We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

Last winter when parents and community activists attempted to oust Wells High School principal David Peterson, most observers wrote it off as a neighborhood insurrection. But that battle–which has spread from the near-west-side school into the courts–represents a much deeper conflict between activists and principals that threatens to upset the nascent public-school reform movement.

From the start reform advocates have insisted that schools will not improve unless principals are more accountable to parents, teachers, and community representatives. In return, the reform law was supposed to give principals more authority over personnel and budget matters.

Yet in this first year of reform–at a time when a number of local councils are still deciding whether to retain their principals–many principals contend they have less authority and face more pressure. Several, such as Peterson, are fighting back.

“When you talk to principals, you hear a universal complaint–that they are coming apart,” says Bruce Berndt, president of the Chicago Principals Association. “They have to work with local councils and be the top educators in the building. They don’t have any extra staff to help them, and the stress is unbelievable.”

It’s quite a contrast with the days before reform, when principals were the uncontested bosses of their schools. Few teachers dared to buck them. Those who did were often slapped with an unsatisfactory rating or dumped before a classroom of the school’s rowdiest children.

To become a principal one had to pass a local exam. Just taking the test seemed to require connections–it was only given every three years or so and there was usually a long waiting list. For years minorities complained that the process shut them out. Although the school population is now 59 percent black and 26 percent Hispanic, roughly 56 percent of the principals are white. “It was a closed system,” says Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a school-reform group. “A lot of good, qualified people never even applied for principal jobs because they didn’t have the right connections.”

Once in office, principals were virtually impossible to remove, no matter how dictatorial or mediocre their reign. The most shocking case was that of former Kelvyn Park High School principal James Moffat, who was fired after being convicted of having sex with children–who happened to be his students–under the age of 16. “Principals had tenure-protection rights, which meant they could not be removed without cause,” says Moore. “The only principals fired from their position in recent years were those convicted of a felony. If you had a bad principal, you either had to hide them in the central office and pay them to do nothing or you moved them to a different school where the community was less organized and sophisticated.”

Such abuse was supposed to change with the school-reform law, passed in September of 1988. More control over local school spending and hiring was placed in the hands of local councils, which consisted of six parents, two community representatives, two teachers, and the principal. The new law abolished the old principal certificate exam, as well as principal tenure. Now, principals are either awarded four-year contracts by their local councils or they are dismissed.

Most reformers say the new law is working well. A study by Designs for Change shows that 82 percent of principals were retained by local councils. Furthermore, Moore says, “there was no indication of racism by minorities toward white principals. Most councils made the decision based on what was good for their schools.”

To replace the principals who were fired, some reform groups have started acting like employment agencies and have placed ads in several newspapers asking for resumes from educators interested in becoming public school principals.

“We want the process opened to the best candidates possible,” says Moore. “So we placed an ad in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Education Week, and the Chicago Tribune. We’ve gotten about 80 responses, and we put these people in touch with councils who are looking for new principals.”

However, Bruce Berndt’s association says that many recently fired principals were unfairly dismissed. “The new law does not guarantee a fired principal a job, so we have people who have given a lot of years to the schools just dumped on the street,” says Berndt. “It’s criminal to treat people like that. The attitude of some [reformers] is viciously antiprincipal.”

In addition, there have been a few highly publicized disputes with racial overtones. At Morgan Park High School a white principal was ousted when the council’s black members either abstained or voted against him. At Kennedy High School, a black principal was dismissed after the board’s white members sided against him. At several Hispanic schools white principals charged that they were the victims of revolts orchestrated by the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), a Hispanic community organization.

One of the bitterest conflicts was at Wells, where the trouble began almost immediately after last year’s election left Peterson with five supporters and five opponents on the council. During a February 26 meeting, Peterson fell one vote short of the six votes needed to be retained. But Peterson challenged the legality of that vote. Apparently, one of the elected council members had resigned, and her replacement had been chosen by the council members at an informal gathering held at a local pizza parlor. Peterson charged that was a violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Peterson joined forces with his five supporters to fill the seat with another supporter, Georgina Williams. At a March 6 meeting Williams cast the sixth vote needed to give Peterson a four-year contract.

The anti-Peterson members hired a lawyer, Mike Radzilowsky, who filed a lawsuit to revoke the contract. The case is pending. “They wrongfully replaced a council member to extend Peterson’s contract,” says Radzilowsky. “In effect, Peterson was able to vote on his own contract by being able to vote for the new council member. By doing that, he violated the rule that prohibits a principal from voting on his own contract.”

The dispute has mushroomed into a citywide debate. Designs for Change jumped into the fray with a report noting that Wells has a 55 percent dropout rate, the 13th worst in the city, and that only 15 percent of Wells’s students read above the national average. The school is 79 percent Hispanic and 19 percent black. “The current principal has been there for ten years,” says Moore. “Perhaps it’s time to see if someone else could do better.”

Berndt counters that dropout rates and test scores are incomplete and inaccurate barometers of a principal’s performance. “You have to realize that schools with a high concentration of low-income youngsters most typically are not going to be as successful academically. When you throw in bilingual, limited-proficiency kids, that’s another factor. Listen, teaching is a very complex business. It’s not like an assembly line where everyone’s working from the same pieces of raw material. Every youngster is different. You can’t take the business analogy and apply it to the process of education. You can’t look at test scores to measure an educator’s effectiveness the way you would look at sales results to measure the performance of an executive.

“That’s too simplistic. You have to look at how well the school is functioning. What are its attendance rates? Is the school quiet and orderly? What kinds of programs does the principal initiate? What’s the faculty retention rate? Given all of that, I think Peterson has done a fine job at Wells.”

Berndt correctly points out that test scores are low and dropout rates high throughout the city’s public school system. It’s a delusion, he says, to hold principals solely accountable for these facts. What about the parental accountability, or for that matter the accountability of reform groups, such as Designs for Change?

“I agree that the single most influential person in a school is probably the principal,” says Berndt. “But I also believe that the principal gets too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go wrong. Parents and kids have a responsibility too. There’s no accountability on their part.”

In the long run a principal’s performance will be measured less by test scores than by his or her ability to stroke the egos of local council members, many principals contend. “It’s a new game,” says one north-side principal. “Most of the power is with the local school council. We have to learn to get along. In some ways it’s a contradiction. They [reformers] say they want a strong principal, like the Catholic schools have. And then they put us at the beck and call of the councils. I don’t think a lot of these reformers really know what they want.”

Hanging over the debate is a lawsuit, filed last year by several principals. Among other things, it alleges that the school-reform law is unconstitutional, in that it gives parents too much control over the schools. “The suit argues that because parents have six members of a local council, it is obvious that they have a greater vote than community members, who only have two members,” says Berndt. “That violates the rule of one man, one vote. We lost the first round of the case, but it’s before the state supreme court on appeal. If the judges go our way, it could mean some major changes in school reform. I’m not saying that the new reform law is totally bad. We just don’t want to be the fall guys for the system’s failings.”

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