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In Chicago, Implications of Reform Bill Please the Grassroots, Dismay Others

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The most dramatic change expected under the new Chicago school-reform legislation is the empowerment of parents over their local schools.

Experts said last week that the state bill's blueprint for parental control is unprecedented among contemporary urban school systems.

Within a year, some 3,500 parents will be elected to local school councils that will shortly thereafter gain the power to hire and fire principals, authorize school-improvement efforts, and allocate their schools' budgets.

But the 124-page bill passed Dec. 1 mandates countless other changes in the Chicago Public Schools that have been overshadowed by speculation over the consequences of granting parents control over schools.

Last week, as the range of Chicagoans who will be affected continued to ponder the bill's implications, it was clear that some are far more comfortable than others with the novel reorganization mandate.

Its supporters say it sets up a new system of urban school governance designed to create an environment in which building-level reform efforts are not only possible but required--with an ever-present threat of sanctions goading the participants to positive action.

The measure "does not merely shift power around to different groups," said Donald R. Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a research and advocacy group that played a key role in developing and lobbying for the reform package.

"It was very carefully designed to create incentives for improving kids' learning experiences," he said.

'Many Flaws'

That assessment is not shared by some leading Chicagoans, including the mayor.

Most of the criticism centers on the fact that the bill provides no new money for the Chicago district. But a number of school and community leaders also decry the drastically reduced authority that the central board will exercise under the plan.

One community activist, noting that some of the dissent was predictable, commented that "nobody willingly gives up power, do they?"

Mayor Eugene Sawyer is "not happy" with the bill, according to his press secretary, Monroe Anderson.

"He says that the school superintendent, while being held accountable for the performance of the school system, is not given authority to make sure that it performs well," Mr. Anderson said.

"The Mayor just doesn't believe it will work," he added.

"The central board's power has been diluted" under the reform plan, concurred Frank Gardner, president of the Chicago Board of Education, "but the School Finance Authority still holds the central board responsible" for the operation of the district.

While saying that the bill has "many flaws," Mr. Gardner added that "we're going to do everything we can to bring about successful implementation of the program."

The Chicago Principals Associ4ation is considering filing a lawsuit to challenge the elimination of tenure for principals that is called for under the plan, according to Bruce Berndt, the association's president.

"Our understanding is that in four or five states, the courts have determined that tenure is a property right that cannot be taken away without due process," he said, adding that his organization would probably ask the Illinois courts to make the same determination.

While the reform bill "will allow principals to become heavily involved in school-based management," Mr. Berndt added, "some principals are concerned that it will open the door to the same kinds of abuses we saw in Detroit and New York, where community control has led to the unreasonable use of power."

(Last week, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard R. Green ordered the dismissal of a community-district superintendent and one of the district's board members in light of charges that they misused school funds. The chancellor last month suspended members of another local board who allegedly used and distributed drugs and extorted political contributions from school employees.)

Activists 'Wrote the Bill'

But reaction to the new Chicago plan from many other community members has been strongly positive, as they celebrate the successful end of more than a year--and for some, several years--of sustained campaigning for school reform.

"I think it's the most important piece of school-reform legislation passed in the past 50 years in this country," said Michael Bakalis, dean of the school of education at Loyola University and co-chairman of Chicagoans United to Reform Education.

"The great success of this thing is that if you ask a thousand people who's responsible [for the provisions of the bill], you'll probably get a thousand different answers," he said.

"That's good," he added, "because everybody believes that their role was key. Now if they don't do anything about improving the schools, they have only themselves to blame."

John J. Cullerton, a state representative from Chicago, said the typical political process--in which special-interest groups write legislation that protects their turf--was "just turned upside down."

"In this case, the special interests are the unions and the board, but we let the community activists write the bill," he said. "The people who wrote it don't have an economic stake in its outcome."

No New Money

Even some of the bill's strongest supporters, however, are critical of the fact that it provides no new money for educational improvements.

"The bill focuses on management rather than on educational content,'' said the Rev. Kenneth B. Smith, president of Chicago Theological Seminary and co-chairman of Mayor Harold Washington's education summit. The late Mayor asked the 50-member summit to develop a consensus blueprint for reforming the city's schools in the wake of last year's four-week teachers' strike.

The bill contains many of the summit's proposals for reform, he said, but "the summit's plan also dealt with educational aspects that would have cost money."

Other Elements of Measure

Besides shifting much of the control over schools to site-based governing councils, the reform plan will:

Require the board to begin phasing in a parental-choice plan by 1991.

Dissolve the current 11-member board of education and create a representative body to forward nominations for a new 15-member board to the mayor, who must make his choices from their list.

Mandate that the central board's administrative budget be reduced by an estimated $40 million per year, or about 20 percent of current administrative costs.

Require that federal Chapter 1 and state Title 1 aid be gradually targeted to schools with the highest concentrations of low-income students, and that it be spent on programs that supplement, rather than supplant, the regular educational program.

Prohibit the board from eliminating teaching jobs after the 20th day of the school year, a provision designed to create continuity in children's classroom experiences by ensuring that their teacher will not be bumped by a more senior teacher in midyear.

'Governing Power' for Teachers

Some experts say that one of the most overlooked aspects of the plan is the new powers that will be granted to teachers.

Teachers will hold 2 of the 11 seats on each of the new Local School Councils, and will also form their own Professional Personnel Advisory Councils in each school that will make recommendations on such issues as curriculum, staff development, and teaching methodology.

The bill gives teachers "more actual governing power than I think has been granted to any teachers in the country," said Mr. Bakalis. "They will have real, legal authority in terms of operating the schools."

The Chicago Teachers Union is less enthusiastic about the bill, although a spokesman said "it could very well provide us with an opportunity for a greater voice."

"It remains to be seen whether some people will let that happen," said Chuck Burdeen, the spokesman.

"Teachers are very cautious about throwing themselves into the plan, because they've heard a lot of rhetoric in the past without seeing much action," he added.

Union leaders feel they gained new protections for members without giving too much away, he said, but the overall plan "falls short of what we know is absolutely necessary."

Structure Has Checks, Balances

While the centerpiece of the new reform law is the creation of local school councils, they are only one part of the governance structure that the district will be required to create.

Procedures for electing parents and community members to the councils will be set by the interim seven-member board that will be named to oversee operation of the district by Aug. 1, 1989.

After the school councils are elected, they will in turn elect one representative to a subdistrict coordinating council. These councils will oversee implementation of the reforms in areas corresponding to the 20 elementary and 3 high-school districts in the system's present adel10lministrative structure.

The subdistrict units will have funding available to hire one coordinator, or superintendent, and any other staff that the central board or school councils provide money for.

They will have the authority to take an array of actions against schools that do not demonstrate improved student performance, including requiring them to develop a new school-improvement plan.

A subdistrict council may also vote to put a school on probation, at which point the central board must develop a plan for improving the school.

Schools that fail to demonstrate sufficient improvement after one year on probation may be ordered to hold new elections for a local school council, may have their principal or faculty replaced, or may even be closed.

Actions by a local council that violate state or federal laws or court orders would be grounds for immediate intervention by the central board.

The structure of the local school8councils provides safeguards against abuses of power, supporters say.

Council actions must be approved by a majority of all members, not just a majority of those present.

And the selection of a principal requires seven affirmative votes. If a council fails to agree on a principal candidate, it must submit a list of names to the subdistrict superintendent, who will make the choice.

Similarly, if a subdistrict council is unable to agree on a subdistrict superintendent, the district's general superintendent will make the choice.

The Chicago School Finance Authority, a body created to oversee the district's budget process after its brush with bankruptcy in the late 1970's, has been granted the authority to oversee implementation of the reforms at all levels of the system.

The finance authority will hold the power to discipline, suspend, or remove any board member, school employee, or their agents, that it judges to be obstructing the reform process.

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