Battle Over Principals in Chicago: Administration vs. Local Councils
At a time when principals are increasingly seen as the point people for turning around urban schools, the question of who should have the final say in picking them is no petty issue.
Here in the nation's third-largest school system, it has recently triggered one of the fiercest exchanges yet in a long-running feud over how best to reform the schools.
The dispute pits Mayor Richard M. Daley's school management team against the defenders of local school councils, the parent-dominated boards that oversee most of the city's 589 public schools. Since the councils' creation a decade ago under a broad decentralization law, hiring and firing principals has arguably been their most important role.
Now, citing abuses at some schools, top district officials want to check the councils' authority. The idea, they say, is to offer recourse to principals, parents, and community members in schools where council members are steered more by personal agendas than educational ones.
"The goal is to get the local school councils to make their decisions based on the quality of the principal as an academic leader and a manager," said Paul G. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer. "I think you can have a balance between local control and central-office control."
But council leaders and their allies see the plan as the latest salvo in a campaign to recentralize power by rendering them little more than paper tigers. Other provisions of the plan would subject council members to criminal-background checks for the first time, prohibit felons from serving on councils, and give central administrators broader authority to oust principals and councils in schools they view as financially mismanaged.
"What it boils down to is a power grab," said James S. Hammonds, the executive director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils. "This bill is just the first attempt at destroying local school councils."
Debate Echoed Elsewhere
Friction between forces of centralized and community-based authority has not been unique to Chicago. As urban districts have struggled to reconcile these strains, conflict has flared from New York to Los Angeles and many cities in between.
In this 430,000-student district, the tension has been keen since the Illinois legislature handed Mr. Daley direct control in 1995. Groups that played influential roles in crafting the 1988 decentralization law have often clashed with the administration appointed the mayor, sometimes over moves the reform activists construed as infringing on the local councils' autonomy.
"This is basically a struggle about how to improve an urban school system," said Suzanne Davenport, the acting executive director of Designs for Change, a local school reform group that is often at odds with the district administration.
Earlier this spring, tempers flared after school officials quietly advanced their legislative proposal affecting the councils, often known as LSCs. Following an outcry, the original proposal was toned down. The plan, which has not formally been introduced as legislation, is pending before the education committee in the Illinois House.
As it now stands, the proposal would create a three-member panel to review cases in which councils do not renew the contracts of principals who have received positive evaluations from district supervisors. After receiving the new review panel's recommendation, the central school board would render a final decision on whether the principal should be retained or dismissed.
The plan would also explicitly prohibit councils from renewing the contracts of principals who have received poor ratings from district officials, and revamp the system by which both the councils and district supervisors evaluate principals. And it would expand the powers of the city schools chief to name interim principals for up to two years when councils cannot agree on a candidate.
Split on Accountability
Both sides frame the issue as one of accountability.
The plan's supporters say councils can now jettison principals without having to defend their actions to the community or the central office.
"Right now, all they have to say is, 'We want to change,' " said Beverly Tunney, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, a strong supporter of the administration plan. "We want to be held accountable but we want it to be fair."
Ms. Tunney said the administration's position arose from frustration over having no sway over decisions that will shape the public's verdict on its school improvement efforts.
"It's very difficult to be a CEO over something and the people you count on the most to make you look good, you have no control over," she said, referring to Mr. Vallas' situation.
The accountability that administration critics have in mind, meanwhile, is that of the principal to the local school community. The net effect of the changes, they say, would be to make principals far more eager to please the central office than parents or councils.
"We'll be glorified PTAs," said G. Marie Leaner, the vice chairwoman of the Friedrich I. Jahn School's council, which recently opted against renewing its principal's four-year contract. Ms. Leaner is also the coordinator of Chicago's Successful Schools Project, a communications initiative to publicize school-based improvement efforts.
Council advocates argue that LSC members are accountable at the ballot box every two years.
"If we as the LSC don't do our job, then don't vote for us," said Wanda J. Hopkins, a council member who is also a parent trainer for Parents United for Responsible Education, another local group that frequently criticizes the administration. Ms. Hopkins spoke last month at a district-sponsored hearing on the proposal, where supporters of the measure outnumbered critics by more than 4-to-1.
Plan Called Overkill
Opponents such as Ms. Hopkins argue that the proportionately small number of councils that have sacked principals with strong track records argues against altering the balance of power.
The Chicago Tribune backed that view this spring in an editorial comparing the administration's stance to going after "a mosquito with a howitzer." Fewer than 10 of the more than 230 schools where principals' contracts expired this year denied a new contract to the incumbent, according to the Chicago school reform journal Catalyst.
But Mr. Vallas argues that the problem is bigger than meets the eye.
"In the last three years, I've had 29 such cases, where principals of exceptional quality were dismissed," he said. In many other cases, he contended, principals "really have to compromise themselves to retain their jobs," or quit before they can be fired by unsupportive councils.
Many of the parents, residents, and council members who spoke at the district's recent hearing seconded that view, saying they had seen principals hounded by council members with questionable motives.
"I've seen LSC members who had personal agendas, and I have seen them destroy schools," said Sarvella Jackson, the former chairwoman of a high school council.
Critics of the administration plan also point out that principals rarely receive unsatisfactory ratings from district supervisors. Mr. Vallas concedes that, but says the process will tighten up following the districtwide adoption of a new system for evaluating principals.
The system, which is being developed under the auspices of a local business-backed group called Leadership for Quality Education, is being designed for use both by district supervisors and councils.
John S. Ayers, the executive director of LQE, said the dispute over the district proposal had "raised the stakes on doing evaluation better."
"The political fight is interesting and important, but in the end, what happens on the ground will probably be more influenced by this," he said of the new evaluation system.
Despite their disagreements, both sides in the ongoing debate agree that the stakes are indeed high when the quality of leadership in the system's hundreds of schools is at issue.
"If you have an ineffective principal at a school," Mr. Vallas said, "you have a disaster on your hands."
Coverage of urban education is underwritten in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.
Vol. 18, Issue 34, Pages 8-9