The Education of Maribeth Vander Wheele

When the bottom fell out of the Chicago schools in 1979, Mayor Jane Byrne had an interesting notion of whom to blame. “Where were you?” she told reporters lined up to grill her. “The press should have known. They accepted what was told to them.”

Byrne had a point. The system’s precarious finances were no secret, but the immediate cause of the disaster had escaped detection. Every year money for general expenses was being borrowed from a fund set up to pay off short-term bonds–bonds issued to keep the schools going between tax disbursements. Eventually new bonds had to be offered to pay off old bonds, and as soon as Moody’s Investor Service examined the prospectus the schools’ credit rating collapsed.

As financial reporters stepped in to explain what had happened, the papers confronted their own failure. Few education writers were qualified to uncover book cooking, nor had that been their primary assignment. They were no more concerned with financial chicanery than they were with incompetent teaching.

“It was sort of a deadly beat nobody really wanted,” a former education reporter told us after the collapse. “The stories the desk liked were the ones about the board members shouting at meetings, and maybe they were shouting about finances but that got lost.” Another old beat writer recalled, “I always found myself covering riots and demonstrations and labor crises, and there was hardly any time to devote to education itself.”

Since then the beat’s seen a sea change. Today, it’s not only a given that public schools are imperiled by penury, bureaucracy, and corruption; it’s a given the papers feel a duty to address. And school reform–not to mention the notorious proposition by former secretary of education William Bennett that Chicago’s public schools are the nation’s worst–has made covering education itself part of the mandate.

Five years ago the Community Renewal Society founded Catalyst, a monthly newsletter, to follow school reform. Four years ago the Sun-Times hired investigative reporter Maribeth Vander Wheele away from the Daily Herald to do the same. In another era Vander Wheele would have long since paid her dues on the thankless education beat and gratefully moved on to lusher pastures. Times have changed. Vander Wheele’s still happily covering schools, and she’s just published an impressive book on the subject, Reclaiming Our Schools: The Struggle for Chicago School Reform.

When Vander Wheele began talking about “the crisis of ’93,” it occurred to us that school crises are like blizzards. The one in ’93 wasn’t as bad as the one in ’79, and around the cracker barrel they’ll long remember the crisis of ’87 that put reform on the map. But the crisis of ’93 was bad enough, and if a federal judge hadn’t exceeded his authority to keep the doors open there’s no telling when school would have started last fall.

“While the school board was letting multimillion-dollar contracts to people with political connections,” Vander Wheele reminisced, “the system was racked by cuts, particularly in the high schools. Children sometimes were sitting before seven teachers a semester, and thousands of classrooms went without teachers. Principals were forced to completely rewrite their schedules in less than a week’s time. It was obscene. [Pershing Road] refused to load the budget for the schools into the computer, but when it came to paying their own vendors they made exceptions.”

John Callaway’s angry foreword to Vander Wheele’s wide-ranging book accuses the General Assembly of passing legislation that would both create school reform and doom it–by not funding the schools adequately and creating no means of monitoring them. “Believe me,” wrote Callaway, “many of these legislators want school reform in Chicago to fail so that they can confirm their worst prejudices, of which race is prominent.” Vander Wheele is not that harsh. But her book made us wonder whether reform has fundamentally changed Chicago’s educational system or simply made it easier to buck.

“I think school reform has unearthed things that have been going on for years that shouldn’t have,” she replied. “Yes, I do think it changed the system. It gave parents a right to be in school. It put them in charge of budgets. It allowed them to see for the first time the level of everything from corruption to school disrepair to children being promoted who had no skills. So yes, there’s a long long way to go, but it brought sunshine into the system. And that is partially why you’ve seen a spate of investigative stories over the past few years. For the first time principals aren’t responsive to Pershing Road. They can speak out without fear of reprisals. Council members have no jobs to lose if they speak out. So in that way it is a great help for the system. It was like this code of silence that existed all these years has been broken.”

Which makes reform great for reporters, we said.

“Absolutely. Although they’re trying to change that.”

On June 20 schools superintendent Argie Johnson sent a directive to the ranks. “In order to improve communications,” it said, “please inform all staff members that any requests from the media should be forwarded to the Office of Communications. That office is the only unit authorized to respond to the media.”

Marveling at this tyrannical impudence, we asked Vander Wheele if Johnson’s edict exceeded her authority. “Yes, and that’s why she rescinded it. Originally it was for every employee in the system. It’s still in effect for Pershing Road, which makes my life very frustrating.” Vander Wheele said she waits two months for answers to Freedom of Information requests, “which by law must be returned within 14 days.”

Vander Wheele traces her educational values to excellent Christian Reformed schools she attended while growing up in the south suburbs. She went on to Wheaton College, and two years ago attended the tenth reunion of her graduating class. There she met a professor of anthropology from Wheaton interested in Chicago schools but totally ignorant of them. This did not astound Vander Wheele. She’s learned that almost all non-Chicagoans know nothing about the subject.

“Like the time it takes to get rid of a poorly performing teacher,” said Vander Wheele. “Or the size of the classroom. It stuns me no one’s aware of the fact thousands and thousands of kids go without teachers every fall. This is the system. And you could have the best family values in the world, and if you sent your child to some of those schools your child would still not get an education.”

At least the professor listened. He listened so carefully as she analyzed the system’s problems that when she was done he said, “You should write a book. And here are your chapters.” So she wrote an outline. She sat on it for months; but in the spring of ’93, September’s crisis dead ahead, she says, God told her to go out and find a publisher. She didn’t have to look farther than the Loyola University Press.

She told us, “I was on a Christian radio station recently, and I was so disappointed because it was a call-in show and I thought, if anybody should wake up and care about Chicago schools it should be the Christians. And not one person called in.”

The station’s audience, if any, was largely suburban. “I wanted to show the suburbanites how the system has been undermined. In many cases the legislators are responsible for doing that. They write very weak ethics laws. They write the laws creating an inspector general and giving him virtually no staff.

“I’ve got to believe some people out there would care if they knew. But there’s this vast gap. The suburban people read the Tribune. The city people read the Sun-Times. And we cover education differently. The Tribune”–she went on, granting the generalization–“tends to do more on the politics of the city schools, as opposed to how those politics affect the city schools. Their strength is in their suburban school coverage.

“And the reason I wrote the book is that a suburban professor who reads the Tribune didn’t have the foggiest idea of how city children were being affected by crazy policy decisions.”

Which–we offered–were in part being made by people he helped put in office.

“Which”–she obliged us–“were in part being made by people he helped put in office.

“That way you don’t have to quote yourself.”

News Bites

From our notebook:

Margaret Holt may have wonderful ideas for the Tribune sports section, but she’d better attend to basics. After four–or was it six?–straight hours of sports-radio palaver on Horace Grant last Friday night, we couldn’t wait for the Sunday papers to explain all.

So what did we get? From the Sun-Times: “What’s Next for Bulls?,” a five-page package. From the Tribune: one insignificant piece on Jerry Reinsdorf. The Tribune bagged it.

That was a frightening headline over last week’s Sun-Times editorial hailing an Illinois congressman’s vote on gun control: “No Dr. Jekyll in Henry Hyde.”

Surely there’s some good in every man.

Get out the tape measure. Michael Wilmington’s jump to a conclusion cleared the moon.

Wilmington, the Tribune’s film critic, began a Sunday piece this summer by exclaiming, “If we can believe statistics, the Chicago film audience is, right now, one of the most urbane, adventurous, independent-minded, eclectic and well-informed movie publics in America.”

His evidence? While America’s three favorite movies of 1994 were, in descending order, Mrs. Doubtfire, Schindler’s List, and Philadelphia, Chicago’s picks were, in descending order, Schindler’s List, Philadelphia, and Mrs. Doubtfire.

In either case, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective finished fourth.

Often asked:

Q: Is the O.J. Simpson story really a Shakespearean tragedy?

A: It would be if Shakespeare were writing about it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.