This is a trick question. The top-performing schools in most major urban areas - like Chicago - are already far outperforming even the wealthiest suburban schools. But that response avoids reality for most students outside suburban areas. In Chicago, your child’s chances of being admitted to Northside College Prep are worse than being admitted to Harvard. The real question remains: when will quality in the city for most students be better than the quality of schooling for most students in the suburbs?
This old question applies to almost every major urban area in the United States. This article uses Chicago as an exemplar. No suburb can compete with Chicago for money, resources or talent, but city schools underperform on just about any measure you might choose: academic progress, school environment, student quality, teachers, administrators, graduation rates, persistence scores, instructional time, activities, university attendance or almost any other measure.
Historic reasons for Chicago’s relative underperformance are that middle-class parents move to the suburbs and take their political power with them. This conventional wisdom is that the routine movement of middle-class parents to the suburbs leaves city parents with less political power and less capacity to demand excellent schools. Conventional wisdom also holds that navigating the city’s schools is really hard compared with the ease of sending your kids to most suburban schools. Navigating city schools is so tough that wealthier parents opt out of the system entirely and move out or send their kids to private schools.
A colleague who swore she would never leave Chicago recently gave up and moved to the suburbs. Central to her decision were some easy comparisons. Compared to the suburban school where she planned to move, her high-quality city school had no busing, a shorter school day and school year, larger class sizes, a lower employee retention rate, minimal athletics and arts facilities and a budget a quarter smaller than the suburban school.
Funding underlies the problem. Illinois has the most inequitable school system in the country, with the wealthiest districts spending almost $30,000 per year per pupil and the poorest ones spending around $8,000. Illinois is one of a few states that still funds schools this way. A funding system based on local property taxes makes downstate districts the poorest, north suburban districts the richest and city schools left hovering in the middle. Suburban public officials talk about the joys of local control, but the dirty underside of that argument in Illinois is the system of grossly inequitably funded schools. In the north suburbs schools routinely spend $15 million on a pool while city schools struggle to find a few thousand dollars to remodel student bathrooms.
Despite these structural economic constraints, Chicago is taking steps to be more competitive. The success of Chicago’s selective enrollment schools – Brooks, Hancock, Jones, Lane, Lindblom, Northside, Payton South Shore, Westinghouse and Whitney Young – shows that the city unquestionably has greater talent than the suburbs. Those schools put higher-spending suburban districts to shame by producing some of the most competitive students in the country even though the students in those schools typically come from much more financially humble homes.
Local control of schools creates gross inequalities. The city will surpass the suburbs when legislators fix school funding.
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