A Political Education

Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago since the 1960s

By Elizabeth Todd-Breland

344 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 19 halftones, 2 maps, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-4658-9
    Published: October 2018
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4657-2
    Published: October 2018
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-4659-6
    Published: October 2018

Justice, Power, and Politics

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Awards & distinctions

2019 Pauli Murray Book Prize, African American Intellectual History Society

2019 Outstanding Book Award, American Educational Research Association

Co-winner of the 2018 Kenneth Jackson Award, Urban History Association

Honorable Mention, 2019 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award, Organization of American Historians

Honorable Mention, New Scholar's Book Award, Division F, American Educational Research Association

In 2012, Chicago’s school year began with the city’s first teachers' strike in a quarter century and ended with the largest mass closure of public schools in U.S. history. On one side, a union leader and veteran black woman educator drew upon organizing strategies from black and Latinx communities to demand increased school resources. On the other side, the mayor, backed by the Obama administration, argued that only corporate-style education reform could set the struggling school system aright. The stark differences in positions resonated nationally, challenging the long-standing alliance between teachers’ unions and the Democratic Party.

Elizabeth Todd-Breland recovers the hidden history underlying this battle. She tells the story of black education reformers' community-based strategies to improve education beginning during the 1960s, as support for desegregation transformed into community control, experimental schooling models that pre-dated charter schools, and black teachers' challenges to a newly assertive teachers' union. This book reveals how these strategies collided with the burgeoning neoliberal educational apparatus during the late twentieth century, laying bare ruptures and enduring tensions between the politics of black achievement, urban inequality, and U.S. democracy.

About the Author

Elizabeth Todd-Breland is assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
For more information about Elizabeth Todd-Breland, visit the Author Page.


"Recounts [Chicago's] educational history in vivid detail."--New York Review of Books

"This is a brilliant and necessary exposé of a collision that we all know too little about. Using Chicago as a case study, Elizabeth Todd-Breland shares the devastating collision between Black community-based education reformers and corporate education reformers since the 1960s. Black education organizing comes alive--and fights on and on against all odds--in this expertly framed and vividly told book."--Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning

"This insightful, astute, sweeping history offers an extraordinary account of black politics and advocacy regarding educational reform and justice over the last half century. It offers a rich, nuanced, deeply researched case study of one major American city, and yet its findings and major themes have national significance. Capturing a range of voices and perspectives in an engaging and cohesive narrative, it is the best study of African Americans' relation to neoliberalism by any historian that I am aware of."--Martha Biondi, Northwestern University

"For half a century Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, has played an outsized role in the ongoing debates concerning race and public education. Elizabeth Todd-Breland is the first historian to weave together those decades of reform and retreat and reform again. Todd-Breland brilliantly articulates the dynamic interplay of municipal and state institutions in combination with the actions of ordinary Black women, students, and teachers to portray the richness and complexity of the struggle for the right to a decent public education. Deeply researched, sharply argued and beautifully narrated, Todd-Breland demonstrates the centrality of Chicago in comprehending the tumultuous history of public education in the United States."--Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

"Capturing the dynamics of black Chicagoans' political thought around education from the middle of the twentieth century until the present, this is a beautifully written book that vividly traces the historical trends, ideas, and often conflicting views of African Americans who struggled for quality education in Chicago. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary debates about education."--Dionne Danns, Indiana University

"Elizabeth Todd-Breland has written a brilliant book exploring how neoliberalism impacted the education provided to children, in particular black and brown children, in Chicago.  Tracing struggles for educational reform in Chicago since the 1960s, Todd-Breland reveals how even in the midst of severe disinvestment from black communities through neoliberalism, there continued to be significant resistance to such policies in these same communities. In this work, Todd-Breland takes black subjects as serious political actors and details how the collective resistance of teachers, students, and parents in black communities, often invisible in studies of urban politics, helped to reshape both black and urban politics in a city. Anyone seeking to understand how neoliberalism has shaped public education and how members of marginalized communities and their allies have resisted must read A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960s.  This is an important book!"--Cathy J. Cohen, University of Chicago