An Illinois governor who dared to be a leader, John Peter Altgeld once said “all great reforms . . . come from the bottom and not the top.” Chicago and Chicagoans now have a splendid opportunity to reform their failing public school system from the bottom. It should be obvious by now that the system is neither able nor willing to reform itself. It is up to concerned parents, educators, and community leaders to put together a reform package that will put the highest priority on educating students.

We need more than slogans and homilies about “Children First”; we need a system that provides incentives and generous support to schools and teachers that actually do put children first by succeeding in educating them. Few such incentives now exist; schools get money and administrators and teachers get promotions whether or not students learn.

While many are looking to Springfield to help reform Chicago schools–a strategy that history warns us is fraught with danger–Chicagoans need to consider what we can do locally to put our own schools in order. Any package we can agree on here should get support from Springfield; we should not wait for downstaters to solve our problems. Their solutions can cause more problems.

As a parent of a Chicago public-school student, a union teacher in a public college, and a former education reporter, I offer a five-part reform package that would save what little good now exists in the system while allowing sweeping improvements to be made in the near future.

My package would (1) raise local school taxes now and state funds later; (2) provide public-school vouchers to Chicagoans; (3) give control of local schools to parent-educator councils at each school; (4) turn the self-serving Board of Education bureaucracy into a functioning school-support system; and (5) provide incentive bonuses to teachers and principals who succeed in improving student learning.

Raise local school taxes. We can quibble endlessly about how Chicago school money is spent, but we are fooling ourselves if we think the schools–and the teachers in them–don’t need more money. A visit to almost any Chicago school and any suburban or downstate school would show how shamefully underfinanced Chicago schools are. Chicago students and teachers don’t have enough paper or books in most cases, let alone special programs or extracurricular activities.

To get more money for its schools, Chicago first of all needs to raise its local school taxes. While it is obvious that Chicago schools–all Illinois schools–need more state funding, it should also be obvious that Chicago’s local school-taxing effort is shamefully, pathetically low. How can we ask the legislature to do for us what we are unwilling to do for ourselves?

In 1984, for example, Chicago schools got a puny 26 percent of our local tax bill. Evanston’s schools got 53 percent; Park Forest’s schools got 63 percent; Oak Park’s got 45 percent. Dolton, a blue-collar suburb, devoted 52 percent of its local taxes to its schools. Even Rockford, which has cut its school spending below the bone, devoted 31 percent of its taxes to the schools. Does Chicago really care?

It makes little sense for bus loads of Chicago parents to descend on Springfield and plead for more state school money without at least asking for an increase in local school-taxing authority. It is unlikely that the legislature will overturn the governor’s veto and increase school funding for Chicago and other schools; it is far more likely that it would allow the Chicago board to raise local taxes. Right now, Chicago’s school tax rate is at its statutory ceiling of $2.54 per $100 assessed valuation and can only be raised through local referendum or by the legislature. And a referendum might succeed–if it is packaged with a companion measure seeking approval of some form of decentralization reform that would extend power to local councils.

With an increase in local taxes, Chicago can solve its own teacher-strike settlement shortfalls. Why doesn’t somebody–Mayor Washington, Frank Gardner, Jackie Vaughn, Ed Burke–say it? Better yet, why doesn’t somebody–Mayor Washington and his Board of Education and City Council majority–simply do it?

The mayor’s own studies show that Chicago’s property tax bill is well below nationwide and statewide averages. Any school-funding strategy that does not endeavor to raise the local school tax is doomed from its inception. Chicagoans need to show that they care about their own children before they can get anyone else to care.

Some observers and commentators–noting the massive failures of Chicago public schools–say that any new school funding must be linked with widespread school reform. This may be a sound long-term strategy–but for now it wouldn’t punish Board of Education people as much as it would harm our children. A local tax increase will help keep the schools open–poorly run as they may be–while a broad reform program is planned and implemented.

Our children have already been made the hostages of teacher-strike impasses; we shouldn’t make them hostages of school-reform politics. Let’s radically change the school system, but let’s keep the schools open while doing it.

Public school vouchers. The best way to make sure that the local schools and the students in them come first–and not the central bureaucracy–would be to link school spending directly to the children. Put real power in the hands of all parents by providing public school vouchers to families for every school-age child.

Open the enrollment in every Chicago public school. Let the schools, their principals, and teachers compete with the others for our children. Vouchers of this sort would give parents true alternatives and the ultimate authority over their children’s education. If they are dissatisfied with their school, they can simply take their children and their vouchers elsewhere.

Progressives and some reformers oppose vouchers because they might cripple public schools and divert money to an assortment of private schools. We could avoid this by issuing vouchers only for use in public schools.

Others argue that a voucher system would somehow cheat low-income parents by subjecting them to sleazy educational profiteering by clever marketing strategists and other hustlers. The assumption behind this argument is that low-income parents are not able to make sound decisions about their children’s education.

This argument underestimates low-income parents. It also fails to account for two preexisting voucher systems–food stamps and Section Eight housing certificates–that work infinitely better than the centralized government alternatives. If we trust the poor to use food and housing vouchers for their families, why can’t we trust them with education vouchers? How crippled, how stupid, do we think low-income parents are?

A voucher system–like the current state-aid formula–should provide more money for low-income students than middle- and upper-income students. The current statewide ratio favoring low-income students of 1.6 to 1 could be maintained. This would reward schools that recruit and serve low-income children, and could provide an incentive to desegregate the schools.

Vouchers cannot reform a local school, but they are necessary to keep schools responsive to their ultimate clients–children and their parents.

Local educator/parent councils. Any decentralization scheme that does not give authority to people at a local-school level is at best a partial solution. Chicagoans need to pay close attention to any so-called “reform” or “decentralization” package that doesn’t go this far.

Seventeen years ago, Chicago got a “reform” or “decentralization” system that did nothing to increase authority at the local-school level. It carved the city into three smaller areas–and succeeded only in adding another layer of bureaucracy to school decision making. The plan actually cut the percentage of money spent in local schools–and increased money spent on administration. That is a “reform” we can ill afford this time.

Research study after research study shows that the only urban schools that succeed are those with strong local control–by principals, teaching staffs, and parent councils. The Catholic schools have that sort of local autonomy; so do other successful private schools.

A proposal by an education-reform group headed by Loyola University professor Michael Bakalis–formerly state superintendent of public instruction–carries a provision for such local control.

Parents and teachers would have representation on such councils. They might have some sort of veto power over principals and educational programs also. The specifics can be worked out later in more detail.

Control of schools at the local level is not a radical departure; it is an American tradition. It works elsewhere, and can work here. Chicago is a large city, but there is no reason why it must have an ungovernably large public school system. Our big cities have set up school systems so large no one can possibly run them.

Without local control, a voucher system may not work. If a school starts to lose some of its pupils and funding because of excessive dropping out or parents pulling their children out, a local board could take corrective action much more quickly and responsively than a central board or authority.

A central administration that serves but doesn’t control. It would be foolish to dismantle all central authority. School taxes must still be levied and collected from throughout the entire city.

A central purchasing program or central store could help local schools save money–as long as it helps buy what schools want and need and not what central authorities mandate.

A centralized testing and auditing bureau also will be necessary to keep the local schools from cheating on tests or illegally discriminating against its applicants, existing students, teachers, or staff.

A centralized salary structure may also be necessary to assure that good teachers are paid at levels that will keep them from leaving Chicago schools or the profession.

A centralized center of research and innovation would be helpful to provide local schools with ideas and programs that have proved successful at certain centrally run model schools. Let the board run or give extra money to a handful of its own schools with specialized or experimental programs; like today’s magnet schools, they’d recruit students from the entire city.

A central school authority is necessary, as is a citywide board of education. But both need to be streamlined. Central authorities should do what they can do best. Schools should be operated locally. Our central bureaucracy now serves itself better than it serves its schools or its clients. It is a dinosaur that is cheating if not eating its young.

Pay successful teachers and principals more. Educators are professionals and should be paid like them–not like factory workers. In addition to a base pay, there should be incentive bonuses to teachers and principals who succeed at their job–that is, improve pupil performance at acceptable national levels.

I am a professional teacher and know I would be a better professional if I was given more money for my successful students–however success may be measured. I know that this raises the dangerous specter of testing, overtesting, teaching to the test, and educational domination by testing, but we need some measure of our performance.

We can’t continue to chalk up our failures with pupils as the fault of their parents, television, Springfield, the Reagan administration, ad infinitum. If we can’t succeed in Chicago, we should either teach somewhere where we can or leave the profession.

Let’s pay teachers more–a lot more–but only if they produce the results they were hired to produce.

This can be done any number of ways. Teachers who failed to produce would simply not get an automatic raise. If they can’t teach, why reward them for sticking around? If they can–and they can prove it–give them professional salaries akin to those of lawyers and other professionals.

We would laugh at lawyers who expected to be paid the same whether they won or lost their cases. We would disparage salespeople who wanted a guaranteed salary whether or not they sold products. Why should teachers be treated differently?

The problem with most merit pay proposals is that they do not offer sufficient rewards to successful teachers. If they did–allowing good classroom teachers to make as much as $50,000 a year (Pittsburgh is about to pay some $68,000)–we wouldn’t have to worry about recruiting better people to our teaching corps. The higher salary levels would attract them.

I realize this fifth proposal–on merit pay–is the most controversial, but it may also be the most important. Good teachers can succeed at times in the worst systems. And bad teachers are everywhere. A system that takes steps one through four may actually work with the current automatic salary system. It will work better than the current system–no question about it. But it will work much better if the incentive for educational improvement is connected to a teacher’s classroom production. What happens in the classroom is the most important part of education; and teachers make that happen.

This school-reform package will hurt some of those who are doing little or nothing and yet are protected by the current system–whether they are protected by the board or the teachers’ union. Some people in the current system will lose authority, income, and perhaps their jobs–but the city would be saving its future.

It’s time for Chicago and Chicagoans to quit grumbling, quit shifting the blame, and quit projecting our problems onto Springfield, and make the kinds of changes only we can make. We can reform our schools–from the bottom up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.