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Lesson for Urban Cities: How Chicagoans Stand Up for Quality Schools

05/17/2015 10:35 am ET | Updated May 15, 2016

Chicago has been a school reform battlefield for decades. That is why the re-election of Mayor Rahm Emanuel carries with it national implications. In a race mirroring national trends, a centrist big-city Democrat faced off against a progressive challenger attacking him from the left.

Those of us working to improve the public school system can take comfort in the voters' decision to elect a leader that prioritizes education over special interests and continues the policies that have led to steady improvement in our public schools. While Mayor Emanuel's positions on a longer school day and expansion of new schools garner the most attention, it is the more comprehensive continuation of sound educational policies that has created substantial progress. For urban areas across the nation, it's a lesson on staying the course and committing to the reforms that have produced measurable results for our most vulnerable students.

This is especially critical in urban education, where the average tenure of a school superintendent is barely two years. Indeed, Chicago has had five CEOs in the past six years. With such churn at the top in most cities, it is understandable why we fail to gain much traction. Improving a large, bureaucratic system like Chicago depends on consistent, incremental progress over years, not quick fixes. And the enemy of such progress is quick course changes or political pressure to enact random acts of reform. Thankfully, Mayor Emanuel has continued much of the work started a decade ago.

Beginning in earnest in 2004, then Mayor Daley and Chicago Public Schools' CEO Arne Duncan began providing new school options in parts of the city that had long been neglected. Most of these schools would be charter public schools - open enrollment, autonomous public schools designed to provide high-quality choice for families with limited options. Families with means have always exercised school choice, either directly by paying private school tuition, moving to the suburbs, or by relocating to parts of the city with strong schools. But Mayor Daley's plan was to create new options for families in every neighborhood in the city.

Ten years later, the city has opened more than 100 new schools. This has helped drive academic improvement in the city. Over the past 10 years, Chicago's high school graduation rate has increased from 50% to 69%. During that same period, the average ACT composite score in the city has increased from 16.8 to 18. African-American and Latino performance is up considerably. And college enrollment is at its highest rate ever - last year, 57% of graduating seniors enrolled in a four-year college. All this has occurred during an era when the public school population has gotten poorer and income inequality has grown, two factors that tend to correlate with lower achievement.

Is it a coincidence that the city has improved on such a dramatic scale during an era of rapid charter expansion? Not at all. In fact, charter schools have led the way on the measures listed above. For each of the past ten years, charter schools have had a graduation rate that outpaces the district for open enrollment schools. Charter school ACT results continue to pull the district's open enrollment school average higher. And college enrollment and persistence data are especially compelling. In 2013, charter schools represented 17 of the top 20 open enrollment public schools in terms of college enrollment. This is especially impressive given that charter schools represented only a third of open enrollment public high schools with college enrollment data for that year.

This is not to say that charter schools offer a simple solution for Chicago. There are legitimate trade-offs with charter expansion, including the fact that adding 100 new schools at a time of depopulation makes sustaining enrollment across the city more difficult. A number of other sustained efforts of the past decade must be noted and maintained as well - tracking and acting on meaningful data like "freshmen on track" and college persistence, an increased emphasis on social and emotional learning, and more meaningful teacher evaluations.

But there is now no denying - no matter how much the opposition tries - that charter schools are contributing to the dramatic improvement we have experienced.

Almost thirty years ago, Chicago was called the worst school system in the country by the U.S. Secretary of Education. Today, we are firmly in the middle of the national pack and rising rapidly. The question is whether we have the will to continue this critical work. If the election of Mayor Emanuel is any indication, the people of Illinois have answered with a resounding yes.

Andrew Broy is president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, a group that supports and advocates on behalf of Illinois charter public schools. Broy is a former public school teacher and civil rights attorney.