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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Defining Racial Equity in Chicago’s Segregated Schools: The Complicated Legacy of Desegregation Reform for Urban Education Policy


The bold strategies of urban education reform over the past twenty years appear to most scholars and commentators as an abrupt political revolution, breaking from the established status quo of public education governance by embracing privatization, school choice, and the test-based accountability of schools and educators. Focusing on the high-profile case of the Chicago Public Schools, this paper interrogates this historical narrative by investigating less explicit moments of policy innovation that preceded the contemporary period of sweeping legislative reform. In Chicago, and across the nation, certain programs and policy reforms currently associated with school choice were first established in the name of racial desegregation. This institutional and discursive analysis of Chicago’s Student Desegregation Plan of the 1980’s asks how the initial expansion of choice-oriented programs both anticipates the policy logics and framework of contemporary neoliberal reform and paves the political path for Chicago’s early adoption of this neoliberal reform framework. Against the widely held notion that contemporary reform departs from older notions of racial equity embedded in desegregation reform, this study draws on archival sources representing multiple public voices and competing state actors to complicate the issue of school desegregation, revealing a contested space where divergent motivations and conflicting frameworks struggle to influence the course of reform. I find that the use of choice-oriented programs in the context of Chicago’s last major desegregation initiative reflects an implicit shift to a new definition of educational equity, one that eschews the court-ordered obligation to redress the institutional harms of segregated schooling and frames equity not in relation to racial and geographic patterns of inequality but instead in terms of equal access to necessarily unequal public school options.

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