Fifteen years ago a coalition of school reform activists decided that since control of the schools had just been turned over to local school councils, most of the bureaucrats at the central office could go. They wrote a “Sunrise Statement”–a reference to the new day they saw for public schools–in which they vowed to help eliminate as much of the central office as they could.

The bureaucrats are still there. “It’s about as bad as I’ve ever seen in terms of the central office taking control,” says Sharon Adams, a member of the LSC at the Arthur Ashe school on the far south side. “They keep whittling away at local control, taking away more of our powers, taking more of the control for themselves.”

The LSCs were created by the state legislature in 1988, as part of the first wave of school reform in Chicago. At the time each of the city’s 600 or so schools was put under the control of an elected 11-member council–six parents, two community reps, two teachers, and the principal. They were given unprecedented authority to shape their school’s curriculum, write budgets, and hire new principals.

Mayor Daley went along with the new law, if only because it would have looked bad not to. “Local control was the issue of the day,” says Dion Miller Perez, a member of the LSC at the Finkl grammar school in Little Village. “How can you be against parents getting involved in their children’s education?”

But within a few years Daley made it clear he wanted the system changed. He was tired of having to select board of education members from a list prepared by LSC members. He wasn’t happy that LSC members had used their position to launch independent aldermanic campaigns against incumbents he supported. And he didn’t like the chaos of grassroots democracy–several LSCs had got lost in factional disputes.

In 1995 Daley, supported by a lot of Republicans, persuaded the state legislature to bring back centralized control. This second wave of school reform gave him the authority to name his own board of education and his own management team. He brought in Paul Vallas and Gery Chico, two former City Hall aides, to oversee the system. Vallas became CEO, Chico president of the school board.

The LSCs remained, though Vallas and Chico now had the final say on important matters. In 1996 the two put 109 schools whose children did poorly on standardized tests on academic probation, then turned over control of most of their LSCs’ budget, hiring, and curriculum decisions to the central office. In 2000 Vallas pushed for a bill that would have given the central office authority over principals in all schools, even those with high test scores, but the state legislature didn’t go along.

By 2001 Vallas and Chico were openly battling with many LSC members, one reason Daley ushered the pair out. Their replacements–CEO Arne Duncan and board president Michael Scott–have been much smoother. “They said the right things–or they did,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), a citywide coalition of LSC members.

In the past few months Duncan has been quietly shifting power from the LSCs to the central office. For instance, in February the board made it harder for underachieving schools to stay off probation. Under the new policy, any grammar school where 40 percent or less of the students score at or above the national average will go on probation; the old figure was 25 percent. In high schools, where the cutoff used to be 15 percent, it’s now 30 percent. As a consequence, nearly half of the schools in the system could go on probation in the next few months–and once they’re on probation, their LSCs will lose much of the control they’ve had.

Duncan has further undermined the power of LSCs by allowing charter and small schools to be set up without them. He contends that the new schools aren’t covered by the original school reform law; PURE members and other reformers insist that they are. Moreover, he’s allowed small schools that still want LSCs to ignore some of the rules that ordinarily govern them, such as the requirement that LSC members live in the school district.

Curiously, that rule is still being enforced in other schools by the wing of the central office that monitors LSCs. Sharon Adams has been on Ashe’s LSC for nearly eight years. “I have never missed a regular meeting,” she says, “and I take very seriously my commitment to this position, even though it’s unpaid and I have no children in the school.” Yet last October she got a call from an investigator with the central office telling her that the board had received an anonymous letter challenging her right to sit on the LSC. The letter writer stated, “It is my belief that for several years Ms. Adams has falsified information in regards to her legal address and phone number in order to hold and maintain a Community Representative seat on the Ashe Local School Council.”

Adams, who’s been party to a squabble over school policy, thinks she knows who sent the letter. She says she owns a condominium that’s outside the school’s district but lives in her parents’ house, which is inside it. The investigator told her she had to prove that she lived in her parents’ house, so she went to the central office for a hearing on October 27. “You had to see it to believe it,” she says. “They had three people in a hearing room–a hearing officer, the board’s investigator, and an attorney for the board. I proceeded to take out every piece of mail to show them that my primary residence was with my parents. Now while I was at this hearing my father was sick at home–he was 95 years old. The attorney–and I still can’t believe he asked me this–asked, ‘How much longer does your father have?’ What kind of question is that? My mouth just dropped. He said, ‘I mean, if, god forbid, your father dies, would you keep the house or would you move? And if you do move, would you make sure to resign from the Ashe LSC?’ Can you believe this? I told him that if my father died the house is mine, but would you think that staying on the council is my most dominant concern? I’m thinking, ‘You have two paid staff members and a hearing officer with nothing better to do with their time than grill me about what I’m going to do after my father dies–there must be a better way for the board to spend its money.'” Eventually a hearing officer ruled in her favor.

From Duncan’s perspective, all the new policy changes are needed to bring accountability to the system. He says the city can no longer allow underachieving schools to be overseen by dysfunctional LSCs, and if that sounds antidemocratic or politically incorrect, so be it. “I am trying to break the monopoly that LSCs have on school governance,” he told reporters last month. “It’s not the holy grail.”

That quote, prominently featured in news coverage, infuriated many LSC members. Since then, Duncan has tried to soften his rhetoric without backing down from the substance of what he said. “There’s no interest in reversing school reform, or anything like that,” says Peter Cunningham, a spokesman for Duncan. “We’re always working to make sure the system’s more accountable. When schools are struggling we have an obligation to step in and do something. Some people determined it was a threat to the LSC governing structure, but they’re wrong. It’s about putting the kids’ needs front and center.”

But LSC members contend that some of the policy changes work against the kids’ needs. Perez, whose school is already on probation, points to Duncan’s new requirement that all schools on probation offer full-day kindergarten. He says the idea is noble, but the reality is more complicated. “It may not make sense for all schools to have all-day kindergarten, as good as that sounds,” he says. “If you make us have all-day kindergarten, we have to have at least two rooms fully reserved for kindergarten. If we’re allowed to have half-day kindergarten, we only need one room reserved–because we can have one class meeting in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Then we can use that second classroom for something else. We’re an overcrowded school, so we need every room we have. But the kindergarten policy ties our hands.”

Perez calls it an unfunded mandate. “They have mandated a policy that impacts a building’s functionality, but they haven’t done any capital budgeting to go along with it,” he says. “So where are we going to find the space for that second kindergarten class? What gets cut? It’s not as though I’m against full-day kindergarten, but there are reasons we don’t have it.”

He also points to problems created by the shift in control over state and federal antipoverty funds from the LSC to the central office once a school is put on probation. Under Duncan’s orders, the central office is now forcing schools on probation to spend more of their antipoverty funds on reading programs. “The reading [instructor] required by the board used to come out of what they call ‘210 funds,’ or general funds,” says Perez. “Now the budget office is telling us we have to pay for more of our reading instruction out of discretionary state [antipoverty] funds. I’m not arguing against a reading program. I’m saying that limits our control over what kinds of programs our school offers.”

Perez thinks Duncan and the board are motivated in part by budget concerns. “I don’t think tax revenues are where Duncan and the board want them to be,” he says. “They don’t want to raise taxes, so what do they do? They’re paying for more of their programs out of money that the LSCs used to control.”

Perez is running for another term at Finkl, just as Adams is running again at Ashe. “Why do I continue–why do any of us continue?” says Perez. “I think it’s worth it. I think the pendulum will swing back toward more local control. I’ve been at this now for nine years. I’ve seen superintendents and CEOs come and go. When the smoke clears it’s more likely that Duncan will be gone from the system than me as a council member. They might think LSCs are useful punching bags. But I don’t think they can get rid of us, even if they try.”

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