Illinois Legislature Revises Chicago School-Reform Law

By Peter Schmidt — July 31, 1991 3 min read

The Chicago Public Schools will get new governance rules and new incentives to improve, but little new funding as a result of actions recently taken by the Illinois General Assembly.

Legislative leaders agreed to substantial revisions in the landmark Chicago School Reform Act this month after weeks of budget wrangling that held up action on school-reform bills.

Both chambers of the assembly then united solidly behind the reform measures, which aides to Gov. Jim Edgar last week said he would sign.

The Governor also was expected to sign a separate school-accountability bill that state Superintendent of Education Robert Leininger called the most important piece of education legislation passed during his 16 years with the state.

The school-accountability measure, approved overwhelmingly earlier this summer, affects all 955 Illinois school districts by allowing for state takeovers of substandard schools.

Council Elections Revamped

The revisions in the Chicago reform act were designed to bring the method of selecting the city’s local school councils into line with the Constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.”

The previous selection method, which gave parents six votes for local council members while other local residents only had two, was declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court last winter. (See Education Week, Dec. 5, 1990.)

The revamped election method gives all voters five votes to cast for the six parent members and two community members on each 11-member school council.

The city board of education will appoint two teachers based on non-binding balloting of school staff and one student based on non-binding student votes.

The new selection method was fashioned from several proposals put forward by local school council groups, which wanted all non-student members to be elected; teachers, who wanted to retain the power to select their representatives; and some African-American organizations, which feared that giving residents too many votes would lead to the creation of all-white councils.

“Personally, I think this represents a compromise, but it is a compromise that I feel is a good one and will withstand any court challenge,” said Senator Arthur L. Berman, a Democrat from Chicago who chairs his chamber’s Elementary and Secondary Education Committee.

But Joan J. Slay, director of public policy for the city education-advocacy group Designs for Change, said she feared that allowing teachers to recommend their own council representatives will undermine cooperation between teachers and other board members.

“One of the things we had hoped to do through the reform was to make real partnerships--not just with the parents and the principals, but with the teachers too,” Ms. Slay said.

Ms. Slay also criticized the revisions in the school-reform act for failing to adequately clarify the division of powers between school councils and the district school board.

Accountability Measure

Schools in Chicago and other districts will be under pressure to improve or face state intervention under the terms of the school-accountability bill slated to take effect in the 1992-1993 school year.

The measure, passed overwhelmingly by both legislative chambers after being backed by education and business groups, authorizes the Illinois Board of Education to establish academic performance standards and other measurements for evaluating every public elementary and high school in the state.

For schools that fail to meet standards and to improve in two years, the state superintendent could appoint a panel of citizens to draft a new school-improvement plan.

If the school failed to improve after four years, the state superintendent could direct the removal of the local school board and appoint an independent authority to operate the school.

The state board also could compel such a school to close and have the state superintendent relocate its students.

A key element of the state evaluation of schools is expected to be a standardized test required annually of students in grades 3, 6, 8, and 11.

Other school-reform legislation passed this month gives principals authority they had not previously had in dealing with school engineers and food-service personnel.

The General Assembly declined, however, to give Chicago schools significantly more money to deal with reform.

The House voted decisively to reject a plan to give the district an additional $61 million by shifting state Chapter 1 funds now allocated to local school councils. As the state struggled to balance its own books, there was no significant increase in funding for Chicago schools, which face a $315.8-million deficit.

A version of this article appeared in the July 31, 1991 edition of Education Week as Illinois Legislature Revises Chicago School-Reform Law