Bill Healy/Kartemquin Films

Protesters against public school closings, Chicago, 2013; from the film ’63 Boycott

In 2012 Chicago public school teachers went on strike. They aimed not just to improve their wages and hours but to stalemate the reform agenda of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wanted to replace underperforming neighborhood schools with charter schools, lengthen the school day, and tie teacher salaries to students’ scores on standardized tests. Even for Chicago, a city noted for bare-knuckle politics, it was a bruising battle. At a City Hall meeting the previous year with Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who brusquely rebuffed his plea for the longer school day, the famously foulmouthed mayor had replied with a tart rebuke of his own: “Fuck you, Lewis.”

In the buildup to the strike, Lewis branded Emanuel—a former chief of staff for President Barack Obama—“a liar and a bully.” She also denounced Arne Duncan, who had served as school superintendent in Chicago before Obama appointed him as secretary of education in 2009. In one especially sour moment, Lewis even mocked Duncan’s apparent lisp. “This guy who has the nerve to stand up and say, ‘Education is the thivil rights ithue of our time.’” Lewis said. “You know he went to private school because if he had gone to public school he’d have had that lisp fixed.”1

There’s an astonishing lack of civility in the war over our schools, which are supposed to teach young people how to debate their differences in a civil manner. And in urban America, it’s mainly a civil war among Democrats. Chicago is a one-party town, like most big cities, but it’s riven by bitter divisions over charter schools, merit pay, and other hallmarks of contemporary education reform. Obama stood on the sidelines during the strike, remaining neutral even though he had supported charters and merit pay since his days as a community organizer in the city. Meanwhile, the teachers who mercilessly lambasted Emanuel and Duncan mostly gave Obama a free pass.

That’s because of race, which runs through our educational civil war like a bloody river. Obama’s color surely insulated him from charges of racism, which the sociologist Eve L. Ewing, author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard, sees as the driving force behind a spate of recent school closings in Chicago. It also protects him from attacks like those from the historian Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who in A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s unfavorably compares “neoliberal” reformers with community-based black activists seeking self-determination through education. At the start of her book, Todd-Breland notes that the heavily black, brown, and female makeup of a pro-union protest during the 2012 teachers’ strike made it look like a rally for Obama’s presidential reelection campaign of the same year. But Obama and the teachers were often at loggerheads, which is an inconvenient fact that both Ewing and Todd-Breland overlook.

Nor is Obama mentioned in the new documentary film ’63 Boycott, which features powerful original footage of a city-wide African-American student walkout on October 22, 1963, to protest segregated and overcrowded schools. The film includes contemporary interviews with participants in the strike, many of whom state the belief that the recent closing of predominantly black schools in Chicago reflects the same racism that created segregation in the first place. Likewise, they decry charter schools for undermining urban education and its largely African-American constituency. You’d never know from the film that charters have been championed by Obama, whose framed portrait appears briefly—and incongruously—during an interview in the home of a black Chicago civil rights veteran, even as he is denouncing Obama’s favored educational policies as racist.

If black children kept out of their shuttered schools are the “ghosts in the schoolyard,” to quote Ewing’s evocative title, Barack Obama is the Ghost of School Reform: we know he’s there, but he’s usually out of sight. Why would black parents protest the closing of their schools, Ewing asks, if these schools were truly failing? It’s a good question, and we can just as easily turn it around: If the effort to reform schools (including the closing of poorly performing ones) is bad for African-Americans, why have many African-American leaders endorsed it?

Supporters of reform include not just Obama but New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who recently announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2020. When he was mayor of Newark, Booker partnered with Mark Zuckerberg and other philanthropists to sharply expand charter schools in the city. He became a hero in reform circles but a villain to teachers’ unions, which see charters as a drain on neighborhood public schools and an attack on the labor movement (most charter schools are not unionized).

Booker tweeted out his support in January for striking teachers in Los Angeles, endorsing their demands for higher pay and lower class sizes. But he was silent about the union’s call for a moratorium on charter schools, which remain the major (if not always acknowledged) battlefield in the Democrats’ civil war over education. In the mayoral election after Booker departed for the Senate, Newark’s majority-black voters chose the vocal charter critic Ras Baraka over Shavar Jeffries, who now directs a staunchly pro-charter group called Democrats for Education Reform. Both sides in this dispute want more resources for public schools, but they differ strongly in their views of how the resources should be distributed and how the schools should be run.


In his autobiography Dreams from My Father (1995), Barack Obama recalled the dismal state of Chicago public schools in the 1980s, when he lived and worked in the city: crumbling buildings, low graduation rates, and bloated bureaucracies. But Obama found that the biggest problems were the teachers and principals, who defended the status quo by making excuses. The students were lazy and unruly, educators said, and their parents didn’t care. By contrast, Obama saw communities that were desperate for education and anguish about schools that could not, or would not, deliver it to them. This experience converted Obama into a believer in charter schools—which would, theoretically, allow parents to bypass their inadequate neighborhood schools—and also in merit pay for teachers whose students showed measurable academic gains.

Both elements became part of his 2009 “Race to the Top” initiative, which allowed states to compete for federal grants based on their embrace of his preferred educational reforms. States were rewarded for instituting merit pay and for removing limits on the number of charters they allowed, and also for establishing “college- and career-ready” standards. For all practical purposes, that meant adopting the “Common Core” guidelines, which aimed to establish a shared set of academic expectations across American schools.

It also meant that more schools would be deemed “failing”—and would eventually be closed—if they proved unable to raise student test scores. Serving some of America’s poorest children, urban schools were at the greatest risk of being shuttered. Sometimes a closed school was reconstituted as a different public school in the same building; sometimes it was replaced by a nearby charter school, privately operated but funded by public dollars; sometimes there was nothing at all in its stead, requiring parents to find schools outside their neighborhoods as well as transportation to get their children there. Echoing Obama, some Democrats insisted that reformers stay the course. Without high-stakes tests of student achievement, they asked, how can schools be held accountable?

But others hoped for a new kind of calculus that would acknowledge what underserved communities actually wanted: a traditional neighborhood public school, with sufficient resources to fund playgrounds, librarians, and the other features that are standard in more affluent areas. Schools that radically underperform by every numerical measure often remain popular with parents, Ewing reminds us in Ghosts in the Schoolyard, because “a school’s value is about much more than numbers.” In the US, schools have always been the most important public institution in community life. So if you tell a group of citizens that their school has failed, you’re also telling them that they have failed, and that they don’t deserve assistance of any kind.

That accounts for the bad blood in cities like Chicago, where Emanuel closed nearly fifty schools just a year after the teachers’ strike. Ewing points out that of the students affected by the closures, 88 percent were black; meanwhile, 71 percent of the shuttered schools had a majority-black faculty. None of this was lost on African-American students, teachers, or parents, who condemned the closing of their schools as an overtly bigoted act. “I feel like this is so racist of y’all to close down all these CPS schools,” a middle school student told a public hearing. “It’s taking away education from them when you closing their schools down and you movin’ them into new schools and you takin’ them out of they comfort zone and you takin’ jobs from teachers.”

Other students said that “the schools were closed because we’re black and we were failing all our tests,” as their teacher told Ewing; in the era of high-stakes testing, Chicago’s children obviously know about their low academic performance and its consequences for their schools. But to most of the people whom Ewing quotes, this isn’t really a question of academics at all. In the book’s most chilling remark, a former principal likens school closings to slave auctions. “I’m, like, begging you to keep my family together,” she told a hearing, between sobs. “Don’t take them and separate them.”

Ewing discounts the “quantitative reality” put forth by Emanuel and other reformers. She instead endorses community critics who pointed to “another reality” to explain why their schools were closed: racism. But she isn’t shy about invoking her own quantitative statistics in the case against school closings: for example, she notes that test scores plummeted in schools after districts announced plans to close them, and that students’ scores didn’t rise when they relocated afterward.


Ewing is deeply attuned to differences across races in Chicago, but she’s much less concerned with differences within them, and she doesn’t seriously examine diverse perceptions about schools within the black community. For example, national surveys reveal strong support among African-Americans for charter schools. But Ewing presents blacks in South Chicago as heavily opposed to charters, which suggests a bias in her sample of informants. She also tends to take her subjects’ observations about racism at face value. Everyone who perceives racism is assumed to be a victim of it, no matter what other forces are in play. And everyone charged with racism is viewed as a perpetrator of it. Leaders atop the Chicago school system “don’t care about African American communities,” parents tell Ewing. “They don’t care if we get an education.”

Did Chicago school officials—including African-American ones—really regard black communities with such disdain? Ewing says that’s the wrong question, because racism isn’t a matter of belief at all. It’s a system of power, designed to maintain the oppression and subjugation of black people. She compares it to a merry-go-round, which determines the position of each horse no matter who rides it. It’s a strangely robotic and bloodless metaphor, especially for a book that pays such careful attention to individual experiences. Drawing upon community hearings and extensive personal interviews, Ewing repeatedly demonstrates how her subjects perceived school closings as racist; but at the same time, she insists that racism isn’t a question of perception but rather of unequal outcomes: school closings disproportionately affect black students and inhibit their learning. So, if another scholar were to show that students’ test scores rose after their schools closed, would Ewing temper her claim about the racism of the policy?

I doubt it. Despite her insistence that racism isn’t a question of belief, her argument that the school closings were racist ultimately rests on the beliefs of African-Americans on the South Side of Chicago. The people she interviews think that the school closings were racist, and we should listen closely to them. But we condescend to them when we place their beliefs beyond critique, as if the victims of Chicago’s wrongful educational history can never be wrong themselves.

In A Political Education, Elizabeth Todd-Breland recounts that educational history in vivid detail, starting with the 1963 school boycott. African-American students and teachers staged several more citywide boycotts after that, focused especially on overcrowding in all-black schools. Rather than allowing black children to attend whites-only schools, which were much less cramped, school superintendent Benjamin Willis relocated thousands of African-Americans to portable classroom trailers. These “Willis Wagons” became a symbol of racial inequality in Chicago and a spur for black demands for school integration, which African-Americans said would relieve overcrowding and give their children access to the better educational resources that whites commanded. But resistance in white neighborhoods—and, eventually, white flight to the suburbs—killed that dream a few short years after it began.

Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey: Theresa, South Shore High School, Chicago, IL, 2003; from Bey’s ‘Class Pictures’ series. The photograph appears in his new book, Seeing Deeply, published by University of Texas Press.

Then came school reform, which Todd-Breland casts as a product less of racism than of neoliberalism. This term has become something of a cliché in progressive political circles, signifying everything from free-market capitalism to government austerity.2 In Todd-Breland’s book, it connotes “policies premised on market-based principles of competition, privatization, charter school expansion, and a reliance on standardized testing.” To her credit, she acknowledges that the neoliberal project drew bipartisan as well as multiracial support: in Obama’s first year in the White House, for example, his administration engaged the strange bedfellows Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich to campaign together on behalf of his Race to the Top initiative.

But in Todd-Breland’s telling, the neoliberal reform tradition has always stood in tension with what she calls “Black self-determination.” As the integrationist dream stumbled in the late 1960s, African-Americans in Chicago sought to develop their own educational institutions. Some created private schools, often with Pan-African themes; others worked with neighborhood organizations to develop public schools under “community control,” which aimed to wrest power from the mostly white bureaucrats who sat atop the city school system. Buoyed by creative leaders and strong parent networks, some of the schools flourished; others wilted and died.

Still others reorganized themselves as charter schools in the 1990s, which raises a challenge for Todd-Breland’s interpretation: How could a school with roots in the black tradition of self-determination that she admires embrace the neoliberal reform that she rejects? Part of the answer lay in the resources that taxpayer-supported charters promised; if charters were “the game in town,” one cash-strapped black school leader reasoned, “then we need to get a piece of the action.” But the price has been a dilution of black self-determination, Todd-Breland argues, which has been “co-opted” by neoliberalism and “repurposed” in the language of individual achievement rather than collective racial uplift. She concludes her book with a ringing call to rediscover the older radical spirit, which can reconnect African-Americans to their communities and reshape their schools around black pride and purpose.

Todd-Breland finds the radical spirit alive and well in the 2012 teachers’ strike as well as in the 2013 protests against Emanuel’s school closings. She also sees traces of it in the national Movement for Black Lives, which demanded a moratorium on charter schools in 2016. But Todd-Breland fails to note that the same demand led to the defection of several prominent Black Lives leaders, who believed that charters could empower black parents and communities. “I think it’s our job as education reformers, as people who are fighting for educational justice, to engage the community, to engage our parents and to make sure they have the best information,” declared Rashad Anthony Turner, who stepped down from his Black Lives leadership position in Minnesota after the organization’s charter moratorium. “Because I don’t believe that any parent on the face of this Earth would say that they shouldn’t be in control, or be able to choose, where their child goes to school.” The alternative, he said, was to make students “continue to suffer” in their current neighborhood schools, where “you might be one of the 70 percent of kids who can’t read at the end of third grade.”3

Despite their insistence on the importance of listening to black voices, Ewing and Todd-Breland don’t pay much attention to voices like Rashad Turner’s. For pro-charter views you need to consult Arne Duncan’s recent memoir, How Schools Work, which traces his rise from Chicago’s South Side to being the head of the city’s public school system and ultimately secretary of education in the Obama administration, from 2009 to 2015. Duncan—a cheerful and unrepentant champion of school reform—grew up just a few blocks from some of the closed schools described by Ewing. As he readily admits, he came from a much more privileged background than most of Ewing’s subjects: his father taught at the University of Chicago, where Duncan attended the university’s elite (and mostly white) Laboratory School. But he routinely interacted with African-Americans, either by playing basketball on local courts (Duncan eventually played pro ball in Australia) or by tutoring at a South Side children’s center run by his mother, where Duncan learned about the low-quality education provided by many of the city’s public schools.

When Duncan took over as schools chief in Chicago in 2001, just half of entering ninth-graders in the city graduated high school; only a quarter of those graduates were ready for college; and only half of those ready for college would complete it. So of one hundred high school freshmen, six were likely to graduate from college; among black and Latino freshmen, only three would do so. Nationwide, the news was similarly dismal: half of black and Latino students graduated from high school, and between a half and a third of those graduates were ready for college.

As Duncan proudly notes, his efforts to reward successful schools—and to close lower-performing ones—led to higher graduation rates and remarkable test-score gains: by 2018, Chicago schoolchildren between third and eighth grade were improving at a faster rate than students in 96 percent of American schools. Yet nearly three fourths of eighth graders in the city still aren’t proficient in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress: despite their accelerated rates of improvement, many children start so far behind that they can’t catch up. Meanwhile, Duncan never mentions the large body of research suggesting that test-based incentives don’t enhance student learning in the long run. Most prominently, a rigorous 2011 study by the National Academy of Sciences—examining nationwide data over nine years—found little consistent effect of standardized testing upon academic achievement.

You’d think that a guy who is so wedded to data—a recurring theme in Duncan’s book—would at least mention this study. But in the battle over school reform, every side invokes research that buttresses its viewpoint and downplays research that doesn’t. Near the end of her own book, Todd-Breland states flatly that charter school students “have not consistently performed overwhelmingly better than students in traditional public schools.” But a 2015 Stanford study found that black students in charter schools gained the test-score equivalent of thirty-six extra days of math learning and twenty-six extra days of reading per year, compared to peers of similar background in regular public schools. That’s hardly the last word on a subject that continues to generate new research and debate. But it’s disingenuous for Todd-Breland, Duncan, or Ewing to pretend that the research speaks with a single voice, when they know full well that it does not.

We live in a cynical age. And it’s the height of cynicism to imagine that your side is defending “the kids” while the other side is deliberately neglecting them. The basic faith of liberal democracy is that equally informed people can reason from the same set of facts to different conclusions. But in the uncivil war over schools—which, it’s worth restating, are supposed to teach future citizens that liberal faith—we seem to have abandoned it. If you want to test minority students and hold their schools accountable, you risk being called a racist who seeks to keep them mired in oppression; if you oppose such measures and want to keep your neighborhood school open, you may be denounced as a union shill who puts adult interests ahead of the kids. But how will our children learn to deliberate their differences in a civil manner if the adults in the room can’t, or won’t? The problem here isn’t neoliberalism; it’s illiberalism, which imagines every political opponent as a mortal threat to the nation. And it permeates the entire debate over our schools, belying their democratic premise and purpose.

Nor is it clear whether victory for either side would make a substantial difference in the lives of America’s poorest children, who need much more assistance than our political system is willing to give them. In the recent Los Angeles school strike, for example, teachers won an immediate seven-student reduction in high school math and English classes beginning next year. But in a city where some classes have as many as forty-six students, it’s unlikely that reducing class size by a few students will improve learning. In a landmark study in Tennessee in the 1980s, researchers demonstrated that students in classes of between thirteen and seventeen children scored significantly better on standardized tests—and were more likely to go to college—than students in classes of twenty-two to twenty-six. Many Los Angeles classes are already much bigger than that, of course, and bringing them down to a level that actually enhances learning would require a huge—and, at present, unimaginable—redistribution of resources. In that light, debates over charter schools and merit pay sound a bit like moving chairs around on the deck of the Titanic. Until we’re willing to make large and sustained public investments in poor urban communities, most of their public schools will continue to languish.

When Barack Obama appointed Arne Duncan education secretary, he instructed him to move ahead aggressively on merit pay, charter schools, and Common Core. But he also cautioned against alienating his opponents, especially those in his own party. “Just don’t poke the unions in the eye with this,” Obama warned. “Let’s engage, not attack.” He might have been wrong about school reform, as Eve Ewing and Elizabeth Todd-Breland suggest, but he was right about democracy. We could do worse than to listen to him, especially right now.