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Lawmakers Pass Bill To Revamp Chicago Schools

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The Chicago Public Schools will become the site of the nation's largest experiment with locally controlled schools under landmark legislation passed late last week by Illinois lawmakers.

Despite fierce partisan battling that cast doubt on the bill's fate until moments before the legislature adjourned for the year, lawmakers in both houses approved the bill by overwhelming margins, and Governor James Thompson has committed himself to signing it.

The first impact of the bill after it takes effect next July will be the dissolution of the Chicago Board of Education and the naming of an interim board to run the system during the first stages of the massive restructuring process called for in the bill.

It will also set in motion a process by which parent-led boards will be elected for each of the district's more than 600 schools in preparation for the transfer of considerable autonomy to the local school sites.

Each board, which will also include the school principal, teachers, and community members, will have the authority to hire and fire its principal, develop a school-improvement plan, and, over time, take control of much of the school's budget.

Chicago's principals will lose life-time tenure, but will gain the right to select new teachers and other educational staff without regard to their seniority. They will also assume new control over support staff members, such as custodians and cafeteria workers.

A last-minute compromise over an issue that had been considered closed extended the length of principals' performance contracts from three to four years. In addition, only half of the district's principals will come under the new rules in 1990, while the rest can retain their current posts until 1991.

The Chicago Principals Association, which has been among the bill's most vehement opponents, threatened last week to file a suit challenging the elimination of tenure, according to observers and participants.

Mr. Thompson, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled legislature resolved their differences over the measure during three weeks of intensive negotiations that concluded only hours before the end of the scheduled legislative session. If they had failed to agree, the bill would have died with the close of the session.

'I Think We Won'

Despite compromises, the bill preserves the intent and many of the specific provisions agreed to during a year-long push by Chicago activists, who kept the reform package alive in the face of enormous political obstacles.

Initial reactions to the bill's passage from supporters was enthusiastic even though, they said, the bill only creates a framework by which the schools can be improved and success is by no means guaranteed.

"It's wonderful, it's terrific, we're just waiting to hear the details," said one staff member reached late Thursday at the offices of a group that has lobbied extensively for the bill.

"I think we won," said Bernard Noven, the parent of a 6th grader who helped form Parents United for Responsible Education during the 19-day teachers' strike last fall, which ignited a populist reform movement.

State representative Gene L. Hoffman, a member of the House education committee, stated shortly before the House's vote on the bill that "had the teachers not gone on strike last year, we wouldn't even be discussing this issue."

"Many politicians predicted last year that the parents would go away," Mr. Noven said, "but we do not intend to go away."

The most significant part of the bill, he said, is that principals will be forced to become more responsive to the concerns of parents, or risk losing their jobs.

"I see it as a beginning," he added.

"One of the things this reform bill does not have is money," Mr. Noven noted, expressing confidence that the newly empowered parents would prove to be effective lobbyists for additional funding.

Prominent Supporters

During the final three-week push for the bill, a number of prominent national educators lent their support to the unprecedented proposals, including five former federal commissioners and secretaries of education.

The bill's provisions represent "a strong move towards accountability," said William Kristol, the former chief of staff for William J. Bennett, who stepped down as Secretary of Education earlier this fall.

"There is a slight danger" that the structure set up under the bill will become "a little cumbersome," he said, "but once you establish the principle, you open the door for fur8ther steps to make sure there is real accountability."

But the bill also drew fire from other national experts, who charged that it dilutes the control of school officials over educational matters without providing sufficient guarantees that real improvements will be made.

Guarantee for Teachers

Final approval of the bill had been delayed since July by disagreements between the Governor and Democratic legislators over issues that most of the bill's supporters consider peripheral to its major provisions.

Only sketchy details of the final compromises contained in the measure were available at press time.

The final issue resolved concerned the fate of teachers who lose their positions in a particular school due to enrollment losses or changes in curriculum.

The compromise negotiated last week guarantees those teachers a job in the system, but requires that they apply and be accepted by a building principal before assuming a new permanent classroom assignment, according to Gail Lieberman, education aide to the Governor.

The school district will be responsible for funding any salary differentials that would make it difficult for a school to hire a more-experienced teacher to fill posts previously occupied by lower-paid teachers, she said.

Teachers who are not successful in their quest for a full-time teaching position will be placed in other jobs that will be determined during collective bargaining between the union and the board of education, she said. They will retain their salary, benefits, and seniority.

Oversight Board's Powers

Another major issue resolved last week concerned the composition and powers of an oversight board whose duties will include ensuring that the reforms are implemented faithfully by the new central board.

Negotiators eliminated earlier proposals for a new oversight body, choosing instead to grant its powers to the existing School Finance Authority. The authority has had the power to approve or reject Chicago's school-budget proposals since the last major state intervention in the system in 1980, when the district stood on the brink of bankruptcy.

Issue of Chapter 1 Aid

A third area that proved controversial to the end was the district's allocations of funds received from the federal Chapter 1 program.

A suit filed in federal court last week alleges that the district has diverted $2 billion in Chapter 1 funds over the past 10 years from the neediest schools and applied the money to programs that do not directly benefit the poor, in violation of the program's intent and statutory language.

Currently, all Chicago schools receive Chapter 1 funding based on the size of their enrollment, but administrative expenses are deducted only from the portion of additional aid targeted for the neediest schools.

The new bill mandates that Chapter 1 funds be earmarked only for the neediest schools. But at the Governor's insistence, it also includes language that the other schools in the system will be "held harmless" at their current funding levels.

Other sources will have to be used to make up the difference as the Chapter 1 funds are gradually shifted to the neediest schools over the next five years, Ms. Lieberman said.

"Part of the reason the lawsuit was filed was to let the legislature know that if a remedy does not come out of Springfield, we will seek one in the court system," said Ruben Castillo, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which joined nine parents and three other groups in filing the suit.

Mr. Noven, whose group pure is also party to the suit, said, "We intend to follow the lawsuit through" despite passage of the reform bill.

"We're concerned about recovering the $2 billion stolen from this city's poor children," he said.

'Still Much To Do'

The complete package addresses only the governance of the city's schools, and not the need for additional funding and programs, several participants noted.

"The whole package is just a beginning step for school reform," said Ms. Lieberman. "There's still much to do, and many needs to be funded."

"It is only the beginning, I'm afraid," concurred Representative Hoffman.

The plan's success, he said, will depend on the degree to which parents and community members become actively involved in supporting and improving the schools.

Without committed parents, he said, local control of the schools "is in for some tough sledding."

"It may work extremely well in some parts of the city," he said, "but other parts of the city I have some very serious reservations about."

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