McPherson Chicago Public Schools CPS

Environmental Justice and Education Equity in Chicago

Last fall, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a scaled map shedding light on the cumulative environmental burdens across Chicago. This map piqued my interest because: 1) it’s a map, and 2) I was curious about whether other burdens/inequities share the same footprint with environmentally challenged residents of the city.

In my previous post, I tackled Chicago’s public transportation networks (as well as bikes and expressways) and looked for any negative crossover patterns with the NRDC’s map. Today, I’m taking a similar look at the locations of public schools in Chicago and whether areas with high environmental burdens also face school-related hardships. Although I have some familiarity with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system, I am no expert, so this was a learning experience. I also understand that education is an incredibly complex topic that is intertwined with other topics such as housing, income, and family/community involvement. Here, I’m simply comparing some aspects of CPS schools with the NRDC’s findings.

The CPS system comprises 513 district-operated schools, which includes a variety of school types, such as neighborhood, magnet, military, and selective-enrollment schools. Adding on charter and contract schools under the CPS umbrella, and the total is 644. In the current 2018-19 school year, more than 361,000 students registered at CPS schools, though that’s a decline from 371,000 the previous year. Not included here are the 76,000 private school students in the city.

CPS School Ratings

To get a sense of school quality across the city, I compared the ratings of schools with the NRDC map. I first looked at the dispersion of Level 1+ and Level 1 schools and was pleasantly surprised, as there appeared to be solid representation of these high-performing schools in all parts of Chicago. Nearly half of the school district has schools with either of these ratings, though that number dropped slightly last year. Still, citywide equity of high-performing schools is fairly good overall.

CPS Level 1 and 1+ Schools

CPS Level 1 and 1+ Schools


I then looked at how the lower-rated schools (Levels 2 and 3) mapped out. Note, that I did not include Level 2+ ratings, which generally indicate a higher-performing school. Here, I noticed more disparity, as the pins are scattered on the south and west sides, with very few on the north sides, where the environmental burdens are generally low. Not all of these schools are in high environmentally burdened areas, but most of the high environmentally burdened areas include multiple Level 2 and 3 schools. The vast majority of these schools are Level 2.

CPS Level 2 and Level 3 Schools

CPS Level 2 and Level 3 Schools


By filtering for only Level 3 schools, only eight of the 644 schools are shown, which is of course a good sign, but six of them are on the south side, a reflection of some of the socioeconomic imbalance between the north and south sides and an additional burden to people who are already environmentally challenged in these areas.

CPS Level 3 Schools

CPS Level 3 Schools


Two other CPS maps I looked at – Safe Passage Routes and School Tiers – also are indicative of the socioeconomic imbalance throughout the city and the correlation with environmental burdens. The Safe Passage Routes are, of course, a good thing, but they are generally in high-crime and heavily industrialized or trafficked areas.

CPS Safe Passage Routes

CPS Safe Passage Routes


The School Tiers map further emphasizes the economic and education prosperity on the north side, and the lack thereof in certain portions of the south and west sides.

CPS Neighborhood Tiers

CPS Neighborhood Tiers

CPS Neighborhood Tiers


CPS School Closings

While education policy has been a controversial topic in the city for decades, a key moment happened in 2013. Due to deficit factors, CPS announced it was closing nearly 50 schools, to much controversy. (Some non-closed schools moved into the buildings of closed schools and absorbed the latters’ student bodies, while some non-CPS schools have repurposed the buildings of other closed schools.)

NRDC Cumulative Burden of Environmental Exposures

Source: NRDC

I made a quick comparison of the school closings and the NRDC maps; it was an unsurprising revelation. Most of the neighborhoods with shuttered schools generally have high environmental burdens. This correlates with the NRDC’s original findings that the high environmentally burdened areas tend to be lower-income and with a population majority of non-white residents.

The factors that led to the dwindling enrollment and other reasons behind the school closures are highly nuanced. Yet, when conditions are not ripe for a healthy education, families take advantage of the city’s open enrollment policy and look to attend a better school elsewhere (more on that later).

Although not all schools in these environmentally burdened areas were closed, and not all schools in these areas are underperforming, there is a notable correlation of neighborhoods with low environmental burdens and neighborhoods with schools that remained open.

CPS Open Enrollment Policy

CPS has an open enrollment policy for most of its schools, that is, residents can apply to attend schools outside their home attendance boundaries. (Attendance boundaries don’t apply to specialty institutions like selective-enrollment schools). The benefit of this policy is that students are not restricted to attending what could be a lower-rated school in their neighborhood and, via a lottery, can potentially attend a higher-rated school in another part of the city. In essence, this helps promote education equity throughout the district and can help students who reside in high environmentally burdened areas get an education sans that burden.

The drawback is that as more students seek higher-rated schools, their neighborhood schools may suffer from dwindling attendance, which was a key factor in the 2013 school closures. In addition, as is the nature with insufficient supply to meet demand, especially in an equitable sense, it is well-known that the acceptance rates for the top-rated CPS schools are on par with Ivy League universities. What’s notable is that neighborhood schools in lower-income areas are suffering more from students eyeing other schools in the city. Charter schools, while technically part of CPS, have their own bylaws and have also gained popularity over the last several decades as wealthy donors establish schools that now bear their names.

To improve, the onus is on the neighborhood schools themselves and community/parental organizations to make improvements to keep students in the neighborhood, or better yet, flip the tables and draw kids from outside the neighborhood. Outgoing 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar has advocated for a strong K-12 school system so that families don’t flee to the suburbs or private schools if their kids don’t get accepted to a highly rated CPS school. During his tenure on city council, he spearheaded a grassroots effort to improve schools in his ward, notably Amundsen High School, which technically is in the 40th Ward, but is the neighborhood school for many of Pawar’s constituents. The school now has a Level 1+ rating.

From an economic perspective, this makes sense, in that if you want your kids to attend a good high school, you have to put some effort into it. Unfortunately, not every school in this same district is on equal standing, and many are exposed to far worse environmental conditions than others, which contributes to worse academic performance, as discussed by the Center of Public Integrity and in this recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, particularly looking at traffic pollution.

With the mayoral election this year, it will be interesting to see if and how CPS changes its current policies. As we’ve seen recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to close the schools in 2013 didn’t necessarily have the expected benefits.

My Anecdote on CPS Inequity

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of personal stories of people who work, are former students, or are parents of students at CPS schools. One story, in particular, sticks out to me. A few years ago, my wife and I shared a nanny with some friends of ours; we each had baby boys a few months old. We lived a couple of miles apart from each other on the north side, but our nanny lived on the south side near Chicago State University, a hefty distance away from us. When we first met this nanny and asked why she would want to make this commute for the job – after all, we weren’t offering a killer wage – she said she already was making that hour-plus commute each day. Huh? This was because her daughter attended Lake View High School, which was walking distance from where our friends lived.

As I mentioned earlier, through CPS’ open enrollment policy, our nanny’s daughter had the opportunity to attend most public high schools in the city, provided that she was admitted. We asked our nanny why she chose Lake View, and she said it offered more opportunities than her neighborhood school or others nearby and was also comparatively a higher-performing school. Unfortunately for her, getting from the south side to north side via public transit was anything but easy and over an hour each way. At a minimum, she would have to make three CTA trips with two transfers (including the long Red Line stretch from 95th to Sheridan), or take the Metra Electric from Chicago State to Millennium station and then continue with separate (and no-free-transfer) CTA trips. Thus, our nanny decided for her daughter to get the education she wanted, she would drive her daughter herself, work on the north side, and then make the reverse trip in the late afternoon.

After hearing this story, my wife and I talked about Chicago school policy and how so many people travel across the city just to go to school. Given the long commute, it seemed like an unnecessary weight on our nanny for her daughter to get a better education compared with what she could’ve received in her neighborhood. It also could’ve been that there were more job opportunities that our nanny desired on the north side, too, which is why she didn’t mind driving, so long as she had employment. I know there are hundreds of stories like this in the city, and it’s not just students making long commutes. As is well-known in Chicago, all employees on the city payroll (CPS teachers, firefighters, police officers, junior city council staffers, etc.) are required to reside in the city.

Education and Environment

But going back to education, if the schools were all roughly equal in quality, families like our nanny’s wouldn’t have to take on this everyday burden. In addition, not every student has the benefit of a private crosstown commute to school each day; rather than dealing with a long commute or a complex application process, many students simply attend their neighborhood schools.

Despite all being in the same school district, individual CPS schools have different funding needs, and often it’s incumbent on parents and communities to keep neighborhood schools attractive. No doubt, the wealthier (and therefore less environmentally burdened areas) have more proclivity to do that. We also have yet to see how Illinois’ new education-funding formula will play out.

So what’s the solution? There’s no golden apple. Cities need to balance their own education equity matters with other issues, and there are a variety of factors, from Springfield on down, that influence the quality of students’ education in Chicago.

In the case of environmental burden, cities need to serve both industry and families, thus environmental hazards and education must somehow coincide. Zoning is a highly contentious political issue, and relocating industrial corridors and factories to be more evenly distributed across the city is unlikely to happen. But considering that traffic pollution is a key element of environmental hardship, perhaps that’s where the city can start improvements (via traffic reduction and transit improvements) so that students citywide can have a more equitable education without the additional environmental burden. One way to reduce traffic is to create an equitable school network across the entire city, so that students can attend their local schools and avoid the hour-long commutes that exacerbate the pollution in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Environmental Justice and Education Equity in Chicago

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