Published Online: April 30, 1997

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Staying in the Game, Part II

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In the late 1980s, as strikes, budget turmoil, and poor achievement eroded public confidence in schools, community-based organizations plunged into education issues.

Mr. Vallas isn't the only one questioning results. Patrick J. Keleher, a businessman and professor who played a prominent role in the reform movement of the late 1980s, shares the CEO's lack of enthusiasm. In a February commentary in the Chicago Sun-Times, he charged that school reformers elevated grantsmanship to "an art form" during "a decade of waste."

"The foundation is the tail that wags the dog in school reform," Mr. Keleher, who now advocates vouchers that would allow parents to send their children to private schools, said recently.

Other writers at the newspaper picked up the theme. "Feeding on generous subsidies from the city's good-hearted foundations, these reformers are still waiting around for a decentralized school system to fully kick in," Dennis Byrne, an member of the newspaper's editorial board, wrote in December. "But not every Chicago kid can afford to wait around for The Process to play itself out."

In response, the presidents and executive directors of seven leading Chicago-based philanthropies, including the Spencer, Joyce, and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations, signed a commentary in the Sun-Times asserting that reform is "producing real results."

Their foundations, they wrote, will continue to support improvement strategies.

Keeping Up With the Pace

Despite criticism of the generous giving--which in MacArthur's case alone will amount to some $40 million over 10 years--these grants have fostered expertise in schools that can lead to change, argues Peter Martinez, a program officer at the MacArthur Foundation. As an example, he cites the University of Illinois at Chicago's Small Schools Workshop, which is creating smaller, more intimate high schools. That strategy has the school system's blessing.

Mr. Vallas, the mayor's former budget director, "has a bias against educators that is not entirely without merit," Mr. Martinez adds. On its own, however, the central office doesn't have the know-how to turn schools around, he says. "When [Mr. Vallas'] instincts take him in the right direction and he wants to move boldly, he hasn't got the capacity."

Still, Mr. Martinez is sympathetic to the argument that school reform has lacked accountability. The school councils need intensive, focused training, he says, if they are to use their power well and stay in the game.

The number of council members who regularly appear in Springfield to lobby state lawmakers on school issues has dwindled in recent years, for example, something reform groups are trying to turn around.

But the citywide watchdog groups don't have expertise in community organizing, says Zarina O'Hagin, the director of the Lawyers' School Reform Advisory Project, which monitors legal issues that affect school councils. And council members get so busy with their particular schools, she adds, that they don't always see the big picture.

The administration's rapid pace puts activists at a disadvantage, many say. "There's no sense that [Mr. Vallas] feels that there are systemwide ways of looking at how these schools should be run and how procedures should be followed," Ms. O'Hagin complains.

Designs for Change has begun a training course for school council members who want to learn more about city, state, and federal policy and how it affects schools. The 40 to 50 active members who have completed the program plan to visit newspaper editorial boards and lobby legislators on behalf of the councils.

The organization also is working with the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a federation of local groups, on a study of student achievement since 1990 that will explore what conditions led to improvement.

The Chicago Association of Local School Councils, which represents 117 schools, plans to hire an organizer to rally more LSCs.

And Parents United for Responsible Education, or pure, a vocal grassroots group with 450 members, publishes an informational newsletter for council members.

Divided Loyalties

In its determination to move boldly, critics say, the administration sometimes treads on the school councils.

One example that inflamed reform groups was the passage earlier this year--with no legislative hearings--of a bill in the state legislature that allowed the Chicago district to set standards for principals. The 1988 law required only a state license, on the theory that the city needed new blood.

Led by Designs for Change, reform groups mounted an unsuccessful lobbying campaign to persuade Gov. Jim Edgar to veto the measure. Soon after, in addition to other criteria, the administration established a residency requirement for future principals.

'We know what promises are being made. That's why they don't like us—we know what we're talking about.'

Julie Woestehoff,
Executive director,
PURE

In order to be retained by their school councils, principals also must receive a satisfactory evaluation from regional administrators--another change that LSC advocates say weakens the councils' position. Mr. Vallas can veto contract renewals.

"Now the principal clearly sees the boss is the central office," says Sheila Castillo, the executive director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils. "We're concerned that takes accountability away from the local school community and moves it to the administration."

Mr. Vallas makes no apologies for trying to improve the quality of principals. "Parents want higher standards," he asserts. "You can't have incompetent people running the schools."

To keep up with such changes, members of citywide advocacy organizations meet once a week under the umbrella of a group called the Local School Council Summit. In addition to more than 200 LSC members, participants include Designs for Change, the schools councils' association, Parents United for Responsible Education, and the Lawyers' School Reform Advisory Project.

Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of PURE, which grew out of the 1987 teachers' strike, says it's crucial for groups with an understanding of legislation and citywide issues to monitor the school system. She compares Mr. Vallas' style to that of an alderman, who will meet with constituents face to face to settle issues.

"We know if more than one person is having a problem," she says. "We know what promises are being made. That's why they don't like us--we know what we're talking about."

The schools chief says that PURE and other foundation-supported groups don't speak for anyone but themselves.

"School reform has been an excellent employment agency," Mr. Vallas says. "You try to deal with groups in a constructive way, but when they're still out there criticizing over and over and over, I said, 'Fine, we'll just deal with the individual councils.'"

In January, reform activists were dismayed when the school system successfully lobbied the legislature to make the district's inspector general a mayoral appointee. Previously, the inspector general was named by the Chicago School Finance Authority, which once monitored the system's budget and issued bonds to bail it out of financial trouble.

One example of a lack of "process" often cited by reform advocates is the system's massive capital-improvement program. There has been some confusion about how schools are chosen for renovations. The magazine Catalyst, which tracks Chicago school reform, faults the administration in its April issue for failing to make clear its priorities and to detail where public money has been spent.

Mr. Vallas rejects the criticism, saying the administration has provided a detailed list of which schools fall under which phases of the program. "We are going to take action," he vows. "Some reform groups want us to spend another year holding hearings. Well, no."

Always, the reform groups are alert for signs that the school system or the legislature might chip away at the state compensatory education money that has provided schools with discretionary funds to carry out their plans. The city's schools currently receive $261 million in such funds, while the central office gets about $50 million. Activists say schools should receive an increase to cover rising costs and higher enrollments.

As for schools' funding, Mr. Vallas says the board of trustees has shifted $145 million to schools to pay for new preschool classes, a parenting program for children who don't attend preschool, alternative schools, summer schools, expanded after-school programs, and additional repair and maintenance funds, among other purposes.

These changes send strong messages to schools about what programs and services will benefit students. This, Mr. Vallas insists, is what school council members need.

Many of the initiatives are just what school reformers have long been advocating, Mr. Deanes notes. While activists should continue to scrutinize and monitor the central administration, he says, they also need to recognize progress.

"It's hypocritical for those of us who fought for that for years and years to now criticize because it comes from someone other than us," he says of the new policies and programs. "Isn't that what reform is all about?"

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