Chicago Elections Usher in New Era of Reform

By William Snider — October 18, 1989 10 min read
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A new chapter in Chicago’s colorful political history was written last week when 285,000 parents, teachers, and community residents turned out to elect local school councils, ushering in an era of school reform driven by “parent power.”

Each of the 540 newly elected councils is expected to meet by the end of the week to begin tackling the wide array of problems blamed for impeding the effective operation of the city’s schools.

For most reform supporters, last week’s two days of elections represented the first wide-scale test of Chicagoans’ enthusiasm for, and their commitment to, a reform plan that is widely viewed as the nation’s boldest.

“The citizens of Chicago have expressed their interest and concern at the community level, particularly the parents,” said James Compton, president of the city’s interim board of education, which is leading the reform effort.

“This is not only a monumental day for the city of Chicago,” he said, “but it is a monumental day, I believe, for public education throughout this nation.”

Charles D. Almo, the district’s interim general superintendent, agreed, “We’ve known all along that the councils were going to be elected, but what we wanted to have is an expression from this community of what it feels for its schools.”

The elections helped gauge the community’s “commitment to this proposition that decisionmaking should be done at the local level,” he said, and that “the community should, school by school by school by school, involve itself in solving problems for our students.”

Get-Out-the-Vote Campaign

In an effort to maximize participation, the interim board dispensed with several traditional obstacles to voting, including voter registration.

All city residents over age 18 were eligible to vote, and election judges were free to waive voter-identification requirements if prospective voters were known to school staff members or election officials.

“We decided right from the start that we should err on the side of inclusiveness, because everyone has a stake in the public schools,” said Adele Coronado-Greeley, a board member interviewed at Inter-American Magnet School.

School officials and community groups mounted a massive campaign to encourage voter turnout, using telephone banks, door-to-door canvassing, posters, and sound trucks circulating through neighborhoods to remind voters to go to the polls.

Most of their efforts were focused on parents, who elected 6 of each school’s 11 council members.

Nearly 35 percent of the 277,000 parents of elementary-school students voted in the first day of elections last week, a rate that most reform supporters cheered as a positive sign of parents’ willingness to assume the central role in school reform.

Calling the Shots

Most voters interviewed expressed optimism that the reform plan’s goals can be achieved.

“It’s putting power into the people’s hands,” said Joseph A. Moore, a lawyer who voted at Kilmer Elementary School on the city’s far north side.

“No longer are the shots going to be called by the bureaucrats at Pershing Road,” home of the district’s central administration, he said. “Hopefully, if this works out ... the shots are going to be called right here in the community by people who know how the school runs and know what’s best for the school.”

Parents campaigning for council seats at James Monroe Elementary School on the city’s west side said the old board of education had failed to address parents’ concern about serious overcrowding at the school.

“We have to remind the board of education that we don’t forget this problem,” said Juanita Barraca, mother of an 8th grader at the school.

“Now I think we have more power,” she said. “I think now they have to listen to us.”

Added Maria Roman, the mother of two children at the school: “They have to listen to our petitions. We’re going to work for them.”

Simultaneous Elections

Although parents filled the majority of council seats, simultaneous elections were also held at each school for staff members, who elected two teacher representatives, and for neighborhood residents, who elected two community representatives.

Principals are automatically council members, and students at each high school elected one nonvoting member to their local councils.

One of the most heartening aspects of the elections, several principals interviewed said, were the offers of help and support that poured in from neighborhood residents who previously had little, if any, involvement with the schools. Several voters indicated that they had not been in their neighborhood schools in decades.

“I voted to show interest in the schools,” said Abraham Bassford, a resident in a neighborhood near Field Elementary who admitted that he knew little about the candidates or the issues. “Without community participation, the schools are in a very bad way.”

Say Over Principals’ Contracts

The new councils will be empowered to approve discretionary spending at each school, to develop a school-improvement plan, and to help choose curricular materials and textbooks.

But the councils’ most talked-about power is their say over whether their principals’ contracts should be renewed. If a council decides to fire its principal, the members will select his or her successor.

Half of the councils will have their first opportunity to vote on their principals’ contract next June; the other half must wait until June 1991.

The principals learned which year their contracts would expire at a lottery held the week before the election. The Chicago Principals’ Association has challenged the reform law in federal court in a last-ditch effort to prevent the loss of tenure for principals.

“I have to admit there is a bit of anxiety about it,” said Howard M. Lessin, the principal of Field Elementary. “Presiding over this election is somewhat akin to presiding over your own funeral.”

The councils’ control over their principals’ contracts has raised fears that they will go beyond their legal authority and pressure principals to get rid of unpopular teachers.

“If they told you they wanted you to get rid of an incompetent educator, you would look seriously into the matter, wouldn’t you?” Mr. Lessin said. “Stretching the mandate is a little more feasible when they are voting on your contract.”

This concern was borne out by the comments of voters and council candidates at several schools who acknowledged that teachers they considered incompetent were a major concern.

‘Checks and Balances’

Other principals, typically those newer to their posts, praised the reforms profusely.

“This is the best time to be a principal,” said Irma Kramer, who became the first principal of Brian Piccolo Middle School earlier this year when the board created several dozen new school units to increase the number of councils.

“We will have a system of checks and balances,” she said. “With more people helping to make decisions, if something goes wrong, we won’t get finger-pointing. We’ll have to go back to the drawing board together.”

Issues raised by voters and candidates ranged from student safety and illegal drug use to “cheese and macaroni that’s so cold that you have to cut it with a knife.”

Most candidates refrained from taking stands on specific education issues, pledging, instead, to help improve their schools in any way they could.

But for the most part, voters and candidates seemed most enthusiastic about being given a chance to participate in a school system that they had long viewed as being run by remote and unreachable powers.

“If we have any problems now, we know who to talk to; we know the people who are in the election,” said Karim Fazal, a parent voting at Kilmer Elementary School.

‘No More Business as Usual’

Unlike the school-based-management plans under way in other urban school districts, Chicago’s reforms were not devised by educators, but by a grassroots political movement driven by frustration with the schools.

A 19-day teachers’ strike in 1987 sparked the formation of numerous school-reform organizations that followed the lead of the late Mayor Harold Washington in pressing for “no more business as usual.”

To the surprise of many Chicagoans who have seen reform movements come and go, the current school-improvement effort has forever changed the complexion of the city’s schools.

Last week’s elections were mandated by a sweeping reform law enacted by the Illinois legislature late last year under sustained pressure from an unprecedented coalition of business leaders and community activists.

The new law also disbanded the previous board of education, replacing it with an interim board charged with shepherding the reform process. In addition, it established a nominating process that allows community input into the mayor’s selection of a permanent board.

First-Ever Elections

The interim board had relatively little time from the time it was named in May to develop rules for the election, only one of several pressing tasks it faced.

Some election rules were not announced until the first of two election days last week, and confusion about other rules was evident at several polling places.

Nevertheless, most observers praised the board’s administration of its first-ever elections.

There were scattered reports of irregularities at some schools, such as candidates serving as election judges or campaigning too close to the polls.

Most observers agreed that the elections were relatively free from interference by the city’s traditional political machinery, although one alderman did win election to a council as a parent.

“Some neighborhood politicians have become involved, but, by and large, that is not happening,” said Donald R. Moore, an architect of the reform plan and executive director of Designs for Change, a research and advocacy group working for school improvements.

“I think the politicians realize that, if they seemed to be backing certain candidates, other candidates would have made it an issue in the election,” he said.

School officials confirmed only four reports of principals’ actively supporting or obstructing certain candidacies.

‘Vote Early, Vote Often’

The elections were inherently confusing to voters because they were asked to follow--quite literally--the local adage: “Vote early, vote often.”

Each resident was entitled to vote at least twice--once at his or her local elementary school on the first day of the elections and again at a high school on the second day.

Parents with students in more than one school were entitled to vote--or to be a candidate--at each of their children’s schools. Teachers could vote for teachers in the school where they worked, and for parents or community members at their neighborhood schools.

The most widespread confusion seemed to arise out of the fact that many community residents did not know which school-attendance areas they lived in. The board’s emphasis on maximum participation required local election officials to make frequent judgment calls about the eligibility of voters.

But the board’s efforts, including the printing of all election materials in Spanish and the elimination of citizenship and voter-registration requirements, apparently produced a record-high turnout in Hispanic neighborhoods, according to Dan Solis, president of United Neighborhood Organizations, a community group that mounted one of the most substantial get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Broad Participation Evident

Broad participation was also evident in the nearly equal numbers of candidates in schools in all types of racial and socioeconomic neighborhoods, according to an analysis by Designs for Change.

Several major businesses and City Hall officials encouraged their employees to run, with some promising time off for employees elected to the councils.

Fewer than a dozen schools failed to attract enough candidates to fill their councils. In those cases, the councils will appoint members to fill the vacancies.

A few dozen votes were enough to secure a council seat at some schools, while, at other schools, the winning candidates received hundreds of votes.

One of the first acts of the new councils will be to choose a group to provide training to council members in such needed areas as budgeting, curriculum, contract-making, and decisionmaking.

“A lot is going to depend on the makeup of the council,” said Donna Zagorski, a teacher at James Monroe Elementary School. “If it’s going to be cooperative, and we’re going to be working together, it can succeed.”

“If it’s not going to be cooperative,” she added, “I’m going to wish teachers had more representation on the council.”

Wendy Carson, a parent candidate at Kilmer Elementary, said: “I am not expecting monumental change within the first two years. I think [the council’s] function is going to be learning and laying a foundation.”

“If people are looking for things to change overnight,” she concluded, “they are going to be really frustrated and disappointed. It’s going to take a long time.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 1989 edition of Education Week as Chicago Elections Usher in New Era of Reform


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