Jennifer Nava, Stephanie Carrasco, Maria Martinez, and Francisco Flores have been enrolled in public schools in the South Side of Chicago their entire lives. Attending Nathan Davis Elementary School, Curie Metropolitan High School, Hancock High School, and Kelly High School respectively, all four students are members of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), a grassroots organization in the predominantly Latinx Brighton Park district. The teens have spent much of their young lives organizing, protesting, and speaking, with BPNC’s help, on behalf of the neighborhood schools they attend. And as a new administration proposes radical changes to the public school landscape, all four are keenly aware of what is at stake for their schools in the coming years.
While the Trump administration has yet to release a concrete plan for public school reform, the president’s newly appointed secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has been far from silent on the issue. A long time philanthropist and activist, DeVos has spent much of the past decade embodying the phrase ‘put your money where your mouth is.’ Just last year she donated over ten million dollars of her personal fortune through her philanthropic group, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. Much of that money went to Christian-related education groups, such as the the Grand Rapids Christian School Association ($350,000), the Ada Christian School Society ($50,000), and the Rehoboth Christian School Association ($10,000).
However, DeVos’s influence in public education is defined less by her charitable donations than by her political ones. The American Federation for Children, a political action committee formed by donations from the DeVos family and chaired by Betsy DeVos herself until this past November, has been at the forefront of the battle for school choice since it was founded in January 2010. The group envisions, in its own words, a “an education system where parents are empowered to choose the best educational environment for their child … whether it be in a traditional public school, public charter school, virtual learning, private school, home school or blended learning.” Among its central tenets are private school choice (i.e., the removal of neighborhood boundaries for public schools in conjunction with the implementation of voucher programs to fund private school tuition) and charter school expansion. In practice, it has doled out millions of dollars in states like Wisconsin and Michigan to state legislators who support its mission, making it among the most influential education lobbying groups in the country.
(From left to right) Karina Martinez, Lili Villa, Maria Martinez, Jesus Sanchez, and Jennifer Nava protest CPS budget cuts.
For Nava, Carrasco, Martinez, and Flores, the implications of having an education secretary who supports these radical reforms are massive and multifold. Private school choice has faced serious criticism since its conception, both for its effectiveness and for its impact on public schools in low income areas. The latter sort of criticism is especially relevant for these South Side students: all of them attend schools with student bodies that are over 90 percent low-income, and that therefore receive a significant amount of federal funds through Title I, a Department of Education program that donates federal money to public schools with “disadvantaged” student bodies. As Trump and DeVos have vaguely alluded to “reprioritizing” $20 billion dollars of this money towards voucher programs in the coming months, these students’ schools could see a substantial reductions in federal funding in the near future. These reductions could be devastating, especially given the budget constraints they already face. Flores’s elementary school, Nathan Davis, lost $200,000 in state funding last year, while Nava, Martinez, and Carrasco all attend high schools that have been brutally hit by recent CPS cuts in response to Governor Rauner’s recent mid-year budget veto, losing $103,000 (Kelly High School), $167,000 (Curie High School), and $240,000 (Hancock High School) respectively.
In practice, this could mean worse conditions for schools that are already suffering. Carrasco, when asked about the impact of budget reductions on Curie, described how “we find mold in the food, our milk is expired” and how the bathrooms lack working sinks and trashcans, meaning “girls will stick their used lady hygiene products in toilet paper dispensers.” Flores similarly spoke of how his teachers “struggle to print copy” due to the lack of funds, while Martinez recounted how the number of counselors at Hancock, a school with three thousand students, has been reduced to six. She went on to say that “firing counselors is the worst thing that can happen to a school.”
Two students from Nathan Davis Elementary School deliver letters to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office.
DeVos’s embrace of charter schools could have a similar impact. Although charter schools, unlike private school choice, have been shown to improve student performance by several major studies, including a 2013 analysis by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), they have also faced criticism for their middling success and their impact on low-income neighborhoods. BPNC are outspoken critics of charter expansion in Chicago: just last summer they led a campaign against a new Noble Network charter school in Brighton Park (despite their efforts, the school was approved by the board of education later that year). They argue that charter expansion weakens neighborhood public schools, like those attended by Flores, Carrasca, Martinez, and Nava, by pulling away students and, in the process, resources. While the issue is complex, there is data to back them up: especially in states with budget struggles like Illinois, public and charter schools often find themselves competing for funds.
When asked about charter schools, Nava responded that she “would be fine with them, if they weren’t taking our resources.” She also expressed frustration at what she perceived to be a cycle of taking away funds from public schools and then criticizing them. Carrasco echoed that sentiment, telling Gate reporters, “they’re giving us a bad rep because we don’t have the funding, but we don’t have the funding because it’s all going to charter schools.” All four students pointed out that their neighborhood schools accept all students, regardless of income level or ability, echoing the common critique that charter schools are typically far more selective in their admission, sometimes excluding students with learning disabilities, language disabilities, or disciplinary issues. Curie, Davis, Hancock and Kelly all have learning disability rates of 9 percent or higher, along with limited English rates ranging from 9 percent at Curie to 52 percent at Davis.
Overall though, many of the students’ concerns revolved less around specific plans and more around a general sense of, in Carrasco’s words, “going down the wrong path.” Flores, expressing discomfort at the notion of DeVos as secretary of education, said he wished she “would come try our food, and come to our bathrooms,” to “see firsthand what a public school in CPS and nationwide looks like. She needs to push to help these schools.” Martinez, for her part, just “doesn’t want things to get worse.”
Nava’s concerns, however, went deeper than that. Having protested, lobbied, and rallied with BPNC since elementary school, she says her biggest fear is “getting used to the failure.” Going on to describe how she isn’t disappointed by CPS budget cuts anymore “because it's something that happens constantly” she concluded that “I’m really hoping that we finally get something done, that we finally get a win. I don’t want my little nephew to have to fight like I do.”
All school statistics are from the CPS Data Library, which can be found here: http://cps.edu/Schools/Find_a_school/Pages/findaschool.aspx
In the process of reporting on this story, Gate reporters reached out to the Education Department, Chicago Public Schools, and the American Federation for Children. Both the Education Department and CPS declined to comment, while the AFC’s Director of Communications, Tommy Schultz, gave the following statement:
“For families in Illinois, a well-designed federal tax credit scholarship program could be a great way to have access to a high quality education for their kids. There are hundreds of thousands of families across the country who are currently benefiting or have benefitted from state tax credit scholarships—like Denisha Merriweather in Florida who went from failing third grade twice to then going on to being the first in her family to graduate high school and the first in her family to graduate college due to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Families who find that their kids’ schools aren’t satisfactory should have the opportunity to access a school that better fits their needs. The research is clear that the kids with school choice options have better outcomes, and their public school peers have better outcomes as well. There are more than 3.5 million children enrolled in either public charter schools, or in one of the fifty private school choice programs in twenty-five states, and millions of additional parents in Illinois and across the country are also wanting the option to choose the best school for their children.”
The images featured in this article are courtesy of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.
Jacob Toner Gosselin
Jacob Gosselin is a rising fourth-year, majoring in Math and Economics and minoring in Creative Writing. He is interested in health policy and criminal justice reform. He's currently working as a data journalist with Injustice Watch, a non-profit newsroom in Chicago. He's previously interned at the Brookings Institution's Center for Health Policy, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. On campus, Jacob is the Captain of the Varsity Cross Country and Track teams, and was the Managing Editor of The Gate from 2017-2018. He enjoys reporting on local issues, running with his friends, and tutoring at Chavez Middle School with the Chicago Peace Corps.