Two days before the 2020 presidential election, Kamala Harris shared a highly criticized campaign ad on X (then Twitter) about the difference between equality and equity. The ad featured two cartoon men—one white, one black—climbing a mountain. The white man started out closer to the top of the mountain than his black peer and subsequently finished the climb first; only when the black man got a “boost” was he able to reach the top, too. Harris served as the ad’s narrator: “Equality suggests, ‘Oh, everyone should get the same amount.’ The problem with that, not everybody’s starting out from the same place. . . . Equitable treatment means that we all end up at the same place.”
The ad was poorly received by much of the American public, at least in part because the notion of equity—“we all end up at the same place”—is decidedly un-American. Yet the concept is not new. In a 1965 address at Howard University, President Lyndon B. Johnson used a similar analogy to justify affirmative action: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
For decades, Harris, LBJ, and other old school progressives have defined equity in policy terms to mean preferences for blacks, Latinos, and other marginalized groups in education and employment. The goal of equity, defined in this way, is to increase the representation of these groups in the upper echelon of American society—often at the cost of Asian Americans and whites.
But “new school progressives” understand equity to mean the elimination of the upper echelon altogether. They don’t want anyone to have the opportunity to attend a selective public high school, and they loathe the prestige associated with an Ivy League education or a career in “Big Law” or on Wall Street. Their definition of equity amounts to universal mediocrity. Chicago mayor Brandon Johnson’s December 14 decision to eliminate the city’s 11 selective public high schools, which use standardized tests to determine student admissions, is the latest example of this new notion of equity at play.
The Windy City’s selective public high schools are among the star institutions of the American education system. U.S. News & World Report ranks Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, for example, not only as the top public high school in Chicago and the top high school in Illinois, but also as the tenth-best school in the nation. Northside College Preparatory High School, Jones College Preparatory High School, Young Magnet High School, and Lane Technical High School all follow close behind.
Under the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) school-choice system, eighth-graders can apply for admission to any of the city’s public high schools, as opposed to having to enroll in their neighborhood school. Students can rank up to six selective-enrollment schools and 20 other choices. The first 30 percent of seats at the selective public high schools go to the city’s top-scoring students, while the remaining 70 percent get divided among four socioeconomic tiers. In this second round, offers of admission go to the top-scoring students within each tier. As a result of CPS’s school-choice system, 76 percent of students attend a high school that is not located in their neighborhood, with many vying for a spot at one of the city’s 11 selective-enrollment schools.
Mayor Johnson, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, and the Chicago Teachers Union, of which the mayor used to be a member and a labor organizer (and which donated over $2.3 million to his campaign fund), blame the school-choice system for the “long-standing challenges and opportunity gaps” that afflict Chicago’s “Black and Latinx students” in particular. “This is the foundation,” a recent CPS Board of Education resolution stated, “upon which our current school choice system was built—an under-resourced system that has pitted schools against each other and has had the effect of sorting students based on performance outcomes and selective admissions criteria, which ultimately reinforces, rather than disrupts, cycles of inequity.” Johnson and his colleagues plan to eliminate CPS’s school-choice system—including the selective public high schools—within the next five years, at which point students will be required to enroll in their neighborhood schools.
Equity advocates’ complaints give the impression that Chicago’s selective public high schools enroll few or no black and Hispanic students, and that they worsen racial disparities in educational achievement. The opposite is true.
Consider Brooks College Preparatory Academy. At this selective public high school in Chicago, 79.3 percent of students are black, and 46.6 percent of students are Hispanic. Of Brooks’s black students, 60.7 percent are proficient in English Language Arts (ELA), 46.5 percent are proficient in math, and 80.9 percent are proficient in science. For black students in the district at large, these numbers are 16.5 percent, 8.1 percent, and 24.4 percent, respectively. And while 71.7 percent of Brooks’s Hispanic students are proficient in ELA, 56.7 percent are proficient in math, and 82.1 percent are proficient in science, for the district, those numbers are 21.2 percent, 13.6 percent, and 35.6 percent, respectively.
The student body of Walter Payton College Preparatory High School is only 9 percent black and 24.4 percent Hispanic, but—contrary to what CPS officials contend—that hasn’t kept these minority students from thriving, particularly when compared with peers at regular district schools. At Payton, 51.7 percent of black students are proficient in ELA; 48.3 percent are proficient in math; and 76 percent are proficient in science. For the school’s Hispanic students, these numbers are 81.7 percent, 73.2 percent, and 90.8 percent, respectively. Chicago’s other selective public high schools tell a similar story.
Mediocrity, not excellence, perpetuates gaps in educational outcomes for marginalized students; lowered standards rob the gifted and the driven of opportunities to succeed. If Johnson follows through with his plans, Chicago’s underprivileged youth will pay the highest price.