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Illinois Awaiting Governor' Pen On Chicago Plan

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A bill that represents the most comprehensive effort in decades by a state to restructure a major school system now sits on the desk of Gov. James R. Thompson of Illinois.

In the 60 days that the Governor has to consider the bill, he is likely to feel the same pressure from a broad coalition of Chicagoans that has kept reform of the city's oft-criticized school system alive as an issue despite tremendous political obstacles.

The 112-page bill, which would radically restructure the governance of the nation's third-largest school system by creating an unprecedented role for parent-led councils at each school, barely squeaked through the legislature last month.

The bill includes provisions that would dissolve the current Chicago board of education, mandate a search for a new general superintendent, and slash funding and authority from the district-level bureaucracy. It would also create a new, independent oversight body with significant powers to ensure the reforms are carried out.

The measure has been hailed as "historic'' by both insiders and national urban-education experts. "This would lead to far more sweeping changes'' than the 1969 law that decentralized control of the New York City schools, said Joan First, executive director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students. She calls the events of the past year "the Chicago Revolution.''

Supporters of the bill, whose numbers now include virtually every constituency in Chicago--from activist parents to business executives--are urging Governor Thompson to sign the bill as is, without exercising his amendatory veto powers.

But the Republican Governor faces the unpleasant prospect of approving a bill that was opposed by virtually every member of his party in the legislature.

The fierce partisan battling that surrounded the bill also prevented the legislature from passing it in time to be implemented this year, creating the possibility that the measure could be amended before it would go into effect in July 1989.

Consensus-Building

The process that produced the final measure included most of the same players that participated in the mayor's education summit, a 55-member group of parents, union representatives, board members, community leaders and executives of Chicago's prominent businesses charged with forging a compromise school-reform plan. (See Education Week, June 8, 1988.)

Between 35 and 70 representatives of these groups met for dozens of hours in Assembly Speaker Michael Madigan's office to hammer out some of the tougher issues that proved irreconcilable during their discussions in Chicago.

The final bill retained the key feature of the summit's agreement: the creation of an elected "local school council'' at every school. That body is to include six parents, two teachers, two community members, and the school's principal, who may not serve as chairman.

Supporters say the school-improvement plans that are to be developed and implemented by these councils are the chief means by which the reform bill will bring about hoped-for improvements in student achievement, which in Chicago lags far below national averages.

The councils will have the power to hire principals on three-year "performance contracts'' to implement the improvement plans. And by the time the reforms are fully phased in, the councils will also have wide discretion in determining how their school's budget should be allocated.

Empowering Parents

"I don't know of any other big-city school reform that has gone as far to empower parents in local schools as this one has,'' said Norm Fruchter, senior research analyst for the Academy for Educational Development in New York City.

He and other experts interviewed agreed that "the training that goes on [for council members] is going to be critical'' to the plan's ultimate success.

The dominance of parents on the local school councils also addresses the frustration that has been expressed frequently by Chicago parents over the past several years: that the district bureaucracy is unresponsive to their children's needs.

One of the main goals of the new plan is to "reconnect schools with the neighborhoods they serve,'' said Donald E. Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Chicago.

Some observers have worried that the local school councils could become rife with corruption and patronage. That is the charge most often leveled at New York City's decentralized community school boards.

But supporters of the plan argue that the small size of the communities served by the councils will allow any candidates for a council to campaign effectively without spending large amounts of money.

Tough Issues Tackled

Many of the other important elements of the reform plan were designed to ensure that the new powers granted to parents and the local school councils could not be undermined by district policies and collective-bargaining agreements.

These issues proved largely irreconcilable during the summit's formal discussions. They were resolved by the group meeting in the Speaker's office when it became apparent that legislators would act on the bill regardless of whether key players had signed on.

The divisive issues included specific cuts in the district's bureaucracy, the requirement that the central board allocate each school's budget in a lump sum, and the powers to be exercised by a new citywide entity called the School Reform Oversight Authority.

The final bill contains "as much if not more than any of us had hoped for,'' said Patrick Keleher, director of public policy for Chicago United, a group of business leaders whose role this year in the reform debate has been a key to its sustained momentum.

Union Pledges Support

The Chicago Teachers Union was one of the last groups to agree to support the bill, after a provision was added that will protect the seniority rights of the upwards of 300 teachers who lose their positions each year due to enrollment declines or changes in the curriculum at particular schools.

The rights of these so-called "supernumerary'' teachers to another position in the school system will be the subject of collective bargaining between the union and the board. But the bill specifies that any agreement reached cannot contradict other elements of the reform plan.

The bill places new pressures on teachers by forcing them to compete for vacant positions, which will be filled by principals based on qualifications and merit, rather than seniority. It also shortens the minimum remediation time for teachers who are judged not to be performing adequately from one year to 45 days, subject to extension at the principal's discretion.

Nevertheless, union officials say the bill has "positive elements'' that they have long advocated, said Thomas Reece, vice president of the CTU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

"We're tired of being accused of being the ones responsible for protecting incompetent teachers,'' he added.

Republicans in the legislature had proposed breaking the Chicago school system into 20 separate districts, each empowered to enter into its own collective-bargaining agreements. Their bill, which could have opened the door for rival unions to raid the CTU's membership, passed in the Senate but never saw action in the House.

"There is a feeling on the part of a lot of people that the unions are the real problem, that their contracts have stymied any kind of creativity in Chicago,'' said Representative Gene L. Hoffman, the assistant minority leader in the House and sponsor of the Republicans' bill there.

Some Republican legislators label the new bill "cosmetic,'' he said, because "what it didn't do is go in and break the unions up.''

Battle for Control

In the end, it was partisan politics that nearly scuttled the entire reform process.

The fate of the bill was in jeopardy "every time we hit a roll call,'' said Senator Arthur L. Berman, chairman of the education committee and one of the chief architects of the new bill.

Efforts to achieve a bipartisan compromise broke down when members of the legislative black caucus objected to giving a Republican governor authority equal to that of the mayor of Chicago in naming the seven-member body that will oversee implementation of the reforms.

As the bill currently stands, the mayor will appoint four members to the School Reform Oversight Authority, and the governor, three.

The oversight panel will have broad investigative powers, the authority to block actions that contradict the intent of the reform bill, and the right to sanction or fire any board employee judged to be blocking the reforms.

The final bill passed in the Senate 44 hours after the scheduled end of the session, along strictly partisan lines and by a one-vote margin, Senator Berman said. The tipping vote was cast by a seriously ill senator from Chicago who was driven to Springfield especially for the occasion.

Awaiting Governor's Action

Governor Thompson is giving no clue as to whether he will sign or veto the measure--or press for changes using his sweeping "amendatory veto'' powers.

"The Governor hasn't made a statement either way,'' Gail Liebermann, his education advisor, said last week.

Most observers agree that Mr. Thompson is likely to seek minor changes in the bill, and not to veto it outright. It would then be up to the Democratic legislative leadership to decide whether to approve the changes in its November veto session, or begin the process anew in January.

'Pretty Good Bill'

Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance and a key participant in the reform debate, echoed the comments of many in contending that "given the Speaker's restriction that the reform bill had to be revenue-neutral, it's a pretty good bill.''

Proponents of reform had hoped that additional money would be forthcoming from the legislature to fund programs such as early-childhood education and the massive amount of training that all agree will be needed to prepare board employees and citizens for their new roles.

What the bill does do, Mr. Hess said, is "create a solid opportunity for moving dramatically at the local school level by encouraging principals to focus their energies on achieving local school goals rather than bureaucratic imperatives, and by encouraging teacher and parent input in the improvement process.''

"This is going to be looked to over the next 10 years as a critical experiment to see if these ideas work in practice,'' added Mr. Moore.

Copies of a summary of the bill's major provisions can be obtained for $1 by writing to Designs for Change, 220 South State St., Suite 1900, Chicago, Ill. 60604.

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