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Republicans May Press Bill To Break Up Chicago District

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Illinois Republicans are expected to push to split the Chicago public schools into several districts when they assume full control of the state legislature next month.

Republican leaders were scheduled to meet late last week to discuss proposals for dividing the 409,000-student city school system, said Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, a g.o.p. member of the two education committees in the House.

The idea that the Chicago schools would function better as a collection of smaller districts has been pushed unsuccessfully in the legislature many times before, but supporters and critics both say the state's new political alignment guarantees the idea new currency.

"This turns it from an impossible dream to reality," said Michael Cys, the spokesman for Rep. Lee A. Daniels, who will be the speaker of the House.

Chicago lawmakers and school-reform advocates who have opposed previous breakup plans say the g.o.p. takeover of the House in this year's election, added to the existing Republican control of the Senate, will make their fight tougher.

"It's not going to be any easier," said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago education-research and -advocacy group.

'Rash and Reckless'

The latest proposal to break up the district, the nation's third-largest, was outlined in the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, which quoted an anonymous g.o.p. source. Party leaders, however, quickly distanced themselves from the plan's details.

It would divide the city along old township lines into eight districts. According to the Sun-Times, the new district that would include many of the city's downtown businesses would be the richest in the country, with assessed property values of nearly $30 million per 1,000 residents. Several other districts would have less than one-tenth that amount of wealth.

In addition to noting those inequities, opponents argue that the township plan also would rob minority families of the chance to be elected as leaders of their children's schools under Chicago's system of school-based governance. Nearly 90 percent of Chicago's students are members of minority groups, but the plan described by the newspaper would create at least four white-majority districts.

Argie K. Johnson, Chicago's superintendent of schools, said such a plan was a "rash and reckless response to many issues facing" city schools.

"This plan is an obvious ruse to avoid providing adequate and equitable funding to our schools," she said in a written statement.

Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, has said he is open to proposals for dividing the district, but is not working on any particular plan and has not promised to support any proposal, according to Mike Lawrence, his press secretary.

"If a plan surfaces and he's convinced it's the right thing to do, he may get involved before the legislature's involved," Mr. Lawrence said.

Ms. Cowlishaw is expected to take the lead in designing such a plan, having introduced breakup bills four times already. Any bill that is crafted for the next session will address funding inequities and also aim to speed up the school-reform process, she said.

"It would be a far more real challenge than any of this tinkering with the schools that has gone on so far," Ms. Cowlishaw said.

The Bureaucratic 'Slug'

Other Republicans say that splitting up the city system is necessary to dismantle the district's central administrative office.

"This is just a slug of a bureaucracy, and nothing gets done," Mr. Cys, the spokesman for Representative Daniels, contended. "It's just way too big."

District officials counter that they have already slashed roughly 800 of some 2,000 central-office positions in the last four years. Also, a leading corporate-restructuring firm recently began a two-year, pro bono project to reconfigure the central office.

Education advocates who have joined with school officials to oppose a breakup argue that New York City's division into community school districts has done little to streamline bureaucracy or eliminate corruption.

In addition, they argue that a breakup would reverse the decentralizing reforms, particularly the creation of 542 local school councils, implemented in the late 1980's under a landmark state law designed to improve Chicago's trouble-plagued schools.

"Although this is talked about as breaking up the system, it would do exactly the opposite," said Diana Nelson, the director of public relations for the Union League Club of Chicago, a group working for school reform.

Reform advocates say that while the Republican takeover of the legislature increases the chances a breakup bill could pass, it also helps the prospects for other accountability measures that they have been pushing.

These include simplified procedures for dismissing teachers, increased power for local principals, and clearer budgeting guidelines.

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