If at first you take Dr. Michael Bakalis as an ol’ sobersides, it’s understandable, for he has, at age 49, a statesmanlike facade. The former state superintendent of public instruction and state comptroller can now be found at Loyola University, where he’s dean of the education school. He has a nice office, befitting a man of stature, and he wears conservative suits. His characteristic forelock is still Kennedyesque, not cropped to the current short fashion.

“In a lot of ways I am more conservative than I used to be,” offers Bakalis, “but I’ve become more radical on educational issues. Fifteen years ago I was saying, ‘Let’s work within channels to make things right.’ But now I have no faith in the system — and I’m talking about Chicago here — to reform itself. Now drastic change from the outside is necessary.”

Bakalis is a leader of a group called Chicagoans United to Reform Education (CURE). In April, CURE proposed an earthshaking form of school decentralization, one that places enormous power in the hands of elected councils at each school and minimizes control by the school board. The plan’s strongest advocate is Mike Bakalis.

Unfortunately for Bakalis, his particular dream of restructuring the Chicago schools may be sideswiped by other players with their own visions. Decentralization, you see, has been a hot concern this legislative season. Several members of the General Assembly have decentralization bills making the rounds down in Springfield, and one or more may reach the governor’s desk by June 30.

Aspects of the CURE proposal may yet make their way into an amended decentralization measure, seeing that Bakalis has friends among the legislative sponsors. But whatever the outcome, his thinking, more than anyone else’s, articulates the prevalent rationale for decentralization.

“You have to understand the biggest problem with the Chicago public schools,” Bakalis observes. “It isn’t that they don’t have enough money, contrary to what the Chicago Teachers Union says. The problem is that no one is accountable to anyone else. If you as a parent want to get rid of a teacher, you can’t. You have no access to board members. There are no pressure points at which to push for redress.”

Bakalis’s favorite example of this lack of accountability involves the annual budget hearings held for the last two years by state requirement at each school. A local school improvement council hosts an initial hearing, at which the school’s own budget is either approved or vetoed. If it’s nixed, the principal, working with the board, has one month to make adjustments and resubmit it to the council. The revised budget — even if the council disapproves — is automatically accepted.

“Thousands of people showed up for those hearings,” grouses Bakalis, “and the board didn’t change one dollar. Do you really believe there wasn’t one good idea raised at those sessions? The board was totally resistant and arrogant in this.” (Board spokesman Bob Saigh points out that 92 percent of the improvement councils passed their budgets on the first round, and if changes weren’t ultimately made it had more to do with school money being pegged to salaries and state formulas than with indifference to parents.)

There is more, however, to Bakalis’s complaint: “The board displays no creativity. This is a classic case of what a bureaucracy comes to be. By its very nature, a bureaucracy resists change and new ideas, because its value is essentially in control. Anything that brings about less control is to be resisted.” Here Bakalis points to the dilemma of 45 percent of Chicago high school students dropping out before graduation. Why not try some unorthodox solutions, Bakalis wants to know, such as giving a teenager work-study credit for taking a job with business?

Bakalis’s litany extends to other familiar targets, among them the poor performance of high school seniors (only one-third are reading at or above the national average), the lack of supplies, and a system supposedly top-heavy with administrators.

The solution to this educational mess has come to Bakalis over the last several years. In 1982 he served as executive director of the Chicago Schools Study Commission, created by the legislature to probe decentralization. The commission, chaired by State Representative Douglas Huff, ultimately recommended the creation of ten elected school councils for as many districts in the city, and a central board, with pared-down powers, composed of the council presidents and three mayoral appointees. Though a quickly crafted Huff bill reflecting the commission findings failed in Springfield, decentralization had won a convert in Bakalis.

A year ago, as part of a meeting convened at Loyola, Bakalis launched a group effort to look at decentralization again. Key school-oriented groups, such as the Urban League and the civic watchdog group Chicago United, exhibited little interest, and by fall the only participants left were Bakalis, the school advocacy group Designs for Change, and Save Our Neighborhoods/Save Our City, a consortium uniting groups on the southwest and northwest sides. The group took on the name of CURE, did research into decentralization schemes employed in other states from California to South Carolina, and unveiled its plan on April 25 at a Loyola gathering.

Under the CURE design, each school would be directed by an elected governing council, hypothetically composed of seven parents, seven community representatives, seven teachers, and two older students for a total of 23 people. The governing council would set the curriculum (within state standards, Bakalis cautions), determine how the budget is spent, and have the authority to hire and fire all staff, up to and including the principal. There might also be merit bonuses for teacher performance.

The CURE plan assigns limited functions to the central board. Made up of both elected and appointed members, the central board would collect revenues, negotiate labor contracts, and handle such interschool matters as integration and special education. According to Bakalis, the result would be that the central administration staff, out on Pershing Road, would be cut from 2,000 to 200.

Another feature of the CURE plan would allow a youngster at a lousy school to voluntarily transfer to a better facility, if the second school was underutilized. The obvious fear is that this opportunity for transfer would further cripple schools serving the disadvantaged, but Bakalis says “tough”: “Now, let’s say your school is just a disaster, and getting out is the answer. So, fine, let everybody leave and shut the place down. We don’t think there is anything sacrosanct about keeping a bad school open.”

CURE advocates strong, effective principals. To the suggestion that a willful principal, under contract to a governing board, may run the risk of being fired for being too energetic, Bakalis fires back stiffly: “That’s the price you pay for democracy. The bottom line is: are the kids reading and writing better, are their values upgraded? If the community understands what the duties of a school are, then they will like the principal. Any principal who does a good job and can’t get support, maybe that person should move on; undoubtedly there will be work for the person elsewhere.”

Bakalis scoffs at the notion that the power of governing boards to opt for individualized curricula will lead to great disparities between schools. The state establishes certain standards, according to Bakalis. “Sure there will be differences,” he maintains, “but I’ve been into schools throughout the state, and if you’d accompanied me you’d have been more impressed by the similarities than by the differences.”

Overall, Bakalis clings to his dream of a system built from the bottom up: “I believe more strongly than I ever did that the local school is the crucial place where change must take place. The emphasis must be on the school building. That’s where reform should start, where people have some stake, and where somebody they can see is accountable.”

If actualized, the school-centered CURE plan would represent the most sweeping reorganization of a system anywhere in the nation, outdistancing even New York City, where 32 elected local boards have exercised major powers since 1970.

Because of its scope, and for other reasons, the CURE plan has engendered opposition. The Chicago Teachers Union has taken a stand against any kind of decentralization, in part because a restructuring would threaten the salary gains of its members. The Chicago Region PTA, according to president Florence Cox, favors a revamped curriculum, not decentralization, as the key solution to the schools’ woes. Last week, Schools Superintendent Manford Byrd termed decentralization “disastrous,” characterizing it as an invitation to patronage and corruption. Chicago United remains noncommittal on the CURE proposal, and Urban League president Jim Compton insists he hasn’t had time to formulate a proper response.

“I know what Jim’s reservations are,” claims Bakalis. “There exist segments of the black community who feel, OK, you guys are out to dismantle the school system. Well, where were you when Jim Redmond and Joe Hannon were the superintendents? Why are you out to decentralize now, when a black [Byrd] is in charge? Jim’s probably also worried about an elected structure politicizing the school system. What I respond with is this: Anyone who thinks the system isn’t politicized now is naive. The mayor appoints people loyal to him to the school board.”

The mayor himself started tossing around the word “decentralization” in election-night interviews, but what he meant by the term is uncertain. Hal Baron, the mayor’s chief policy adviser and the linchpin of an “educational summit” of groups examining school problems, says the administration will likely favor some type of “school-based management.” But Washington will stop short of scrapping the central board, Baron guesses. “We’re not into school-administrator bashing,” he offers.

CURE leaders, including Bakalis, had hoped to introduce their plan now, and then spend the next 12 months rustling up support and allaying anxiety. But it hasn’t worked out that way — they won’t have that leisure. “The legislature operates on its own timetable,” Bakalis remarks ruefully.

By that he means that moves are afoot to bring about a form of decentralization less jarring than CURE’s. State Senator Howard Carroll (D-Chicago) has introduced two bills. One bill, similar to Huff’s of four years ago, would cut Chicago into 20 districts with elected boards, slipping in a pared-down central panel on top; the other calls for only two elected districts as a sort of pilot. Both measures have cleared the senate. Passing out of the house is a third bill, sponsored by Huff, carving out three districts with elected councils, taking in Huff’s and Carroll’s legislative turf. Those three boards alone would serve 60,000 children, according to Huff.

Meanwhile, a fourth bill, midwifed by the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance (CHIPS), and recently passed, provides that 46 schools enter a three-year pilot program for what’s termed “enhanced school autonomy.” A designated school would first figure out its needs, then fiddle with its curriculum and teachers to bring about the new goals. The CHIPS plan has some novel features — any savings on the costs of energy or hiring substitute teachers, for instance, return directly to a school’s coffers. But for the present, the CHIPS design leaves the school board and the central administration intact.

“That’s a plus for CHIPS, the leaving downtown alone,” explains one savvy school watchdog. “In contrast the CURE plan guts the central administration and the board. The CURE plan doesn’t sit well with people who support the mayor, who see it as an attempt to wrest the system from minority control. The board’s seen as having been pretty good to minorities lately, be it in the awarding of contracts or in hiring or bringing to bay the Washburne Trade School.”

But then again, Carroll is amenable to cutting and pasting his bills, too. He likes the idea of elections for board members (“People have a right to throw out the bums,” he says), but he might scrap that mechanism to win the mayor’s nod. On the other hand, he is seeking Bakalis’s counsel as well. “Mike’s a very bright guy,” ruminates the senator. “He has put a lot of time into thinking about decentralization. I trust his wisdom. He’s a good guy to kick around defects with.”

In other words, parts of the CURE plan may materialize in some compromise decentralization measure. That is, unless nothing at all happens this session and the CURE plan, buoyed by a clamoring public, emerges as the “you can’t turn us down” decentralization alternative in the spring of 1988.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.