Community leaders, led by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon, founded the Chicago Debate Commission in 1995, with the goal of providing Chicago students with the well-recognized benefits of debate, by establishing an urban debate league in Chicago. With the support of early sponsors, including the Community Renewal Society, the League of Women Voters of Chicago, and the Phi Beta Kappa Association of the Chicago area, the Chicago Debate League (CDL) was established as a public-private partnership between the Chicago Debate Commission and Chicago Public Schools in 1997.
The CDL began with five high schools and fewer than 40 students. Now with over 70 high schools and middle schools and 1400 students, the CDL has grown to become the largest and most successful of the urban debate leagues around the country. In fact, the success of the CDL has had a significant influence on the rise and expansion of urban debate nationally.
The dramatic growth of the CDL has been due in large part to the financial support of the private sector starting in 2008. Since that time, the Chicago Debate Commission doubled the level of student participation, added a middle school league, and nearly doubled the number of participating schools. Through a concerted effort to establish debate programs in schools serving many low-income students, participation among students from the highest poverty schools grew substantially starting in 2008. Serving low-income students remains a strong focus of the Chicago Debate Commission.