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Reform Measure for Chicago Schools Unveiled

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Chicago's school principals would gain broad new authority over building personnel--including the power to hire teachers without regard to seniority--under a reform measure introduced in the Illinois legislature last week.

The legislative package, proposed by several key lawmakers, is an amalgamation of reforms recommended for the troubled Chicago district by a wide variety of local groups.

The bill includes an unusual proposal common to several of the competing reform blueprints--the creation of parent-dominated school councils vested with the authority to hire and dismiss principals and set school budget priorities.

It remains unclear whether legislators will have time to act on the package before their scheduled adjournment at the end of this month.

But Senator Arthur L. Berman, chairman of the Senate education committee and one of the authors of the proposed legislation, said last week that he was "still optimistic'' that the legislature would complete action on the bill this month.

Shifting the Balance

The lawmakers' bill calls for radical changes in the structure and governance of the Chicago schools, but would leave decisions about classroom improvements to newly empowered principals and parents.

Principals would be granted authority to select all staff members for their schools--an expansion of power that would require major changes in collective-bargaining agreements with such groups as teachers and custodians.

The provision on teacher hiring goes far beyond the recommendations of the city's recent "education summit,'' which issued its reform plan earlier this spring. (See Education Week, March 30, 1988.)

Under the new bill, seniority would no longer be the major factor in determining teachers' transfers to other buildings. Instead, it would be only one of several factors to be considered by the hiring principal.

In addition, school custodians and engineers would become answerable to their principals, rather than to area supervisors.

Under the state constitution, the bill's provisions could not supersede current contracts with school employees. But the changes would affect succeeding contracts, Senator Berman said.

In return for their new powers, he added, principals would be held accountable for producing results.

Under the proposal, lifetime tenure for principals would be abolished. They would instead be hired by the school councils on three-year "performance contracts.''

The bill would also disband the current Chicago Board of Education, although it would allow current members to be nominated to a new board, which would be expanded from 11 to 15 members.

And the Chicago School Finance Authority, created during the district's 1979 fiscal crisis, would have a new role under the bill.

The panel currently has the power to prevent the district from spending any funds until it has adopted a balanced budget. Under the proposal, Senator Berman said, it could "prevent the schools from opening'' if the schedule for reform goals set under the bill was not being met.

The bill would also require that 1,000 central-office administrators be redeployed to the schools.

Historic 'Summit'

The new voice for parents proposed in the lawmakers' bill is a legacy of the tumult that erupted after a teachers' strike shut the system down for 19 days last fall.

The late Mayor Harold Washington, responding to protests by parents and civic leaders, charged a 55-member "summit'' of business, education, and community representatives with developing a consensus on school-reform proposals.

The most far-reaching reform agreed to by the summit, and included in the new bill, was the creation of local school councils, a majority of whose members would be parents with children in the schools.

But although the state lawmakers drew suggestions from the mayor's summit for their proposed reform package, summit participants appear to have fallen short of their goal of introducing legislation embodying the group's own painstakingly crafted consensus.

Separate reform legislation was introduced on behalf of the summit on the last possible day for submitting bills to the legislature. But it is not clear how many of the summit's members will support the measure, because the full summit never voted on the final draft.

An earlier version of the legislation that was drawn up by Mayor Eugene Sawyer's staff was rejected unanimously by the summit during its last official meeting.

The bill "did not have the summit's language, and if you don't have the language correct, then you're not certain that the substance is correct either,'' said Kenneth B. Smith, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary and co-chairman of the summit.

Although the summit's specific recommendations differ in several respects from the lawmakers' bill, he added, the discussions that took place during the summit's meetings were "almost as important as what came out of the process.''

"I don't know of any other community that has pulled this many diverse people and interests together to work on school reform,'' he said.

The lawmakers' bill would not provide additional state funding for the city's schools, and it is not clear whether legislators will adopt the tax increase that Illinois officials say is necessary to provide new money for any of the state's financially struggling districts.

"My best hope is that perhaps this year the legislature will come through with enough additional money to open our schools in September,'' Mr. Smith said.

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