Chicago Advocates To Press Lawmakers To Amend Reforms

By Ann Bradley — April 17, 1991 7 min read

Supporters of the landmark reform law that created local councils to govern Chicago’s schools will gather at the Illinois capitol this week to present strategies for amending the law to make its voting procedures constitutional.

Since the Illinois Supreme Court ruled last fall that the law violated the “one person, one vote” principle, members of several coalitions that support the 1988 measure have been working to reach consensus on a new voting plan.

The groups also are considering a number of other amendments to the law that would strengthen the power of the 539 local school councils and clarify their relationship to the central administration.

But reform advocates said last week they do not intend to arrive in Springfield with a lengthy list of amendments.

“We’ve gotten the message that it should be a short list and there should be wide consensus if we want to have a chance for them to be considered,” said Margaret Morrison, director of Leadership for Quality Education, one of the groups involved.

Senator Arthur Berman, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, was scheduled to hold a hearing this Tuesday to consider the proposals.

In January, the legislature passed a measure giving Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago the authority to reappoint all of the officeholders involved in the new governance system until the legislature could reconvene and address the voting issue. (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1991.)

While some people had worried that special-interest groups would surface in the interim and try to weaken the legislation, observers said last week that those fears appear to have been unfounded.

“Quite honestly, there have been almost herculean efforts to be collaborative and to talk this through,” said Joan Jeter Slay, acting executive director of the education-advocacy group Designs for Change.

William Ayers, professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted that few people in the city are willing to openly criticize school reform, which has proved to be enormously popular with local voters.

“Every idiotic and every sound proposal will be put forth under the name of reform,” Mr. Ayers said. “That’s a smokescreen. The question is, who wants to reassert the authority of Pershing Road [the central administration], and who wants to decentralize the system.”

2 Election Proposals

Members of several influential community coalitions were still meeting late last week to try to reach agreement on key issues.

Under the voting method that was found unconstitutional, parents voted for the six parent representatives on the school councils, staff members voted for the two teachers, and community residents voted for the two community representatives. The state supreme court said the scheme gave more weight to the votes of parents than to those of other taxpayers.

Creating a new voting system is complicated because some Chicago schools with predominantly minority enrollments are located in white communities. In such areas, allowing parents, staff members, and community residents to vote for all three categories of council members could result in members of minority groups being underrepresented on the councils, said Malcolm Bush, head of the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools’ legislative committee.

The ABC’s Coalition, as it is known, and the Citywide Coalition for School Reform, two of the largest groups supporting reform, favor a model that would allow each person to cast a vote for all 10 members.

School-attendance boundary areas would determine whether people were eligible to vote in an election. But in the case of magnet schools, which draw students from all over the city, the groups favor drawing boundaries for the purpose of voting only, said Ronald Sistrunk, executive director of the Citywide Coalition.

In contrast, the African-American Education Reform Institute is advocating that voters be allowed to cast only three ballots, one for each category of council member.

Kenneth K. McNeil, an education specialist with the Chicago Urban League, said the institute proposed the model because it believes it would help address the issue of minority underrepresentation.

The institute also wants residents from throughout the city to vote in elections at schools without set attendance boundaries, but Mr. McNeil said the organization was “very flexible” on that point.

“One thing I think our organization has determined with certainty is that the 10-vote model is unacceptable and contrary to the original spirit of the law,” Mr. McNeil added.

Such a model, according to its opponents, could tend to maximize the voting strength of whites in areas where they were in the majority.

The Chicago Teachers Union favors making the school councils partly elective and partly appointive bodies to retain teachers’ influence over the selection of other teachers.

Under the C.T.U.'s plan, teachers in each school would select two teachers to serve on the councils, but the candidates would actually be named to the positions by the board of education, according to Jackie Gallagher, the communications assistant to the union’s president.

Ms. Gallagher said the union favors that approach because teachers constitute the smallest of the three groups to be elected.

“Allowing parents and the community to pick teachers is contrary to the policy of our union and to the spirit of the reform law,” she said, “which allows for free and unbiased professional input and participation by the staff of each school.”

But Mr. Bush of the a.b.c.'s Coalition said his group considers the union’s position on appointing teachers to be “unfair,” because teachers would still be able to vote for parents and community representatives.

‘Reserve Clause’

Despite the disagreements on voting procedures, the community coalitions have reached initial agreement on several other proposed amendments to the school-reform law, which will be incorporated into a separate piece of legislation.

One of the most widely accepted amendments would give school principals “final authority” over the custodians and food-service workers in their buildings. Members of school councils who attended a recent “summit” meeting sponsored by the board of education made expanding principals’ authority their top priority.

There also is broad support for a group of proposals that supporters say are needed to clear up “gray areas” of authority that in some cases have hampered school reform.

The first such amendment would create a clause reserving to the school councils all powers that are not specifically delegated to the central administration.

The reform coalitions also want the councils to control schools’ “internal accounts,” or money generated through vending-machine sales, dances, and other activities.

Finally, reform advocates would like to see the law amended to include a formal rule-making procedure that the general superintendent would have to follow when making policies pertaining to the councils.

There is also some sentiment for either putting a moratorium on the provision in the law that requires the city to fashion an open-enrollment policy by next school year or removing the provision altogether.

Several reform advocates said the councils have not had enough time to make the kinds of substantive changes that would give students a real choice of schools to attend. Council members who participated in the summit meeting recommended abolishing the provision entirely.

In addition, the A.B.C.'s Coalition is backing an amendment that would create a procedure for removing council members who do not attend meetings. Absences have hampered the selection of principals and other important matters, Mr. Bush said.

The group also would like to see changes in the law that would allow councils to remove unsatisfactory principals by a “super majority” vote before their contracts expire.

The Chicago Principals Association also has a list of proposals.

For example, the union is seeking a due-process procedure that would give principals the right to a hearing before they are terminated, said Bruce Berndt, the union’s president.

But Mr. Berndt said he was not particularly hopeful of winning acceptance for the measures.

“We’re the guys in the black hats, because our suit threw out the first version as unconstitutional,” Mr. Berndt said. “The sense we’ve gotten from legislators is anything we propose loses them votes.”

The legislature faces a July 1 deadline for amending the voting provisions. The next elections for school councils are to take place in October.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 1991 edition of Education Week as Chicago Advocates To Press Lawmakers To Amend Reforms