Children cross 63rd Street on their way to school. Northwestern University sociologist Mary Pattillo argues that many south-side parents and guardians lack real school choice, even with charters. Credit: M. Spencer Green/AP photo

As you may have figured out by now, I have what you might call a—oh—conflicted attitude toward the charter school movement.

On the one hand, I respect the teachers who work so hard for so little money.

On the other, I can’t stand the sight of all those oligarchs, plutocrats, and billionaires who wave the flag of school choice—as if they give a hoot about poor kids—when I know that their main goal is to use nonunion charters to undercut the political power of the teachers’ union more than they already have.

That’s why it’s good for me to read the work of Mary Pattillo, a sociologist at Northwestern University. Pattillo, whose books include Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class and Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City, earned her PhD at the University of Chicago under legendary sociologist William Julius Wilson.

Over the past few years, Pattillo has focused on school choice. Her research is a constant reminder to people like me: Don’t lose sight of the anxiety that so many ordinary working-class and low-income parents and guardians have about sending their children to high-crime, low-scoring, dead-broke neighborhood schools.

In other words, just because everyone from Rauner to Rahm is using charters to destroy teachers’ unions doesn’t mean they are automatically a bad thing.

In any event, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that Professor Pattillo will speak to many of these issues in an October 31 talk entitled “School Choice?” as part of the Chicago Humanities Fest.

Pattillo’s research doesn’t get into whether Chicago needs new charter schools in these days of declining enrollment. That’s another topic for another time. Maybe as soon as next week.

Instead, her talk is based on research she’s done on almost two decades of public school closings and charter school openings near Bronzeville, where she lives.

Ideally, school choice would mean that all students get to select from schools including expensive private ones such as the U. of C. Lab School or Francis Parker, or even well-funded suburban public ones like New Trier. But for most black south-side Chicagoans, choice comes down to either a local charter school, which limits enrollment to those who apply, or the local neighborhood school, whose doors are open to anyone who walks in.

In the summer of 2007, Pattillo and several graduate student assistants interviewed 77 black Chicagoans who were the guardians (parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc) of youngsters preparing to enter one of two local high schools, one Pattillo calls Charter High and another she calls Neighborhood High.

Pattillo and her team organized gatherings of guardians at a local public library branch, and asked the adults to lead them through their student’s eighth-grade year—the year leading up to their high school choice.

Pattillo ticked through the questions she posed:

“What were they thinking about? What were they looking for in the new school? Where did they get their information? How did they feel about the process? Did they talk to neighbors or other family members? In other words, how did you make your decision?”

Mary Pattillo
Mary PattilloCredit: Courtesy Chicago Humanities Festival

Pattillo’s study—”Black Politics and Social Choice”—was published in the May 2015 issue of the Du Bois Review, a scholarly journal. Parents from both schools told Pattillo they were looking for a school that would get their children the kind of education they needed to prepare for college. And not surprisingly, safety and security were major concerns for both sets of parents.

Both sets of parents took school seriously.

“In most high schools, all the kids [are] running in the halls and not getting an education,” one Charter High mother told Pattillo.

A Neighborhood High father said he wanted his daughter “to concentrate on her schoolwork instead of laughing and playing a lot.”

But some Neighborhood High guardians told Pattillo that they didn’t bother applying to charter or selective enrollment schools because those schools were too far from where they lived. They didn’t want their kids to walk across gang lines, and couldn’t afford to drive them to school or pay for public transportation.

None of the people Pattillo interviewed were well off, but she found that the Neighborhood High guardians were even poorer than their Charter High counterparts. The median income for Charter High parents was $25,000; it was just $5,000 for Neighborhood High. In addition, roughly 71 percent of Neighborhood High guardians were unemployed. In contrast, 35 percent of the Charter School guardians were unemployed. The Charter High guardians also were more likely to have a car and access to the Internet, and more likely to attend church.

In other words, Neighborhood High parents didn’t really have a choice at all.

“The power of choice lay with the schools and not with them,” Pattillo wrote.

Perhaps not surprisingly given these demographics, Charter High outperformed Neighborhood High on standardized tests. Charter High’s students still scored below the citywide average. And many of the parents from both schools said the system put too much emphasis on test scores.

But in the end, few parents were satisfied with the school choice process.

“Even the Charter Parents told me that they were glad they won the lottery,” Pattillo said. “But they were beleaguered by the process. I don’t take the waiting list at charters as evidence that they want more charters. What they want is more high-quality schools.”

Amen to that.  v

Pattillo speaks Sat 10/31, 12:30 PM, Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut, 312-661-1028,, $12, festival members $9, students and teachers $5.