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Business Group's New Agenda Worries Reformers in Chicago

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Changes in the leadership and mission of an organization founded by Chicago business leaders to support school decentralization have left some reformers worried that corporate support for grassroots improvement may be on the wane.

The board of directors of Leadership for Quality Education last month announced a new agenda for the group, which has been an influential force in the city's reform movement since it was formed in 1989 by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, a business group.

The new plan scales back L.Q.E.'s monitoring of the school board budget, which had been one of the group's primary activities, and curtails staff lobbying of the Illinois legislature in behalf of the Chicago reforms.

Diana Nelson, a former Republican lawmaker who was serving as the organization's president, resigned in protest of the changes.

'We're Losing an Ally'

A major new task for the group will be helping General Superintendent Argie K. Johnson restructure the central office to manage the decentralized system, under which councils of parents, teachers, community members, and principals govern the schools.

The changes have caused concern among school-reform and advocacy groups, which argue that the shift to local control of schools is still fragile and needs backing from knowledgeable advocates who remain at arm's length from the central board.

"We're losing an ally who is retrenching,'' said Kelvin M. Strong, the executive director of the Near North Development Corporation, which has been active in supporting the local school councils. "Parents, combined with the business community, offer the strongest way of really making sure the reforms that have been made stick.''

But Marilou von Ferstel, a public-relations executive who is the chairwoman of the Leadership for Quality Education board, said it was "absolutely wrong'' to interpret the new mission as a retreat from reform. School reform is now firmly in place, she said, with test scores beginning to rise.

Ms. von Ferstel also pointed to a consultant's study, funded by the Civic Committee, that "benchmarked'' the school system's budget so that everyone could agree on the numbers being used.

Given the changes, she argued, it no longer makes sense for L.Q.E. to spend half its resources--which total some $573,000 this year--monitoring the system's budget.

The group will now devote more attention to supporting and training members of the school councils, Ms. von Ferstel said.

It also plans to expand the business community's involvement in school reform beyond the membership of the Civic Committee.

"There's a strong feeling in the business community that if we just keep throwing brickbats, we might kill the whole institution and open the door for vouchers and all sorts of other things,'' Ms. von Ferstel said. "That terrifies the reform community that suddenly we're going to get in bed with the board of education. I don't think that's case at all.''

'Perceived as a Retreat'

The proposed changes at Leadership for Quality Education stirred so much concern among reformers that the leaders of 17 organizations sent a letter to the chairman of the Civic Committee last fall urging that budget monitoring and advocacy not be scaled back. The move to trim L.Q.E.'s activities, the letter said, was "being perceived as a retreat by the corporate community from reform.''

After working closely with the group and developing a trusting relationship with business, the reformers did not want to see important changes in its mission made unilaterally, said Anne C. Hallett, who heads one of the city's many reform groups.

"The leadership role of business has been really important in Chicago school reform from the get-go,'' she said. "To have an organization that is the business leadership as a co-advocate is really important.''

Some of those who signed the letter then met with the chairman of the Civic Committee, and a representative presented their concerns to the L.Q.E. board.

Despite the protests, the organization approved the new strategic plan. That led to the departure of Ms. Nelson, who disagreed with the shift away from advocacy and budget monitoring.

Joy Noven, the director of Parents United for Responsible Education, said L.Q.E.'s budget expertise was invaluable.

"If they're not doing it,'' she asked, "who's going to be doing it?''

'Outside and Inside'

Last fall, as the school board pressed state legislators to resolve its budget crisis, L.Q.E. joined other reform groups in arguing against cutting state compensatory aid to Chicago schools or weakening the powers of the local school councils.

When the board finally reached a contract agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union that was to provide the foundation for the budget, L.Q.E. disputed the amount that the board would actually save.

Business leaders were displeased that their own organization had contradicted the board, observers said last week.

Now, believing that Superintendent Johnson is committed to decentralization, L.Q.E. plans to work on restructuring the central office.

John Ayers, the acting president of the group, said it hopes to take an "outside and inside'' approach by working with Ms. Johnson, while also keeping a close eye on the progress of reform.

"We will continue to be independent and a critic of the board when it's wrong,'' Mr. Ayers said.

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