By Ben Joravsky

The public comment session of the school board’s meeting was less than a minute old when the audience erupted.

“After that presentation I’m glad I have my CTA card–because we’re being railroaded,” declared Anita Sims, local school council chair at Inter-American, a magnet school in Lakeview.

The presentation, offered at an October 9 hearing at Lane Tech, was intended to win converts to Paul Vallas’s latest idea–a controversial proposal by the schools CEO to reserve enrollment for neighborhood kids in the city’s vaunted magnet schools.

It’s the first time any schools chief has made such a direct attack on the magnets, and many parents are livid. “I don’t think they realize how passionately people believe in the magnet schools,” says Sims. “Part of the reasons they are so successful is because parents get involved. And we mean to stay involved.”

The magnets are a by-product of an old integration struggle that goes back to the early 1960s, when Al Raby and other long-forgotten civil rights activists demanded that Mayor Richard J. Daley break down the barriers that segregated blacks and whites into separate neighborhood schools.

The battle continued after Daley died and steady flight to the suburbs cut white enrollment to less than 20 percent of the public school population. Finally in 1980 the board agreed to voluntarily implement its own busing program–rather than have one forced upon Chicago by the federal courts, as had happened in Boston. Under the so-called consent decree the board promised to create and fund magnet schools, each with its own special program that would attract parents even if it meant putting their children on a bus (with all transportation fees paid for by the school system).

Over the years such magnets as Beasley, Burnside, Disney, Franklin, Hawthorne, Inter-American, Jackson, LaSalle, Murray, and Newberry have consistently ranked among the system’s highest scorers, even though they do not limit their enrollment to the academically “gifted,” and have become well-known to savvy parents looking for schools with a safe setting and diverse enrollment.

Parents must apply for their children to get in, and enrollment is controlled by a central-office lottery weighted to assure a fairly even racial, ethnic, and gender mix. Over the years, rumors and anecdotes spread of how some schools bent the rules to let in the sons and daughters of the well connected. It was in part to make a uniform enrollment policy–and to save several million dollars in busing costs–that Vallas says he decided to change the enrollment rules governing magnets.

His proposal would set aside at least 30 percent of the slots in each elementary magnet school for children who live within a mile of it (within 2.5 miles of a magnet high school). He also would eliminate busing for children who live more than six miles away. Vallas would spend the money saved on busing to create new magnet programs at schools throughout the city.

“Over the past 17 years many myths have evolved about the system. Our goal is to demystify the process,” says Natalye Paquin, a central office lawyer who played a major role in drafting the proposal. “People need to find one set of guidelines. This policy change will make a clear policy.”

In addition, Vallas says he wanted to make the magnets more of a tool of community stabilization by making them more accessible to neighborhood residents. “Many children live across or down the street from magnets, but they can’t get in,” says one school official. “Yet they see buses pulling up with kids from across town–it’s frustrating.”

According to Vallas, his proposal would not change any magnet school’s ethnic makeup, still regulated by the consent decree, nor would it force any student out of his or her school. Under Vallas’s plan, all students currently enrolled in a magnet would receive transportation until they graduate, even if they live beyond the six-mile boundary. “We would grandfather the students already enrolled,” says Paquin.

It seemed as though Vallas had carefully structured his proposal so as not to upset parents who now send their children to magnets. Yet opposition was almost instant.

It’s hard for many observers to understand the deep bonds many magnet school parents (I’m one) have with their children’s schools. They go beyond the hours of their time parents volunteer for bake sales, auctions, and other fund-raisers, or the gratitude they feel to teachers and principals for educating their children. It has to do with a sense of personal accomplishment, as though they were key players in a noble endeavor.

“You work so hard for something you believe in, something that really matters,” says Sims. “It’s what makes these schools so successful–the feeling of community.”

Over the years the central office has never been much of an ally. Usually it’s poking in with some harebrained scheme or screwup–like the Mastery Learning reading scheme or the budget meltdowns of the 1980s.

It was supposed to be different under Vallas, who came into office promising to leave well enough alone. But no hearing, no system-wide survey or debate was held before his latest proposal was drafted. Most parents, even those actively involved in school affairs, didn’t even know he was planning to change enrollment policy. In fact, his proposal was only publicized after one activist accidentally heard about it from a loose-lipped central office bureaucrat. All in all, it seemed like a step back in time to those days long before local reform, when the system operated much like the old Kremlin–with ultimatums and directives issued by the central command.

“Where were the hearings? Where was the careful study?” says Darlene Pearlstein, a member of the local school council at Franklin. “If they think the system needs changing, they should sit everyone down in a room and explain why. They should solicit our opinion.”

Beyond matters of procedure, Pearlstein and other parents fear the proposal would reduce diversity and equity by giving neighborhood children an unfair advantage.

To dramatize their point they call attention to three magnets–LaSalle, Newberry, and Franklin–all roughly within a mile of each other in upscale or rapidly gentrifying north-side neighborhoods. “By setting aside 30 percent for neighborhood kids, these children are favored simply because of where they live,” says Sheila Castillo, director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils and a parent at Inter-American. “The lottery is supposed to make things equal for everyone. Now they’re making it unequal.”

As Castillo and others see it, the proposal is intended to placate developers and real estate agents who want to use the magnets as a draw for pricey town houses and condos in upscale neighborhoods. “I think this is all about real estate,” says Julie Woestehoff, director of PURE, a watchdog group. “I think it has everything to do with real estate agents being able to tell prospective north-side home owners, ‘Don’t worry. Your kid will be guaranteed a space in this school.'”

The change would undercut diversity, critics contend. For instance, at LaSalle, a Lincoln Park school, increasing local enrollment would bring in more wealthy white kids and force out working and middle-class white students.

“One of the main points of these schools is to promote diversity–that’s what it’s all about,” says Sims. “To do that you need the busing to make sure that all kids, not just children from wealthier families, can get to the schools. It’s important that my children be around different kinds of kids because that’s the way the world is.”

At the moment, magnet school parents like Sims seem at a disadvantage. Vallas has useful contacts in the mainstream media who can be counted on to back his endeavors and malign his critics. It’s only a matter of time, activists figure, before the central office attacks them as elitists who want to reserve the schools for themselves.

So far, however, the proposal has found few supporters. Almost all the speakers at the Lane Tech hearing denounced it. To illustrate how hastily it was created, one speaker noted that the six-mile radius drawn for Disney extended well into Lake Michigan.

“The inhabitants consist of wildlife and several species of lake fish,” said Stan Hollenbeck, a former Disney LSC member, drawing laughs and cheers. “Although we are all aware that fish are in schools, none are to be enrolled in Chicago’s public ones.”

It’s not certain that the proposal will be adopted, even if it wins approval at an October 22 board meeting, since it also requires federal support.

Neither side seems to be backing down. Vallas’s top aides left the Lane Tech meeting apparently unchanged by the testimony. And the parents say they will continue their fight, even if Vallas and other powerful central office figures try to punish them for their independence.

“There’s always a risk that if you speak out you’ll pay for it,” says Sims. “But there’s also a risk that if you don’t speak out, that 30 percent [neighborhood set-aside] becomes 50 and then 70 and then they do away with magnets altogether. Our school’s a model because we get kids from all over the city. It’s something well worth fighting for.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Darlene Pearlstein, Sheila Castillo.