Two young men graduate from a Chicago public high school.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Starting in 2020, Chicago students must prove they have post-high school plans to receive their diploma. Critics argue low-income students will suffer.

The Chicago School Board recently approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to make a high school diploma contingent on something more than completing coursework. Starting in 2020, a public school must also prove that they have secured a job or an acceptance to a college, a trade apprenticeship, a gap year program, or the military.

Advocates say it’s a good way to make sure all of Chicago’s kids are on a path to a productive future. But critics argue that there aren’t enough resources to ensure that the rule doesn’t punish low-income students of color, who generally attend schools that lack the funds of their wealthier, whiter counterparts. Without adequate support, such as guidance counselors, it’s more likely that these disenfranchised students will have a harder time meeting the requirement—thus exacerbating the very inequality that the new rule aims to remedy.

“Absolutely we want kids to go to college or have other plans post-graduation,” says Federico Waitoller, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “But it’s the way you go about it: Don’t punish the students. Give them more resources and incentivize them.”

CityLab caught up with Waitoller to discuss this issue as well as broad trends in American education that intensify economic and racial divides.

How does this new requirement relate to shifts in U.S. education policy?

The requirement continues a trend of accountability policies in Chicago as well as nationwide that place high stakes on quantifiable indicators in education. The idea is that if you attach punishment to the indicators, you’re going to get results. But the policies mostly create a culture of compliance. Students and schools play the game to meet the measures, and any outcomes aren’t real or long-lasting. In this case, kids may sign up for community college in order to get their high school diploma, and then drop out soon after starting. They don’t have the money or support to continue.

Which students will be most affected by the new requirement?

Like other accountability policies, this requirement mainly affects vulnerable students, such as black and Latino youth who come from low-income families, or youth with disabilities.

Schools are being strangled with demands, but given nothing for support. One of the main problems with the new rule is its emphasis on the work of guidance counselors in getting kids ready for what comes after graduation. Because Chicago Public Schools aren’t well funded, communities are picking up the bill where the city leaves off, and certain communities are able to do that better than others. For instance, in a wealthy area like Lincoln Park, a PTA can raise $50,000 at an event to hire another guidance counselor, whereas a similar event in a low-income neighborhood like Englewood would only raise a few thousand dollars.

Why don’t many Chicago Public Schools have enough resources?

The city has been cutting spending for its public schools for years. Part of this has to do with austerity measures, which are linked to a neoliberal approach in which social services for public education are cut in favor of supporting more private forms of education, such as charter schools. The mayor makes these decisions, as she or he appoints the school board. So residents can’t vote for those who administer public education; they basically have to follow the mayor’s policies.

What does this new requirement reveal about larger issues surrounding public education?

At its core, this is about the purpose of school. Are schools spaces where youth participate and become citizens in an emancipatory democracy, or are schools merely places to create labor? Essentially, does school have a democratic or economic purpose? Since the 1970s, both Democrats and Republicans have been moving in the direction of seeing schools as places to generate a labor force.

And there’s a split in our public schools, in which poorer schools teach their students to pass tests and to follow rules and procedures. In this way, they prepare these students for low-wage labor, such as retail and fast-food jobs. In the wealthier schools, the curriculum is very project-based, and is about problem solving and critical thinking. The students in these schools are much more likely to ultimately comprise the elite labor force, which enjoys both economic benefits as well as social mobility. Politicians—whether Democratic or Republican—and the elite want this type of education for their children, but for others they want the other type. Accountability policies like the new graduation requirement exacerbate this split and aggravate inequity because they put the major burden of the policies on low-income and other disadvantaged students.

What kind of opposition is there to the new requirement?

People are asking, who is benefiting from such a policy? If the city isn’t providing support and creating jobs for youth, where does the benefit go? Many believe it’s a political move on the part of Mayor Emanuel so that he can point to a quantifiable outcome (however temporary) as he looks to climb the political ladder.

The grassroots resistance in Chicago, particularly the teachers’ union, is strong. In 2015, community members even staged a hunger strike to pressure the school board to keep a public high school open on the city’s South side—and they won. Now, teachers are collaborating with parents and neighborhood organizations to fight back against the new graduation rule.

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