Chicago’s Principals Fight Loss of Tenure In Reform-Law Suit

By William Snider — April 26, 1989 7 min read

Saying they “don’t have much to lose,” a group of Chicago principals last week filed a lawsuit challenging two key provisions of a new state law giving parents unprecedented power to influence the governance of the city’s schools.

The suit seeks to block a provision under which principals would lose their tenure rights and become subject to four-year contracts negotiated by parent-led councils at each school.

It also challenges the process by which a new board of education will be selected under the law, charging that the procedure will give undue influence to parents at the expense of taxpayers citywide.

The suit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, names state and local officials as defendants and seeks an injunction to block implementation of the entire reform law until the case is settled.

The law’s implementation is scheduled to begin June 1. But Illinois legislators were on the verge last week of approving a bill that would move the date up to May 1.

The action would allow Richard M. Daley, who was to be installed as Mayor of Chicago this week, to begin choosing an interim board of education to oversee the first phases of the city’s transition to a school-governance structure unlike that found in any other contemporary urban system. (See Education Week, Dec. 14, 1988.)

If an injunction is granted in the principals’ lawsuit, “it would slow down the momentum that’s been building up around school reform,” said Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a research and advocacy group that played a pivotal role in crafting the law and shepherding it through the legislature.

“Whether they get an injunction or not, as long as the suit is hanging around it will poison relations between parents and principals and discourage people from participating in the process,” he added.

The city’s principals, however, view the suit as their last opportunity to amend a law they say will bring “chaos” to the already troubled school system.

“Given no changes in the law and a rejection of our viewpoint by the courts, it is difficult to conceive that a system of this size can function with virtually no continuity in its leadership,” said Bruce Berndt, president of the Chicago Principals Association, which filed the suit.

Chicago’s principals have been the law’s chief opponents since its major provisions began to emerge last year from a citywide “education summit.” And they have been threatening to file a lawsuit since the bill was signed into law last December.

“We’re being called anti-reform, but we think we’ve worked hard for education reform in this system,” said Mr. Berndt.

Although principals believe the new law will force many badly needed changes on the school system, Mr. Berndt said, “this isn’t education reform, it is governance reform.”

“We don’t think there’s anything magical about parents running schools that’s going to improve them,” he said.

The principals “had hoped,” according to Mr. Berndt, that they would be joined in their action by other groups opposed to the new law, such as the Chicago pta and the existing local school councils, which serve a purely advisory role.

The other groups have been restrained by political considerations, he added, “but in our situation, most of our members feel we don’t have much to lose.”

The principals’ unity on the issue is demonstrated by the fact that 91 percent of the association’s 432 members voted to approve a referendum to cover the legal expenses expected to be incurred in the case. They agreed to contribute $300 each over the next two years to cover the lawsuit’s costs.

The lawsuit argues that principal tenure is a “property right” established in previous state law and by past practice of the Chicago board of education, Mr. Berndt said.

“They cannot take it away ex post facto,” he said.

Under the new law, half of the city’s principals will lose their tenure in 1990, and half in 1991. Their replacements will be selected at each school by councils made up of at least six parents, two teachers, and two community members.

“Without tenure,” Mr. Berndt said, “we can’t be educational leaders. We’re going to have to be politicians.”

For example, he said, under the new law Chicago will be the only district in the state allowing teachers to vote on the contract of their supervisor.

“How can a principal effectively supervise or discipline teachers who vote on his contract?” he asked.

A similar conflict could arise in student discipline, he argued, because of the added powers being granted to parents.

“It can be very difficult to do now, with pta’s and advisory councils,” Mr. Berndt said. “A principal needs to be able to do what’s good for the kids as opposed to what’s good for the harmonious operation of the school.”

The new law stipulates that principals not retained by their school’s council will be placed on an eligibility list for consideration for vacant teaching positions.

This means, Mr. Berndt said, that besides losing tenure, the principals will also lose any assurance that they will have a job in the school system.

“It may not be reasonable to expect that these principals will get a job, even if they are the best teacher in the city,” he claimed, because teacher hiring will be controlled by principals sensitive to their own vulnerability under the law. “Who the heck wants to hire their own competition?” the cpa president asked.

The suit also charges that the makeup of the local school councils and the central board is illegal because it violates the principle that all voters, not just parents, should be represented on bodies that make taxing and budgetary decisions.

The fact that the parent representatives to the councils will be elected only by other parents also violates state election laws, Mr. Berndt said, arguing that the councils will be subject to the election laws because they will have authority to allocate the school budget.

Parents at magnet schools will have even greater influence on their councils, the association leader noted, because they will also have the authority to select the council’s two community members.

The problem extends to the central board, Mr. Berndt charged, because of the selection process that has been set up under the new law for choosing its members.

Each school council will send a representative to one of 23 subdistrict councils, which in turn will select a nominating commission for vacancies on the central board.

The commission will nominate three candidates for each vacant position, and the mayor will be obligated to select board members from its list.

“Taxpayers other than parents will have no vote, or so little vote that it doesn’t matter,” Mr. Berndt charged.

Supporters of the law note, however, that the ultimate authority for selecting the board of education will remain with the mayor, who is elected by voters citywide.

Since previous mayors have enjoyed “unfettered” authority to select a school board, said Arthur L. Berman, a state senator who sponsored the reform law, the law “really makes the process more responsive rather than less responsive through this grassroots nominating process.”

Both sides in the case are predicting a speedy resolution of the issues raised by the lawsuit.

“We’re very confident that the principals will lose,” said Mr. Moore. “Presumably, it won’t take more than a month or two to resolve in any case.”

“I don’t give [the lawsuit] much chance of succeeding,” concurred Senator Berman. “We evaluated most of the points they raise during our legislative deliberations.”

Dozens of groups, funded by corporations and foundations, have begun the process of educating parents and community members about the intricacies of the new law and the roles they will be expected to play once the school-council elections are held next fall.

Besides working to move up the implementation date of the law, Illinois lawmakers are also expected to pass a bill soon that will immunize local school-council members from lawsuits arising out of their official duties.

Both bills passed the senate by unanimous votes, Mr. Berman noted.

Supporters of the law also note that Mayor-elect Daley has pledged his full backing for the reform process, and has promised to appoint a deputy mayor drawn from the school-reform movement and to select interim board members who are also committed to the changes.

“Mr. Daley is not tied to the current board members in any way,” said Mr. Moore.

Chicago’s principals are also confident of a quick resolution of the dispute.

“If things drag out, the damage to individuals and the system will already have been done,” said Mr. Berndt.

“We’ll either go ahead with what is found to be legal or, preferably, go back to the drawing board,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 1989 edition of Education Week as Chicago’s Principals Fight Loss of Tenure In Reform-Law Suit