History Is Now

A new history helps understand conflicts around education in Chicago today

The second CTU strike in less than ten years has forced the city government and the parents of children enrolled in Chicago Public Schools to contemplate the issues of overcrowding, under-resourcing, and neglect plaguing the system. Published last October, Elizabeth Todd-Breland’s A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s arrived at the perfect time to make it clear that, far from a repetition of history, the current moment is merely the latest in a long arc. Todd-Breland’s book is a thoughtful, timely, and necessary grounding in the modern history of Black education reform movements, which have centered on struggles for community control, fights for adequate resources, and a myriad of battles around the desegregation of schools. The 2012 teachers strike serves as a frame for the book, and Todd-Breland drops sharp, understated commentary and deftly presented synthesis squarely in the middle of the current conflict. 

Todd-Breland is an associate history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is currently serving as a member of the Chicago Board of Education after being appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who ran on a platform including an elected school board but worked to successfully kill a bill that would have created one shortly after taking office. In her book, Todd-Breland skillfully establishes the major activists and players in the major movements and uses their biographies to illustrate broad context, changing social currents, and the shifts in power and discourse over time. These straightforward personal histories give the entire text an engaging, accessible tone without falling into a narrative that hinges on charismatic leaders. Todd-Breland pays careful attention to the collaborative efforts and social groups underpinning each moment, be it success or failure. This seamlessly introduces the reader to the major political and social organizations of the time, as well as the different factions and positions on issues relating to education reform.

The strongest section of the book, covering the history of the Institute of Positive Education (IPE) and the related New Concept Development Center (NCDC), lands as a painfully direct commentary on current times. The organizations developed in the 1960s and 1970s, in a segregated environment where schools located in Black neighborhoods were characterized by overcrowding and under-resourcing. At the same time, communities were being disrupted by city-level infrastructure decisions such as the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway. Descriptions of historical conditions in CPS schools are particularly poignant when read against a contemporary backdrop of school closures that disproportionately affected the same under-resourced neighborhoods where the IPE and NCDC did their work. The IPE and NCDC were tied to the Black Power movement, and sought to create a curriculum and educational environment that centered African culture and excellence, eschewing mainstream rhetoric attributing struggles of Black and urban populations to pathology

Todd-Breland’s clear-eyed yet sympathetic portrayal of the movement is a vital and refreshing approach. She gives a voice to those opposing the sexism institutionalized in the movement, and talks about the burnout caused by group expectations of total and exclusive dedication to the cause. Framing and illuminating this section is the book’s most compelling figure, Soyini Walton. A Chicago native who grew up with firsthand experience of CPS’s failure to serve the needs of its Black students, Walton became one of the few Black educators to secure a teaching position with CPS. She gave that up after more than seven years to immerse herself in work for the movement, shifting to full-time work with IPE. Walton’s frank discussion of the administrative and institutional weaknesses of the IPE humanizes the movement’s history and is a timely warning to modern activists: “We certainly saw people fall off over the years…never to set foot in the place again. I think I quit twice!”

This attention to the faults of the movement lends a depth to the narrative that makes the rest of the book even more engaging. The description of the two organizations’ underlying philosophy sends a clear message about the significance of IPE to the larger movement of Black education reform: “For IPE the importance of African-centered education was understood as part of a larger cultural battle for the minds and consciousness of Black people in America…this was not a question to be taken lightly but a matter of life or death by ‘genocide of the mind.’” This approach forced IPE to work in total independence from CPS. While some of its organizers and instructors had ties to CTU, reform of and driven by the union happened parallel to IPE’s work rather than as a collaboration. Todd-Breland’s discussion of IPE’s dedication to independence is inflected by an observation at the beginning of the chapter that “ongoing concerns about IPE’s workload requirements, scale, and financial sustainability ultimately contributed to the organization’s decision to reengage with the state by opening public charter schools in the 1990’s.” The Betty Shabazz International Charter Schools network came out of this decision, a choice made to give students served by NCDC tuition-free access to the resources that state funding under the charter system allowed. Given the role charter schools have come to play in conversations around school reform, primarily as a means of funneling money away from under-resourced public schools, this move ties NCDC’s legacy into current battles over education reform in an interesting way. The tendency of charter schools to have predominantly white faculty and administration with student bodies comprised mainly of Black and Latinx students, in Todd-Breland’s words, “evokes the very types of colonial Eurocentric ideologies that groups like IPE were founded to combat.” Activists such as Rosie Simpson, who have been involved in Black education reform as long as the IPE but focused on direct reform of CPS, strenuously opposed charter schools and accuse them of funnelling resources away from the same students the IPE seeks to support.

The interaction between the CTU, segregationist policies, and teachers’ strikes is particularly interesting in Todd-Breland’s discussion of the racial divide inside the CTU and how it played out in the strikes of 1969, 1971, and 1973. That era was defined by the struggles around school integration following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and forced CTU to deal with the racism institutionalized within their own structure. The first strike in 1969 was opposed by a massive organization of Black teachers. With segregated faculty and policies that made it difficult for Black teachers to become fully certified, it was not felt that the union represented the interests of its Black members, who were addressing these issues by actively building participation in the union through encouraging engagement and taking leadership roles. The strike in 1969, which was predominantly about teacher salaries, was widely opposed by the Black members of the union who “argued for resources and control” and saw the union as unlikely to share gains from the strike equitably with Black schools. Almost fifty percent of Black teachers crossed the picket line to protest the union’s focus on the priorities of its white membership. The organizers had success with gaining recognition inside the union, with African-American membership in CTU rising from thirty-four percent in 1969 to forty-two percent in 1977

Todd-Breland directly connects this successful change, along with the tradition of community-driven activism outside the union, to the 2012 strike, citing them as the source of that action’s overwhelming support. Given the focus on class sizes and wraparound services as points of contention in this latest strike, the history tying the sixties to 2012 feels starkly modern. The issues central to the current strike—proper staffing, reasonable classroom sizes, and funding libraries at Black and Latinx-majority schools—demonstrate the ways the legacy of segregation and neglect persist. The fact that these are not issues over which the union is legally permitted to strike highlights the pattern of shifting power to prevent change Todd-Breland documents throughout her book; the 1995 revision to the law that enacted this limitation came during a period when Black representation in the CTU was high, a situation that has deteriorated in subsequent years along with other markers of equity.

In discussing changes inside the CTU during the sixties and seventies, Todd-Breland also pushes back against erasures common in histories of the era, pointing out that a retrospective from 1974 on activism in the sixties focused on men who’d left teaching at the expense of women who’d contributed to the movement and remained in the classroom: “As had been the case during their days of intensive organizing, the contributions of Black women were once again largely hidden.” This is more than a nod to current trends around reclaiming history, as it underscores the fact that many of the people responsible for the work of the reform movements remained engaged in that work even when the signposts associated with their work fell away. Throughout this book, history doesn’t repeat itself so much as stretch continuously forward, shifting with the times but relentlessly resisting resolution.

That case for historical continuity is so well-rendered that it’s disappointing when discussion of the rise of Harold Washington falls into charismatic leader tropes so deftly evaded in earlier sections. As a brief introduction to Washington and his political influence, the book remains solid, highlighting his efforts to bring together CPS employees, the parents and families of CPS students, and business leaders to address reform in a series of summits and public discussions. However, the discussion of the aftermath of his sudden death in office, and the ultimate dissolution of the coalition he built, lacks the intimate nuance and specificity that make earlier sections of the book so effective. The epilogue has some satisfying bite delivered in the meticulous, matter-of-fact tone established in earlier sections: “In 1996 roughly 43 percent of CPS teachers were Black. By the 2016-17 school year, Black teachers made up only 22 percent of the CPS teaching force.” However, much of that content could have been more effectively integrated with the final chapter of the book.

Then again, with teachers returning to class after a strike over resources and equity in education that went on even longer than the 2012 strike framing this history, we’re clearly still living in the thick of the artfully articulated struggle. The true epilogue to Todd-Breland’s work is in last week’s news.  

Elizabeth Todd-Breland, A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s. $24.95. University of North Carolina Press. 328 pages

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Jessica Eanes is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago.

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