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Chicago's 'Summit': A Populist Blueprint To Reshape Schools

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After years of bitter feuding, the major groups with a stake in the Chicago public schools have achieved a goal few thought possible just six months ago: a common vision for the future of the city's often-criticized school system.

A 54-member group composed of the top business, education, civic, and political leaders, working with many of the parents whose outrage gave new momentum to the city's school-improvement efforts, have hammered out the broad outlines of a plan that could fundamentally change the way the schools are run.

The vital role that parents have played in formulating the plan is demonstrated by its most striking and unusual proposal: a call for parent-dominated boards at each school.

These bodies would supervise school-improvement efforts and would be empowered to hire and fire the principal, review the school's budget, and suggest curriculum modifications. The plan also sets specific progress goals for the school system and makes dozens of recommendations that could lead to a districtwide core curriculum and to new training and new roles for parents, teachers, and administrators.

It would maintain the current structure of a mayorally appointed school board and a general superintendent with broad powers to shape and implement policy.

Although major aspects of the reform package remained unresolved last week, the adoption of the draft plan signaled that participants have begun setting aside old grievances and making the trade-offs needed to present a united front to the state legislature, which must be persuaded both to adopt the proposals and to fund them.

After meeting for hundreds of hours, the negotiators "are beginning to build some trust that we can move together,'' said Hal Baron, chief policy adviser to Mayor Eugene Sawyer.

"It's not a lot yet,'' he added, "but there's a sense of hope that did not exist four months ago.''

Late Mayor's Legacy

The preliminary reform plan is the work of the mayor's education summit, a body whose original charter was to create links between the city's schools and businesses and provide incentives for student success.

After the city was torn apart last fall by a 19-day teachers' strike and massive parent protests, the late Mayor Harold Washington added 10 parent representatives to the summit and charged it with creating a political consensus among local factions vying to impose their own solutions on the school system.

In addition to the parents, the summit's members include roughly similar numbers of prominent business leaders, heads of civic and community organizations, and state and local government officials. The board of education and the Chicago Teachers Union have fewer seats, as do a handful of other interest groups.

The summit weighed reform proposals from the C.T.U., the board, the business community, and a 50-member parents' advisory council established last fall by the mayor as part of the summit process. It also drew on the expertise of several outside experts and testimony presented in 10 community meetings.

Despite months of negotiations, most of the significant agreements were reached in the final four days before the draft plan's adoption, participants said.

By the time the preliminary reform plan was adopted last week, only one of the summit members present--the lone representative of the Chicago Principals Association--had not been persuaded to endorse the plan.

Must Convince Legislature

Several participants in the summit process said it is widely considered to be one of Mayor Washington's most important legacies. The popular mayor's name was often invoked when negotiations among the competing factions appeared to be at an impasse, they added.

Perhaps the strongest impetus behind the last-minute consensus-building among summit members is the fact that they must convince skeptical state lawmakers that the reform efforts are genuine.

Lawmakers responded to the protests of parents and community leaders during the strike last fall by renewing their calls for fundamental restructuring of the school system.

Having seen their previous efforts to reform the system thwarted by various local interest groups, many rural and suburban legislators have simply refused to consider providing additional funding until substantial improvements are made.

The consensus of opinion demonstrated by the summit's proposals, if sustained, would be "an important element in gaining favorable consideration from the General Assembly,'' said state Senator Arthur L. Berman, chairman of the committee on elementary and secondary education.

'Long Odds' on Tax Increase

Gov. James Thompson has repeatedly said that state education programs will receive no new funding next year unless the legislature approves a sales-tax increase, which it refused to do last year.

As a result, the fate of the summit's reform efforts will most likely hinge on the ability of Chicago's leaders to convince lawmakers that the proposals hold enough potential to merit altering their positions not only on funding, but on the politically sensitive issue of a tax increase.

The possibility of a tax increase gaining approval in this year's session "is still a long-odds situation, but that could change,'' Senator Berman said.

Senator Berman's committee is scheduled to hold joint hearings with two other committees on March 30 and 31 to explore the summit's proposals.

One of the committees is the select committee on school district reorganization, which is also considering more radical proposals to carve the Chicago Public Schools into smaller administrative units and convert its board of education from an appointed to an elected body.

Greater Parental Involvement

Rather than consider decentralizing the district, the summit members chose to carry out their mandate to provide more parental control by creating "local school bodies'' invested with greater powers than the similar boards now operating at each school under a 1985 state law.

The 11-member boards proposed by the summit would include the school's principal and six parents, two community members, and two teachers, who would be elected at public meetings of each group.

The plan's supporters say it will encourage greater parental involvement by giving them the power to tailor schools to meet their local needs.

"There are 750 lay boards in the state that govern districts with fewer students than the average Chicago high school,'' noted Donald E. Moore, executive director of Designs for Change and a member of Chicagoans United to Reform Education, a coalition of groups that has developed a legislative proposal with similar parent-led governing bodies.

The use of such a model in an effort to improve urban schooling is "what's really unprecedented,'' he said.

Under the summit's draft proposal, the local school councils would have the authority to approve local additions to a new districtwide core curriculum, enabling them to tailor a school's offerings to meet the needs of its community.

The councils would also have final approval over each school's budget, which would be developed by the principal.

But their greatest leverage to force local school improvements would be a relatively free hand in choosing and dismissing a school's principal.

The boards would be permitted to select any principal meeting state certification requirements, rather than only from among those who pass the city's principal examination, as is currently the case.

The principals would be hired on three- to five-year performance contracts. If removed from a school during the course of the contract, they would be placed in a pool of candidates eligible for appointment to another school.
"It's a very noble experiment in a school system where parents never had a voice at all before,'' said Carol Lewke, president of the Citizens Schools Committee, a 50-year-old school watchdog agency that she said was "revitalized'' by the crisis last fall.

'Fall Guys'

Several members and observers of the summit expressed concern that principals were being given greater responsibilities without gaining commensurate authority under the plan.

To implement the performance contracts, the legislature would have to amend a law that grants principals lifetime tenure within the school system.

While the principals would, for the first time, gain full control over non-instructional employees in their schools, the summit stopped short of granting them the right to select or fire teachers.

"The principals are made to be the fall guys in this plan,'' said Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Finance and one of the most vocal critics of the entire summit package.

"The summit picked on two unions, the engineers and custodians, which had no voice in the discussions, and the principals' association, which had one weak voice,'' he added.

Teachers' Role at Issue

Mr. Hess and other critics identified the summit's greatest shortcoming as its inability to provide a greater role for teachers in local decisionmaking.

Instead, the draft plan "encourages the formation of instructional management teams within the local schools'' that would serve as a "cabinet'' to the principal. Further details of the plan were left to a joint board-union committee.

"This plan would produce change in the school corridors, but not in the classroom,'' Mr. Hess charged.

The summit also referred the issue of teacher evaluations and dismissals to the joint committee, which is monitoring a plan being implemented under the teachers contract approved last fall.

The current seniority rights of teachers that allow them a voice their school assignment is seen by some as a major obstacle to granting principals greater control over staff selection. But the C.T.U. managed to convince the summit not to require changes in the teachers' collective-bargaining agreement.

"At the present time we don't have any intention of allowing the summit to negotiate changes to the contract's provisions,'' said John Kotsakis, administrative assistant to Jacqueline B. Vaughn, the C.T.U. president.

The draft plan recommends development of a career ladder and teacher-training centers, but doesn't specify the details.

Most of the other components of the plan are also sketched in broad detail, which has led to a sense of qualified support on the part of many participants in the summit.

Mr. Hess noted that many of the proposals would be implemented under "systemwide guidelines'' that he fears could allow the central administration to interpret the plan as it wishes.

"A lot depends on how this plan is improved in the next couple of weeks,'' he said, echoing the primary comment of nearly every participant interviewed.

'A Very Big Step'

A technical review panel is generating cost estimates for the plan and determining how statutes and codes would have to be altered to allow its implementation.

"If the spirit and intent of the summit's deliberations are translated'' into workable proposals, "we'll have done something no other big city has done,'' said Patrick J. Keleher Jr., a summit member who formulated the business community's reform proposal. "We will have combined the best of two concepts, school-site governance and school-based management,'' he said, "while establishing the principal as chief executive officer of the school.''

A further issue, the plan's most enthusiastic backers say, is whether the legislature will write the entire plan into law or simply amend current laws that conflict with its requirements.

"We can't trust the board to do it administratively, given their past history of not following through when they make agreements or when laws are passed,'' said Mr. Moore.

The summit plans to prepare its legislative package by April 7.

"Who knows what's going to happen between now and then,'' said Robert Saigh, a spokesman for the board of education. "A very big step has been taken.''

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