Chicago at the Center

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s

Chicago (Flickr: Chris Carr)

Somewhere at the turn of the twenty-first century, in the first decade of charter school growth, a cliché took hold in education discourse. Charter schools made for “strange bedfellows.” Observers deemed it unlikely and perhaps inscrutable that some Black community organizers and parents in cities like Chicago had aligned themselves with an educational reform effort backed by, among others, white billionaires at foundations like Walton and Gates.

Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political EducationBlack Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s replaces the shallow cliché with a rich and deeply insightful analysis of what created today’s fractious and complex political landscape of education. There is a largely uncontested reality: massive inequality of opportunity continues to shape the experience of US students, with Black and Latinx students the most frequent subjects of funding formulas, student- and teacher-assignment policies, and testing regimes that punish them while privileging their white peers. But debates about how to respond — from how to teach reading to who should ultimately be accountable for a school’s success or failure — have become deep and at times intractable. Many elements of this debate cut sharply across categories of race and class, defying the facile expectation (conveyed in the “strange bedfellows” formulation) that Black communities in cities do, have, and should agree on a single route to educational achievement.

To make sense of this, Todd-Breland convincingly shows, you have to look to Chicago. She not only demonstrates the range and diversity of Black educational activism across the late-twentieth century there. She stitches the various threads together, revealing the lines of connection and evolution between, for example, desegregation advocates who turned to efforts for local control and teacher union power. Many of these key figures, like Lillie Peoples and Carol Lee, are Black women — whose foundational role in educational leadership both in community spaces and in schools and school systems is only beginning to get the attention it deserves. Their stories help Todd-Breland recount a “politics of black achievement” devoted to supporting educational self-determination and rejecting racist ideas of inferiority but flexible in both political and economic ideology and teaching approach. This synthesis itself is an important intervention in an educational history literature that too often portrays a schoolhouse version of the Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X declension trope, with desegregation activism crumbling into community control demands.

The politics of Black achievement meant for some the creation of autonomous institutions — from the Woodlawn Experimental Schools Project to Carol Lee and colleague’s Institute for Positive Education.1 For others, it meant working within the structure of the teaching profession — a key source of middle-class employment for Black women in Chicago — to gain more power and representation outside of, then within, the teachers union. The Chicago Teachers Union became a key force in supporting the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. With her characteristic rigor, however, Todd-Breland notices both the powerful accomplishment that it was to have Washington in office and Black leadership at the Chicago Teachers Union and increasingly at the Board of Education, and recognizes “the tensions between a politics of racial representation and a politics of progressive transformation” (144).

Todd-Breland uses the concept of neoliberalism to describe the most recent changes in school governance in Chicago. Charter schools funded with tax dollars but led by private operators, as well as new approaches to accountability and governance, align with the decision-making logic of the corporation and the market. These approaches created opportunities as well as frustrations for Black Chicagoans. Carol Lee becomes a charter school operator, her autonomous school now supported with public dollars. Yet the newly robust cadre of Black principals find local control measures — designed not on community guidelines but by predominantly white university-based educators’ specifications — undermine power just achieved. Todd-Breland explains that “Black organizers, educators, and parents navigated, challenged, and at times contributed to the rise of neoliberal politics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries” (180). “African Americans’ responses to the privatization of public services were largely based in histories that preceded the ascendency of neoliberalism. They reflected past struggles for racial justice and the historical denial of Black self-determination in urban public schools, rather than strong commitments to privatization or corporate logics” (180-181).

I had the pleasure of teaching A Political Education as the final book in my History of Urban Education course this spring. For a group of graduate-level educators and educators-to-be, the text brought together and furthered key themes in the course, from the persistent advocacy of Black communities for education to the multiple ways in which white elites have exercised control over the schooling of Black children. Students especially welcomed Todd-Breland’s concept of “selective hearing” — in which white-led, often corporate, reform efforts respond selectively to Black community demands, taking up and even co-opting those elements that align their interests and leave others conveniently unheard. Todd-Breland also intervenes in the contemporary as well as historical discourse when she insists on reclaiming the term “school reformer.” Now attached to the efforts of white and/or corporate-aligned elites, the phrase should be repurposed to credit the generative and enduring work of Black activists and educators mobilizing new visions of education.

When I teach the book next year, I will take the opportunity it provides to help students examine the often-used but often poorly-defined notion of neoliberalism. With students I would like to think through the benefits and drawbacks of Todd-Breland’s decision to characterize charter school expansion and other market-based schemes for student assignment and accountability as neoliberal. Nathan Connolly recently argues in his essay “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in the edited volume Shaped by the State, that the idea of neoliberalism as a new turn to privatization and models of corporate governance and administration is predicated on an overly celebratory depiction of previous forms of liberalism.2

But the history of education in US cities is rife with proof of the gaping holes and exclusions in US liberalism and of policies that blurred public and private and elevated corporate power. The basic mechanisms of school governance in Chicago, like in most US cities, took form in a “Progressive” ethos that celebrated white business-class leadership of schools. It embraced intelligence testing and other racist devices as part of efficient management (with profitability for test-makers and test publishers). It sanctioned the knowledge of white male experts over all others in the name of professional expertise. It pioneered zoning tools and municipal boundaries that helped create private property value through the distribution of public amenities like schools, structuring enduring resource inequality across the metropolitan area. 3 Todd-Breland understandably focuses on sites of change in the 1960s and onward, and she sensitively locates continuities in the long trajectory of Black educational activism. Which of the policy and market conditions these activists contested are best understood in terms of continuities as well? Todd-Breland’s work gives us much to think with there.

Connolly and Todd-Breland would agree, I think, that today’s contemporary school politics landscape is far from a story of “strange bedfellows.” It is instead one more example of the breadth of Black peoples’ historic and contemporary search for, as Connolly puts it, “mechanisms of survival under white supremacy.”

In a wonderful twist of scholarly fate, Elizabeth Todd-Breland is now a member of the Chicago Board of Education. As a former teacher as well as scholar, she is ideally positioned to help craft the path to survival and beyond.

  1.  For a national portrait of autonomous Black nationalist schools, see Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  2.  I thank Esther Cyna for a timely mention of this essay.
  3. David B. Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1974; Steven Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980); Andrew Highsmith and Ansley T. Erickson. “Segregation as Splitting, Segregation as Joining: Schools, Housing, and the Many Modes of Jim Crow.” American Journal of Education 121, no. 4 (August 1, 2015): 563–95; David G. García, Strategies of Segregation: Race, Residence, and the Struggle for Educational Equality. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018. The history of education still lacks a broadly synthetic view that accounts for the place of racism in the making of the urban school system.
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Ansley T. Erickson

Ansley T. Erickson is an Associate Professor of History and Education at Columbia University. Her research focuses on educational inequality and urban and metropolitan history. Her first book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits, tells the story of persistent inequality in Nashville, Tennesee's metropolitan school district during periods of segregation and desegregation. Follow her on Twitter @ATErickson.