An Introduction to CPS

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]

The area that became Chicago established its first public schools in the early 1830s; the first public school teacher is generally said to have been Eliza Chappell, and she taught classes of up to 100 students in a makeshift school housed in a building that had been a store. The City of Chicago was chartered in 1837 and its first school building was built in 1845. By 1850 only a fraction of the children eligible for school were enrolled and class sizes were very large. The curriculum was ad hoc, with rote memorization and bible recitation among the common activities.

The first superintendent of schools, John Dore, was appointed in 1854, and he and his successors worked to reduce class size (down to below 70), institute examinations, and structure grades by age. Public school enrollment expanded rapidly, faster than the city population increased and by 1900 a quarter of a million students attended public elementary and secondary schools; 5,000 teachers taught in these schools, of whom over 80% were women.

The first union by and for female teachers, the Chicago Federation of Teachers (CTF), was started in 1897; its president for over thirty year was Margaret Haley, and with her leadership CTF advocated for teachers’ rights and progressive school reform. From that time to the present, Chicago has been a center of educational reform movements. Prominent Chicago-based figures in progressive education reforms were Francis Parker, John Dewey, and Ella Flagg Young. Jane Addams and others at Hull House also played a role in education; at a time when many educators promoted “Americanization” of immigrants through schools, Addams called for education that valued the skills newcomers brought with them.

From WWI on, Chicago’s schools were operated through the same patronage system that ruled the city, with jobs doled out as political favors. Financial mismanagement led to a fiscal crisis in the Great Depression, when jobs of politically connected clerks and janitors were protected, and teachers’ positions were lost. Nepotism and corruption was a problem in the system through the 1940s. Through this period schools used “homogeneous grouping” (also known as “ability grouping” and “tracking”) and segregation by sex, and the curriculum of many schools still emphasized rote memorization. Schools were also segregated by race, a pattern that reflected the segregation of the city.

The population of students soared through the 1960s and by the end of the decade enrollment had reached over 600,000. The clear inequities of the system were noted in reports that also called for radical reforms; these were generally ignored. In one notorious instance in the early 60s, Superintendent Benjamin Willis introduced the use of portable, trailer-like “Willis Wagons” to address overcrowding in black schools. Demonstrations erupted, along with calls for desegregation. The failure of the school board to address the problem led to federal intervention and a 1980 consent degree and school desegregation plan. White families fled the schools and the city, and between 1970 and 1980 the white school population dropped by 60%, and by the early 1990s it declined by half again. Today it stands at under 9%.

In 1966 city teachers elected the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) as its bargaining unit and three years later the CTU called the first system-wide teacher’s strike in the city’s history. Mayor Richard J. Daley intervened and the strike was settled, but over the next twenty years there were many more teacher strikes over issues including salaries, class sizes, and transfer policies. Enrollments declined and the school system faced financial crises. In 1987 Secretary of State William Bennettnotoriously called Chicago’s public schools the “worst in the nation.”

Things improved during Mayor Harold Washington‘s tenure, when under his leadership a coalition of parents, community groups, a school reformers crafted legislation (passed in 1988 as the Chicago School Reform Act) to transform the schools. The Act created Local School Councils (LSCs) for each school; councils comprised of teachers, parents, community representations, and students were empowered to hire principals and oversee budget decisions. An eight hour training was made available to LSC members. The school board was abolished and a 15 member School Board Nominating Commission was created, composed of 23 parents and community representatives from LSCs across the city and 5 members appointed by the mayor. The Commission screened candidates for the School Board and sent nominations to the mayor for each position.

But in 1995, under Mayor Richard M. Daley, another school reform act was passed. This one replaced the superintendent with a CEO, and abolished the Nominating Commission, giving the mayor the authority to appoint the School Board. LSC members were now required to participate in three full days of training within 6 months of their election. Those who remain “untrained” are required to be removed by the board.

In 1997 the Illinois General Assembly approved 60 charter schools for the state. In 2004 the city and CPS announced a new initiative, Renaissance 2010, which has the goal of opening 100 new schools by 2010, of three types—charter, contract, and performance. Today Chicago has 27 charter schools with 47 campuses, some designated as Renaissance 2010 schools. The CTU and some education groups in Chicago have opposed the initiative and charter schools, as a way to weaken the teacher’s union; teachers at charter schools are prevented by legislation from joining the CTU.

CPS began a school closing strategy in 2002, and closed three elementary schools. In 2005 1,116 nontenured teachers were dismissed from their jobs. This action resulted from a change in the CTU contract with the Chicago Board of Education that allowed principals the right to fire teachers without due process. Transformation continues to occur within our public school system. Just this year more schools have been closed and the Local School Councils are under attack. ♦



Catalyst Chicago. (2006). School closings. Accessed on April 20, 2008 at

Catalyst Chicago. (2008). School reform highlights. Accessed April 20, 2008 at

Chicago Public Schools. (2008). Accessed
on April 20 at

Encyclopedia of Chicago (2008). Accessed
on April 20 at http://www.encyclopedia.

Renaissance 2010 (2008). Accessed on
April 200 at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s