The headline for a Dec. 30 article in the Washington Post claimed, “Chicago School Reform Could Be a U.S. Model.” And outgoing Secretary Margaret Spellings praised Duncan as a national leader for his teacher incentive pay program.

However, Chicago school policy has not really been set by Duncan — Chicago’s education agenda is bigger than him and is about more than schools. Of course, he brought to the job his own strengths and weaknesses, and undoubtedly his own perspectives. We do not argue with those who claim that there have been some constructive steps while Duncan was CEO of Chicago’s schools. We recognize that his administration has responded to some initiatives that have emerged from the community and been organized by grassroots organizations. These include, for example, support for the state-funded Grow Your Own Teachers program, designed to recruit community members to be credentialed in order to teach in local schools and a program to help 8th graders make a smoother transition to high school. However, the larger agenda has been corporate and privatizing.

But Chicago Public Schools (CPS) policies are not really about Duncan or his successor. The biggest threat to finally achieving equitable and quality education in Chicago’s low-income African American and Latino/a schools is not the individual who carries out the policy but a system of mayoral control and corporate power that locks out democracy. The impact of those policies includes thousands of children displaced by school closings, spiked violence as they transferred to other schools, and the deterioration of public education in many neighborhoods into a crisis situation.

So it is important to describe the agenda in which Duncan is complicit. Two powerful, interconnected forces drive education policy in the city: 1) Mayor Daley, who was given official authority over CPS by the Illinois State Legislature in 1995 and who appoints the CEO and the Board of Education, and 2) powerful financial and corporate interests, particularly the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago whose reports and direct intervention shape current policy. As Pauline documented in her book, High Stakes Education, the mayor and Civic Committee are operating from a larger blueprint to make Chicago a “world-class city” of global finance and business services, real estate development, and tourism, and education is part of this plan. Quality schools (and attractive housing) are essential to draw high-paid, creative workers for business and finance. Schools are also anchors in gentrifying communities and signals to investors of the market potential of new development sites. For Chicago’s working-class and low-income communities, particularly those of color, this has meant gentrification and displacement, including of thousands of public housing residents. As in other U.S. cities, Chicago has also handed over public services (public housing, schools, public infrastructure) to the market and privatized them, and public education has been in the forefront. Although not the architect, Duncan has shown himself to be the central messenger, manager, and staunch defender of corporate involvement in, and privatization of, public schools, closing schools in low-income neighborhoods of color with little community input, limiting local democratic control, undermining the teachers union, and promoting competitive merit pay for teachers.

On the Ground in Chicago

CPS is the nation’s third largest public school system, behind New York and Los Angeles. According to the CPS website, the slightly over 400,000 students attend around 655 schools (including 56 charter campuses), and are 46.5 percent African American, 39.1 percent Latino/a, 8.0 percent white, 3.5 percent Asian/Pacific Islander/Native American, and 2.9 percent multiracial. The student body is 85 percent low-income. Chicago’s principals are majority African American (54.1 percent), and 13.2 percent Latino/a, and 31.3 percent white. The almost 25,000 teachers are 35.8 percent African American, 13.2 percent Latino/a, 47.3 percent white, and 3.7 percent Asian/Pacific Islander/Native American. And Chicago is well-known for having one of the most segregated school systems (and housing patterns) in the nation; literally hundreds of schools are 90 percent or more African American or Latino/a (e.g., 216 are 99 percent or more black!).

Let’s separate myth from reality. The myth is that Chicago has created a new, innovative way to improve education — Renaissance 2010. The heroes in this myth are Mayor Daley, who introduced Renaissance 2010 in June 2004 at a Commercial Club event, and Arne Duncan, who oversaw its implementation and was its chief spokesperson. Renaissance 2010 was touted as the future of education in Chicago, with a plan to close 60 schools and open 100 new, state-of-the-art, 21st-century schools. These schools would be either small, charter, or contract schools. Renaissance 2010 was (and is) marketed as an opportunity to bring in new partners with creative approaches to education. That’s the myth.

There is a completely different reality on the ground. For affected communities who have longed for change, Renaissance 2010 has been traumatic, largely ineffective, and destabilizing to communities owed a significant “education debt” (to quote Gloria Ladson-Billings) due to decades of being underserved.

The first phase of Renaissance 2010 was called the Mid-South Plan, announced in 2004. The Mid-South is a historic, primarily African American community on the South Side. It is also important to know that the Mid-South Plan ran parallel to the Chicago Housing Authority Plan for Transformation — the dismantling of public housing, a large concentration of which was in the Mid-South and on the African American West Side.

Collateral Damage

The Mid-South Plan was designed to close 20 of its 22 schools, almost entirely African American, over a four-year period, replacing them with Renaissance 2010 schools. Parents received notice from the Board the final day of school in 2004 that their children’s schools were closing. Children have been treated as cattle, shuffled around from school to school. One Mid-South school, Doolittle East, received over 500 students from June to September 2005 without additional resources to facilitate this change. This resulted in spiked violence. On the west side, the closing of Austin High School (another African American school) resulted in over 100 students who used to walk to school having to leave their community to go to Roberto Clemente High School, a primarily Latino school over five miles away. The results were spiked violence. When Englewood High School closed in 2006, hundreds of students were parceled out to Robeson, Dyett, Hyde Park, and Hirsch High Schools — all are African American. The community warned CPS that these moves would result in increased violence and put children’s lives at risk due to crossing neighborhood and gang boundaries. As usual, Duncan and CPS ignored community wisdom, and the results at all of these schools were destabilizing spikes in student violence.

Arne Duncan has overseen the beginning destruction of neighborhood schools with neighborhood students. Schools are no longer community pillars because many students no longer live in the area. When CPS closes schools and reopens them as Renaissance 2010 charter or contract schools, there is no guarantee or requirement that students who attended the old schools will go to the new ones — and many don’t. For example, not all new schools are the same grade level as the old schools. There are complicated applications and deadlines, limits on enrollment, requirements of families, and informal selection processes that may disadvantage some students.

Families with multiple children who used to attend one school have had to scramble as schools close and their children are split up. Young children who walked to their neighborhood school have had to leave their community and cross heavily trafficked streets. Schools that are “turned around” terminate all adults in the building, including security, custodial, clerical, paraprofessional, and kitchen staff (as if they contributed to students’ poor performance), causing severe dislocation and job loss in the community. Tenured teachers who are released are reassigned for 10 months as negotiated in the union contract. During this time, they receive their salary and benefits, sub some days of the week, and look for a position on other days. At the end of the 10 months if they have not found a position, they can be “honorably terminated.” As one parent of a child in a closing school said, “when you close a school, you kill the heart of the community.”

Dumping Democracy

In a democratic society, instruments of engagement allow citizen voice in decision-making processes. In Chicago education, that instrument is Local School Councils (LSCs). The most powerful parent, community, and teacher, local-school, decision-making structures in the country, LSCs’ responsibilities include hiring principals, monitoring budgets, and developing school improvement plans. With support, LSCs have demonstrated that they are effective models of local school decision-making. A 2005 Designs for Change study of 144 of the most successful neighborhood schools in Chicago serving primarily low-income students listed effective LSCs as a key reason for success. Despite this and other evidence documenting LSC effectiveness, CPS, under Duncan, has worked tirelessly to weaken LSCs by whittling away at their authority.

The LSCs came out of the grassroots movement to elect Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, in 1983. Parents and community members across the city made alliances and worked with school reformers to fight for local school councils, which the state legislature created when they passed the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act. Chicago’s LSCs are probably the most radical school reform in the country and are the largest body of elected, low-income people of color (especially women) in the United States.

In implementing Renaissance 2010, CPS ignored LSCs in the decision-making process. In many instances, the LSC at a school targeted for closure played a major role in the resistance to the school being closed. Why is CPS working to eliminate LSCs?   Consider this: Chicago has almost 7,000 LSC members. If they were organized, they would be a major force in the struggle for equity in education. In fact, CPS has worked extremely hard to underserve LSCs. When LSCs started in 1988, CPS provided all the training to LSC members. However, over the years, literally thousands of LSC members have complained about that training. CPS provides no information on the general history of Chicago school reform, nor specifically how LSCs came into being as we explain above. CPS also does not provide any specific training to students on LSCs (each high school has one student member). In response, a number of community organizations have done their own, independent LSC training for years.

Duncan publicly stated in April 2007 that he wanted to break the “monopoly” of the LSCs, and in October 2007, Board of Education president Rufus Williams, in a speech to the City Club of Chicago — a major grouping of business people — likened LSCs running schools to having a chain of hotels being run by “those who sleep in the hotels.” Nor is this attitude merely rhetorical. Until 2007, when public scrutiny exposed them, Duncan’s office overseeing LSCs had a staff of 7 facilitators to train and develop LSCs at nearly 600 schools. This leaves LSCs operating at a structural deficit — set up to fail.

In a democracy there must be opportunities to impact decision-making. CPS has refined sham hearings to a twisted art form. When schools are slated to close, CPS is supposed to hold public hearings (which Duncan never attended) so that a hearing officer and board members (who almost never attend) can engage the school community and listen to their rationale as to why the school should not be closed, or other alternatives should be explored. In virtually every case, parents, students, teachers, and community pour out their hearts. In many cases, they document how their school has been drastically underserved by CPS or that their school has consistently improved. Tears are shed out of fear for their children’s safety or the destruction of a family atmosphere in a school building; yet the CPS Board — on Duncan’s recommendation — consistently votes unanimously to close the school. This has prompted a revitalized effort by community members and organizations to remove the mayor’s authority to appoint the CEO and the school board and move towards an elected school board.

Militarizing Public Education

To justify Renaissance 2010, Duncan has been a strong proponent of school choice — including military schools. He was quoted in the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of USA Today saying: “These are positive learning environments. I love the sense of leadership. I love the sense of discipline.”

According to the CPS website, Chicago has “the largest JROTC program in the country in number of cadets and total programs.” CPS has five military high schools, more than any city in the nation, and 21 “middle school cadet corps” programs. The military high schools teach military history and have military-style discipline. Students wear military uniforms, do military drills, and participate in summer boot camps. The hierarchical authority structure mirrors the Army, Navy, and Marines, with new students (“cadets”) under the command of senior students who work their way up and require obedience from those in “lower ranks.” Like in the military itself, questioning, let alone challenging, authority is not looked upon kindly. In a city where barely 50 percent of entering high school students graduate (Swanson, 2008), and in a country involved in two wars, the option of military service tempts many, especially in a period of economic crisis. All but one of the military high schools are in African American communities, and all the middle school cadet programs are in overwhelmingly black or Latina/o schools. The rapid increase in these programs has occurred largely under Duncan’s watch, and CPS plans additional ones in the future.

Narrowing the Curriculum

Although gutting bilingual education, curtailing culturally relevant and critical pedagogies, and teaching to the test were byproducts of Chicago’s high-stakes accountability policies before Duncan, since he took over, accountability has increased. Before Duncan, schools could be put on probation and have external partners forced upon them, but now schools are phased out, closed, or “turned around” by private contractors (some funded by the Gates Foundation). In the turn-around model, everyone is removed from their position, from principal to custodial workers. Accountability measures drastically increase pressure to do well on standardized tests. “Extracurriculars” rapidly disappear, like art, physical education, and recess, as reported in an Aug. 25, 2008, Chicago Sun Times article.

Attacking the CTU

Two thirds of the 76 Renaissance 2010 schools are charter or contract schools. Not only do charter schools (since 2003) need only 50 percent certified teachers, but their teachers cannot be part of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) bargaining unit of 32,000 members. As one might expect, the union opposes Renaissance 2010. Contract school teachers can join the CTU — but only if their administration permits it. Chicago is losing its certified, union teachers as schools are closed or “turned around,” and displaced teachers with long-time seniority are becoming common. At a January 10, 2009, public forum on school closings attended by 500 people, veteran and award-winning teachers testified that they had lost their jobs through school closings and had not been rehired. As it is, charter schools pay thousands of dollars less, on average, for teachers with equal longevity, and many new schools substitute younger, less-expensive teachers for veteran, experienced union members.

Chicago’s policies have no doubt influenced Obama’s recommendations to double charter-school funding, institute merit pay for teachers, and emphasize standards and accountability. With Duncan as Secretary of Education, Chicago’s so-called successes and model of privatization, disinvestment, corporate/charter schools, and neighborhood school closings linked to displacement will garner attention and likely shape the discourse, policy, and practices of the Department of Education for the nation’s schools. Since Duncan was an eloquent proponent of all these in Chicago, we should assume that he would continue to be so — unless other voices make themselves heard.

Lessons from Chicago

Every time CPS proposes closing a neighborhood school, Chicago parents, teachers, and students organize, resist, and fight hard. Across the city, for the past several years, at every so-called hearing CPS has organized, the community turns out to fight — not for school choice and Renaissance 2010 schools, but for quality schools with qualified, conscious, caring teachers and adequate resources, in the existing school buildings in their neighborhood. Chicago’s experiences demonstrate that when people organize around their needs, victories can be won. Community organizations and residents, joined by progressive teacher and school reform groups, fought back and derailed most of the plan to close 20 of the 22 schools in the Mid-South (see “We’re Not Blind. Just Follow the Dollar Sign,” Rethinking Schools, Vol. 19, No. 4). But we have also seen the school closings shift to other parts of the city, some of which are less organized.

This speaks to how we understand our current tasks. We know that we have to continue to be involved in local educational issues while demanding that our communities be paid the education debt they are owed. And with the Obama administration, we should open the window of opportunity to demand that education be a top-tier issue in the U.S.

But we also understand two other key points. First, while we fight hard against educational privatization as well as displacement, we have to collectively develop a positive alternative, a strong and unifying vision of what education should be and a program that makes it real. We have to work for, and rally people around, what they themselves have repeatedly expressed — quality schools in every neighborhood that any resident can attend, adequate and equitable funding, qualified and caring teachers, genuine opportunity for parent input and decision-making, smaller class sizes, multiple and authentic assessments, and socially just and culturally relevant curriculum that prepares students to take their rightful place as makers of history and actors in the world. A critical means to this end is a community-based, democratic process of school improvement.

Second, it will take a social movement to push this agenda, no matter who is in the White House and Office of Secretary of Education. Our experiences and observations tell us that genuine partnerships between educators and engaged communities, and links between community wisdom and academic knowledge, can contribute to this social movement. We cannot build toward education for social justice without real partnerships in which teachers understand that their interests and those of their students’ neighborhoods are fundamentally aligned and that they need to express real solidarity with the ongoing struggles of those communities. This is needed not only to defend but also to transform public education in the real interests of all students, families, and their communities.


Designs for Change (2005). The big picture: School-initiated reforms, centrally initiated reforms, and elementary school achievement in Chicago (1990 to 2005). Chicago: Author.

Swanson, C. B. (2008). Cities in crisis: A special analytic report on high school graduation. Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.

Jitu, Rico, and Pauline are all involved in studying education in Chicago and in grassroots education struggles with youth, families, community members, teachers, and administrators. The analysis that we develop in this article is based on our shared knowledge and experiences. Our collaboration over the past five years, based on mutual respect and learning, solidarity, and shared political understandings, redefines traditional relationships between academics and community organizers. We believe that these kinds of principled relationships across boundaries are part of what is needed to win the fight for education justice.

Eric (Rico) Gutstein ( and Pauline Lipman ( are activist-scholars in Chicago. Rico also teaches high school math. Jitu Brown is a community organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. He can be reached at 773-548-7500.