Long before the Chicago school reform plan officially went into effect this month, cynics were carping that it would never work. It’s the folly of innocents who don’t appreciate the depths of corruption and ineptitude that prevail in this city, they say. They sneer at the do-gooders who spent months hammering out the legislation. One professor of education at the University of Chicago points out that “to succeed, the plan requires 4,800 hardworking, intelligent, conscientious, honest volunteer parents and community residents and 1,200 teachers with the same qualities who are willing to work after their normal school days–4,800 parents and community members in evenly divided packages of eight and 1,200 teachers in packages of two.” His unspoken implication, of course, is that such people will never be found.
Well, maybe they will be and maybe they won’t. But the skeptics have been so vocal, so vituperative, that many average Chicagoans are left with the vague impression that school reform is just another half-baked promise doomed to be broken. There are those who say that the legislature only passed this bill because it wanted to see Chicago fall on its face (then Springfield could justify its miserly school funding), and, lacking much credible testimony to the contrary, much of the public seems willing to accept such skeptical pronouncements.
But the cynicism and skepticism have obscured one important message about the school reform package: the law, as written, is nothing less than a blueprint for revolution. Maybe it will work as intended and maybe it won’t, but on paper, at least, it effects a remarkable transformation: control of the schools has been wrested from the Board of Education bureaucracy; the citizens have seized the power and thrown the bums out.
It’s true that not in Chicago and not in any other big city is there a precedent for the quality of hard work at the grass roots that will be required to make this plan work, least of all in poverty areas. It is true that in New York City the local ward organizations, the churches, and the teachers’ union now control the district boards that were created in a similar shakeup in 1969; they even control day-to-day operations in some districts, including hiring and firing and contract allocations.
Who is to say, ask the cynics, that the same thing won’t happen in Chicago? David Cohen, professor of education at Michigan State University, insists that “there will be more conflict, more politicization of the schools under the plan. Chicago has always had clubhouse politics with lots of patronage and there is no reason to think it won’t happen the same way in the schools.” Cohen concedes that “part of the purpose of decentralization is to open schools to political pressure, which makes them better because there is some accountability.” But he warns, “The schools that need change the most may get the least because they have the least human resources. Poverty has its effect, and to think you can eliminate it with a little training and education is only wishful thinking.”
The next five years may prove the cynics right. Chicago’s new educational structure may find itself riddled with corruption and ineptitude, for all the safeguards against that happening written into the law. Yet the law itself is astonishing. It decentralizes public education not as New York did, with its districts of as many as 25,000 students, but at the local school level, with no more than 1,700 children in any governing unit. If the reforms reform, and the safeguards guard, Chicago will have executed an educational revolution that a Florida school activist, Brian Peterson, associate professor of history at Florida International University, calls “a model for the whole country.”
“The fact that all those people got together to work on that bill and that it got passed is miraculous,” says Peterson. “We’re going to be watching very closely. You can be sure, if it works, that it will be adopted in a lot of other big-city school systems that are in trouble just like Chicago.” By “all those people,” Peterson means the parents, community groups, businesspeople, and education specialists who joined forces to turn the school system upside down.
“You can’t have a society of uneducated young people,” says one of the most prominent of the businesspeople, Kenneth West, board chairman of the Harris Bank. “You look at all the human opportunity that is wasted and you have to do something.” West is chairman of Leadership for Quality Education, which was created by Chicago United and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club to focus their support of educational reform. Warren Bacon, president of the interracial Chicago United, says, “The bill is the first step to changing the way the schools are governed. It represents 65 to 70 percent of what the business community wanted. I have to say it is a good bill.”
If it succeeds, school reform will be a tribute to Harold Washington, who set the process in motion in October 1987 when he invited 400 people to the University of Illinois to discuss the city’s schools and 1,000 came. That meeting, however, was expected to be nothing more than an opportunity to let off steam; it turned out to be the start of the massive grass-roots effort that brought into being Public Act 85-1418 and is now making the law a working reality.
For four long days last June, representatives of some 50 reform groups that had been marching uphill for years sat in house speaker Michael Madigan’s Springfield office with several legislators and redrafted Senate Bill 1839, the school reform act.
This in itself was a revolution. Never before, says one of the legislators, Representative Ellis Levin, had a large group of representative citizens actually written legislation. Some people complain that Public Act 85-1418 is sloppily written–unclear in some places, wordy in others. It contains an extraneous and potentially counterproductive preamble, legislators say. True enough, says Levin, it’s what you get when there are so many viewpoints, so much discussion, so many compromises. “This bill was written by the people,” he says, “and has all the defects you’d expect in such a bill.” It also has all the hope and idealism.
Levin, who helped push school reform through, is filled with optimism about it. “Anything is better than what we had,” he says, throwing his hands in the air. “Why not take the big chance? It has all the safeguards built into it that will make it work.” And if it doesn’t, “we will still be better off without that massive bureaucracy blocking every bit of progress the schools might make on their own.”
State representative John Cullerton, the other principal house sponsor, says, “It is a great bill. If only 10 percent of the schools grab onto it and turn themselves around it will be worth it. The system was so bad, we had nothing to lose. There was no risk at all.”
State senator Dawn Clark Netsch, who helped write the original senate bill, is even more optimistic. “I hope I’m not being too Pollyannaish, but I think it’s going to work for many schools,” she says. “This plan has the potential to really shake things up. At this point, it’s only potential, but it can mean a very dramatic restructuring of the schools.”
Cullerton gives the largest share of credit to the black legislators who “courageously defied their major leaders and institutions to vote for the bill. They stood up to Manford Byrd and PUSH, who opposed it. They listened to their constituents instead of the black leaders. If they had said ‘This won’t work in our communities,’ the bill would have been dead in the water. After all, they represent most of the kids in the system.”
Cullerton also credits Madigan for bringing the public into the writing process. That is not how things usually get done in a legislature.
Public Act 85-1418 gives Chicago the first fully school-based management system in the country. While the tendency throughout the nation, and certainly in Illinois, has been toward greater consolidation, centralization, and bureaucratization of public schools, Chicago is taking power away from the central bureaucracy and putting it into the hands of the local schools–into the hands of an elected council for each of the 595 elementary and secondary schools in the system, and into the hands of those schools’ principals and teachers. A council will consist of six parents, two community residents, two teachers, and the nonvoting principal. The parents will be elected by parents, the teachers by teachers, and the community representatives by the community in which each school is located (or, if it’s a magnet school, by the other council members).
Local school councils are not new. They have been around Chicago since 1970, but only as advisers; a council’s influence depended entirely on how a principal wanted to use it. Until 1981, having a local council was generally (though not always) a condition of eligibility for federal compensatory education funds. Even though the new Reagan administration quickly dropped that requirement, on grounds that the councils interfered with the authority of school officials, many schools hung on to their councils, for whatever they were worth.
Chicago’s new local school councils will hire and fire principals. They will help write and approve the local school improvement plans, which will lay out the philosophy and operations of each school. They will approve the budgets prepared with their help by the principals. “Chicago is going to show us how much parent involvement can change the schools. We predict it will make a big difference,” says William McKersie, lead program officer for education at the Joyce Foundation, the biggest donor in the city to public primary and secondary education.
Principals and teachers have also gained decisive new powers. For the first time in Chicago, principals can hire–and begin proceedings to fire–teachers regardless of their seniority or length of service. With the assistance of their faculties, principals will now determine their own curricula and make their own budgets, subject to the approval of the local councils. For the first time, a school’s engineers and food-service people will come under the jurisdiction of its principal. No longer will principals be captive to their engineers.
While the reform plan actively involves parents and community people in policy making, it spells out the limits of their authority in order to make the principals the true educational leaders of the schools, free from day-to-day interference from any direction, including above. But a principal whose school is clearly in trouble may face dismissal. The law requires an improvement plan to be written at each school with incremental goals for student attendance and performance. The principal who doesn’t produce results will be in trouble. Principals whose students are undisciplined, whose staffs are not functioning smoothly, who are not leaders, can be fired like any corporate executives.
Whether parents and community people will meddle in the day-to-day operations of the schools as they do in New York is a weighty question that awaits an answer. Whether principals can assert their authority while responding to their councils is another. We don’t know yet how well school reform will work. All that’s certain is that a lot of things are going to be done differently.
Take budgeting. Under the old system, the central administration made the budgets for all the schools. The $2 billion annual budget was allocated among schools on the basis of attendance. Schools that had better attendance records got more funds; thus the schools with low-income, low-achieving, frequently truant students got less–even though these schools most needed help. The bureaucracy rarely took into account a school’s special needs.
The local budgets were presented each March in meetings at the individual schools, and parents and community people were invited to comment. They’d make many objections. Not one change was ever made to satisfy those objections, says Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, a watchdog and research coalition of 20 community groups that was instrumental in writing the new law.
Furthermore, in the terrible money crunch of the last 20 years, the school board habitually misused funds allocated by the state and federal governments primarily for compensatory education programs for low-income, low-achieving students. Instead, these funds were exploited to cover such general costs as kindergartens and libraries.
Under the new law, the board gives each local school a lump sum based on enrollment–not attendance–at the beginning of the school year. With that money, the local school makes its own budget–subject to contractual agreements with the unions. A school can supplement those funds by fund-raising, by grants, however it can. Title I money–the state’s compensatory education and special education funds–must go to schools according to the number of low-income students in them. That money’s theirs on top of their lump sum allocations–“a spectacular change from the past,” says Representative Cullerton.
The law says schools that previously benefited illegally from Title I funds will be held “harmless.” This means that services heretofore paid for by Title I must continue, even though it is most unclear where the money will come from. A mandated reduction of the administrative budget was originally projected by the reform bill’s authors to free up as much as $40 million, a far cry from the $238 million in Title I funds received in 1988. Now the state board of education says bureaucratic cutbacks will save only about $6 million. However, Title I funds will be redistributed in phases over four years, making the replacement of those funds more manageable. More important, Speaker Madigan has backed off his opposition to any increase in the state income tax. Still opposing the governor’s desired 40 percent increase, Madigan suddenly proposed an extra 18.4 percent, half of it targeted to the schools; Chicago schools would receive something over $70 million that they hadn’t counted on for the next school year. City Council action to increase the property tax levy for schools is another possible source of added revenue. And Warren Bacon predicts that private moneys will be received from the business community.
Under the old system, a school that lost enough students–about 15 percent of the citywide school population drops away every year, according to Chicago Panel’s Fred Hess–lost teachers at midyear. As a consequence, principals were forced to shift around students to compensate for lost teachers. The new law does away with this destructive practice. It forbids any change in teaching personnel after the 20th day of the school year. Kids will keep their teachers throughout the school year even if there wind up being only 15 kids to a class–a “major breakthrough,” says Senator Dawn Clark Netsch.
Under the old system, the board hired no more teachers than the union contract required. Hess, tells a story about Superintendent Manford Byrd one year reporting a $35 million surplus in teacher salaries to the school board. We didn’t hire all the teachers we had funds for because the union didn’t require it, Hess says Byrd explained. And an irate board member shot back, I guess that’s where you and I don’t see eye to eye. I thought we were supposed to hire teachers to help kids get educated.
Under the new law, principals, teachers, and the local school councils will determine how many teachers the school can afford to hire and presumably they will hire as many as they can, on the assumption that smaller classes provide more effective education.
On the other hand, a school will be able to decide to make some classes bigger and some smaller, latitude prohibited before now by a teachers’ union–school board agreement on class ceilings. Now the teachers at a local school can waive that ceiling, permitting much more flexibility. There are subjects like history that can be taught well enough in large classes, making possible more individualized instruction in subjects like reading.
Take administration. The number of people believed to be employed in the central and district offices depends on whom you talk to. Fred Hess, whose Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance monitors school finances closely, puts the figure at above 4,000. Robert Saigh, a spokesman for the school board, says it’s just 1,700, insists that great cuts have already been made in the bureaucracy, and claims an independent study indicates that these offices actually need 1,000 additional people. Whatever the actual numbers, there has been a feeling everywhere in the city but within the board itself that the central administration is far too big, that it is responsible for a lot of waste, and that it drains off money the schools need.
Each side might be overstating its case.
While school reform was being drafted, Mike Belletire, assistant superintendent for finance of the Illinois State Board of Education, proposed machinery to control the size of the bureaucracy. His idea, which became law, was to limit the ratio of noninstructional to instructional costs in the Chicago system to the average ratio for the rest of the state.
Belletire calculated that the ratio in Chicago was 33.3 percent, in the rest of Illinois 31.1 percent; redistributing the school budget to bring Chicago into conformity would free up $40 million for instructional programs. But later Belletire did some more figuring; and now it seemed that Chicago’s ratio was only 30.3 percent, the balance of the state’s, 30 percent precisely. Redistribution would produce only another $6 million.
But $50 million worth of staff positions have not been categorized yet as either instructional or noninstructional, says Fred Hess. In the end, more than $6 million extra will probably flow into the instructional budget.
Take the matter of ineffective principals and teachers. Optimists say the system demoralized many of them; now they’re marking time. But give them a decent work atmosphere and they’ll come around. In fact, there is some research showing that schools do improve when teachers are given an increased role in operating them. But others who are less sanguine say a lot of teachers and principals need either to be retrained or weeded out.
The new law provides these professionals with at least the potential for a better working atmosphere–more autonomy, more input, more collegiality. It also puts them on notice. The contracts of half the principals will end in 1990, the rest in ’91. Then they may or may not be signed to four-year performance contracts–that will be up to the school councils. In addition, the principals can be fired at any time for good cause. In this case, they are entitled to the same due process–a long and complicated one–they’ve had before.
The Chicago Principals Association put up a tremendous fight to kill the school reform bill. They have not bought the tradeoff of more power for less job security and are suing the Board of Education, the School Finance Authority, the state comptroller, the state treasurer, and the attorney general in order to overturn the new law. Bruce Berndt, who’s the president of the association and has been a principal for 22 years, explains: “The association is for some kind of reform and we think the concept of school-based management is good. There are some good aspects to the bill, but we feel principals have been made the scapegoats for the failures of the system. We feel tenure is a property right. It was a contract with the state that the constitution says cannot just be taken away. Instead of stripping the principals of their tenure, the system of getting rid of poor teachers and principals should have been streamlined.”
Some principals, however, have said they can live with the new law. Lourdes Monteagudo, who is principal of the Sabin magnet school in West Town (and at press time was named a likely choice for the new job of deputy mayor in charge of education, says, “Good principals will not fear for their jobs. The system has always protected principals. Many were not responsive to their communities. I think people have to have some anxiety about the consequences of their actions. If you violate the rights of kids and parents, you should be out of the schools. Many principals lie to parents. They are so used to covering up and being protected that the parents don’t trust them. The parents want some of them out of their schools and now they’ll get them out.
“This bill is a very big step toward reforming the schools in the way that people relate to each other and the way the school is governed. I feel very hopeful that it will allow me to do what I wasn’t able to do tied to a bureaucracy that was not responsive to the people in the local unit. But I think that your view of the bill will depend on how confident you are. Many principals know that they are not doing a good job.”
Representative Cullerton reports that principals are “bashing” the bill. “When I go around lecturing in schools in my district as I do and hear the principals whining about losing their tenure, I realize how great this bill is,” he says. “No principals outside Chicago have tenure. These people obviously shouldn’t be principals.” Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a not-for-profit research and advocacy group instrumental in writing the bill, adds that he hears from parents that “principals are warning them that if they run for the councils they will lose their homes, and are making other threats.”
The Harris Bank’s Ken West says, “I can empathize with the principals. My father was a small-town principal and he always had the greatest envy for tenure. But I think this bill is constructive. We have to go through a real jolt. We need to provide an atmosphere in which the principals can operate successfully, and tenure just may not provide that atmosphere.”
As for teachers, although they still can be dismissed only after remediation (probation), that process has, indeed, been streamlined. Teachers can be put on notice after only 45 days of remediation–a spectacular reduction from the 180 days previously required. During remediation, retraining takes place. If a teacher’s performance hasn’t improved, the principal can then institute dismissal proceedings at once.
More important, principals can fill vacancies from a list of eligible teachers according to merit, regardless of seniority or length of service, except that they must give first consideration to the 200 or so teachers a year who lose their jobs because of school closings or other reasons beyond their control. Unlike in the past, the teachers’ union did not actively oppose merit hiring and a shortened remediation period. Teachers, at least, were willing to exchange more power and autonomy for less job security. Many teachers are expressing profound interest in the reform. A meeting held by the union in April to acquaint teachers with the new law drew the largest attendance of any union meeting in years, about 1,500.
Contrary to the impression created by the local media, the Chicago Teachers Union took an active and supportive role in writing the bill, according to Fred Hess. “They were given a bum rap,” he says. John Kotsakis, the CTU’s assistant to the president in charge of educational issues, insists that the union has favored school-based management for several years. While he thinks that Public Act 85-1418 does not give teachers a large enough role in school planning and decision making, he says that “when the legislation was in its formative stages we saw it as an improvement and supported it. We thought we could make the legislation work regardless of some of its intent. We are now committed completely to making it work. We are pursuing the goal of getting teachers a bigger role. They were shut out for so long that it will take a lot of work to teach them that they can take the initiative that the bill provides them.”
So now the local schools have complete control over the hiring and firing of teachers and principals, and complete control over budgets–each a revolutionary change. What’s just as extraordinary is that the principals, with their teachers and councils, will be responsible for their schools’ curricula, teaching methods, activities, and textbooks. The central office will write an advisory curriculum to be distributed to the schools, but the schools can make their own decisions about what is most needed and will work best. A principal who favors a back-to-basics, tightly structured school will be free to create one, hiring teachers comfortable with that approach and retraining teachers who aren’t. Another principal will build a school around open classrooms and a more humanistic curriculum. In theory, the principal’s methods will suit the community’s desires, because those issues will be aired before the principal is hired. The four-year performance contract that each principal signs with his or her council is expected to incorporate that principal’s educational philosophy and goals for the school.
Each school will write a school improvement plan. What’s new about that? cynics in the know might ask. John Kotsakis points out that the schools have always had these plans. The Illinois Board of Education required them. The Chicago Board of Education requested them. So principals and a few teachers sat down and wrote them. You can find them stuffed away in the files at 1819 W. Pershing Road. Under the new law, the councils will be involved in writing the plans. The principals and faculties will be held accountable for their success or failure because they will be written for the local schools, not for the boards–if all goes according to the law.
But what if the principal is doing a lousy job and an ignorant council doesn’t recognize it? What if the council is harassing the principal and the teachers? What if the principal is doing a lousy job and the council sees it but doesn’t know how to change things? Who, in other words, will be watching these autonomous local schools to see that they are operating well?
Within the same school district boundaries as now exist, there will be councils composed of a parent or community resident elected from each local school council. The primary duty of these district councils will be to oversee the local schools. They’ll have the power to close down a school, as a last resort, if it is not performing properly.
Oversight day-to-day will be handled by the district staff, headed by the district superintendent. Like a principal, this officer must sign a four-year performance contract. And he or she will be subject to the same hiring and firing procedures.
Control from above in the Chicago school system has clearly become a shadow of its old ponderous self. Control of the local schools, that is. The school board, under the new law, is subject to even closer scrutiny and supervision by the School Finance Authority than it was under the old, and even closer scrutiny and supervision by the state board of education. There is talk among experts that it may be difficult to attract a good superintendent of schools to Chicago when Manford Byrd’s term runs out in March 1990, because so little power remains vested in that office.
“The role of the superintendent will be as an advocate for school reform,” says Fred Hess. “He will be the person who shows the schools how to improve. He can’t command anymore; he can only suggest. But under the former system, it didn’t do the superintendent any good to command. He couldn’t get people to do anything anyhow. He also has to be an advocate for revenue for the schools. And he has to [administer] the $2 billion budget.”
If a superintendent can no longer command his schools, it may seem a lesser job, but a superintendent who comes in with a mandate to make reform a reality may think that’s a bigger–and better–one.
But now the cynics speak up again. What impact are these lovely reforms going to have on the education of Chicago’s children, especially those low-achieving, low-income children who so heavily populate the schools today? What difference will a revolutionary governing structure make to all those alienated children, to the 45 percent dropout rate, to reading scores far below the national norms?
Many of the people involved in the writing and passage of school reform caution that it does not directly address education, only school governance. It is the first step, they say. The next steps will include nearly totally retraining teachers, principals, and administrators, developing new techniques for educating teachers-to-be in the colleges, bringing younger children into the school program, and reducing class sizes. Much of this was mandated in state legislation in 1985 but never funded.
But the educational experts involved in writing the new bill insist that some educational gains will accrue even from step one.
Consider teacher attendance. The theory is that with more autonomy and more input, teachers will be better motivated and they’ll skip work less often. Under the old system, teachers’ absenteeism had no financial impact on their classrooms. Under the new localized system, funds not required to pay for substitutes can be put to other uses. They can pay for extra supplies and special programs.
There is a body of research called effective schools research that tells us that across the board–but especially in low-income and minority districts–as school district size declines, student achievement rises; as parent involvement rises, achievement rises; as principals improve, achievement rises.
As many as 50 separate studies indicate the benefits of parental involvement in schools. A study of 750 Illinois school districts with fewer than 1,000 students found that those students, regardless of their economic status, did better in school than students do in Chicago. This study by Herbert J. Walberg and William J. Fowler Jr., which was reported in October 1987 in Educational Researcher, showed that, generally speaking, “the smaller the district, the higher the achievement.”
Why? “Superintendent and central staff awareness of citizen and parent preferences, the absence of bureaucratic layers and administrative complexity, teacher involvement in decision making, and close home-school relations–these may account for the apparent efficiency of small districts.” The authors quoted another study that said, “The available evidence suggests that there is no relationship between expenditures and achievement of students, and that such traditional remedies as reducing class size or hiring better trained teachers are unlikely to improve matters.”
Donald Moore of Designs for Change suggests that students perform better in smaller districts “because in smaller districts, people feel more accountable for their actions, and it’s easier, both through formal and informal channels, to get school people to respond to the needs and dissatisfactions of families.”
Research by James Coleman of the University of Chicago showed that low-income black and Hispanic students in Chicago’s Catholic schools, which are locally controlled and community based, were surpassing their counterparts in the larger public schools in reading and math and had lower dropout rates.
Dramatic support for the efficacy of the new school reform plan comes from the highly controversial New York system. Though it is ridden with corruption and ineptitude, though the 1969 decentralization plan created 32 districts that are bigger than most large city systems, and though the New York system is called a failure by many, the central fact, as reported in 110 Livingston Street Revisited by David Rogers and Norman H. Chung, is that achievement in the New York schools actually rose. “As measured by reading scores,” the authors say, “pupils’ performance under decentralization has improved. This conclusion is based on examination of citywide reading scores for grades 2 through 9, from 1971 to 1981.” In the higher grades, improvement was more than one whole year; in ninth grade, when students in Chicago and other large cities have tended to fall far behind, reading scores rose from 8.6 in 1971 to 9.8 in 1981. Students were reading above grade averages.
Rogers and Chung point to what they call “social peace” and “a legitimacy for the schools as a community institution” as further benefits of New York’s decentralization. There is, they say, “a fit between the schools and community” with regard to both curriculum and innovation. For all the continuing flaws of the New York system, those improvements are notable. What might we expect of reform that takes community control so much farther?
The question is: are there 4,800 competent parents and community members–eight per school–willing and able to give the time and the energy it will take to make the system work? Donald Moore insists that there are plenty of those people out there, not only in middle-class neighborhoods but in the lower-income communities as well. “We do training and organizing all over the city,” Moore says, “in some of the very poorest neighborhoods in the city, in the housing projects, in Pilsen and Little Village [Hispanic communities]. And, in all the schools, we find a corps of people who are committed to improving their schools, who are very intelligent, capable of making decisions about their schools and understanding the problems very well. Our experience is that there is in every neighborhood a corps of people capable of serving on school councils.” A former district superintendent agrees with Moore. “I could always find a very good group of parents in the schools that I could work with. They are out there,” he says.
Public Act 85-1418 requires the Board of Education to give all local council members 30 hours of training. The councils can avail themselves of school board trainers or may use, at the board’s expense, such not-for-profit groups as Designs for Change.
Donald Moore and Fred Hess point out that 49 organizations are now engaged in training people throughout the city to implement the mechanics and philosophy of the new law. The Joyce Foundation has allocated $250,000 for the training of parents and community people and Leadership for Quality Education is helping conduct a search for qualified people and will be involved in training them. Designs for Change and other groups are training people from community organizations who will, in turn, train others in their communities for the councils. The goal is a trained pool of 10,000 potential council members.
Last winter, I sat in on a training session run by Designs for Change. It was one day of a five-week, 35-hour weekend course that 60 volunteers were attending. The session was highly intensive, with the volunteers and the trainer taking apart the most minute sections of the law for inspection and analysis. Most of the students, I judged, could make excellent council members. A few were clearly not up to the job. Moore later reported that 55 people completed the five-week program. The other five were asked to drop out.
One of the great failings of the New York system has been the low voter turnout for local school board elections, putting the boards in the hands of controlling groups that bring out their own constituencies. The average turnout is only about 7 percent. Chicago is attempting to avoid this danger by holding school council elections at the schools on days when parents pick up their children’s report cards. Moore says that about 70 percent of the parents show up to pick up their children’s report cards and he estimates that this turnout will produce a 50 percent voter turnout. To help along the process, he adds, there will be a massive publicity campaign mounted to alert people to the initial election this October.
If all this training works, if from a corps of willing and able persons the new school councils are elected, problems are still likely to develop. A member of the central office who has been in the school system for more than 30 years asks some hard questions about the principal’s new role. “The principals will be running for office every four years. Will they be willing to offend parents and teachers and risk their jobs? This bill will give weak principals an excuse to be even weaker. It has never been easy to do good within this school system because of the bureaucracy. It required tremendous perseverance and manipulation. There was always an excuse for not doing something–‘It’s out of my hands.’ Well, we’re still going to have that, but now it will be not because of the bureaucracy, but because of the councils. They will say the decisions are in the hands of the parents.
“The contract could also weaken strong principals. It will enable weak principals to remain weak, and weaken strong principals because they have to please two teachers, six parents, and two community people. It will all depend on those people. This is not a perfect world and those ten people won’t be perfect people.
“We have principals now who are real risk takers, but if you need that job and don’t have tenure anymore and you have to please your board, you’ll stop being a risk taker. You’ll just go along and satisfy those people. We should not have principals so beholden. And it’s not only the parents. You can get a teacher on that council who might be the least effective teacher in the school, but would run for office and get elected just to protect his position. The principal is not then going to rank that teacher as unsatisfactory. If you got the most sincere parents and the most sincere teachers, fine, but it doesn’t always work out that way. And how about the parent on the council whose child isn’t doing well, who has problems? And parents might not want a strong principal. They might want a nice person, a comfortable person, a chatty person. That won’t do the job in these schools. Those are real hazards. It is idealistic, but maybe not too realistic.”
Under the law, the principal is unprotected against the hazards this official points to. The same applies to the district superintendent, whose job it is to police the district schools and who is as subject to being fired as principals are. A strong principal or a strong superintendent may be exactly what some parents do not want. One of the great flaws in the New York system is just this: the councils have rendered many principals impotent. Our cynics, considering this matter, might curl their lips even tighter.
Public Act 85-1418 goes beyond the revolutionary restructuring of the governing system of the schools. Three reforms it calls for–extending the system to four-year-olds, reducing the ratio of students to school counselors, and reducing class sizes–would cost $910 million to accomplish, according to a school board study. Yet the legislation ended with a clause to make the cynics laugh till it hurts: “No reimbursement by the State shall be required for the implementation of any mandate created by this amendatory Act of 1988.”
Illinois, after all, is 44th among the states in its per capita financial support for education. But John Cullerton explains that the goals that would require new money were not a formal part of the actual legislation but only its preamble, that in time money will be found to accomplish these goals, and that their pie-in-the-sky idealism should not be exploited, as the outgoing board has been exploiting it, to “bash the bill.” The heart of the new law, he says, is its transfer of control from the bureaucracy, “The principals will now run the schools. That’s what’s important.”
If the important things that are now supposed to happen happen, Chicago will have blazed a trail for every big-city school that is in trouble. The next few years will tell. “The difficulty of making this work is horrendous,” says Ken West, “but we’ve got to do it.”
If the cynics turn out to be right, if, in five years, Chicago faces the same problems of corruption and incompetence bedeviling New York–well, there’s this: kids in New York are still reading better than they used to.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.