Education Opinion

Chicago’s New Perspective on District Management

By G. Alfred Hess Jr. — November 29, 1995 6 min read

On July 1, a new team assumed responsibility for managing the Chicago public schools. This team is composed of a greatly reduced board of trustees and a greatly expanded top-management team, all directly appointed by the city’s mayor, with many having had previous experience in City Hall. (See Education Week, June 21 and July 12, 1995.) The significance and implications of this change in the structure of district management are great and may eventually extend far beyond the borders of Chicago.

Previous boards of education have ranged from seven members to the 15-person board that SAT from 1990 to 1995. Prior to 1988, the board had comprised 11 members for many years. These boards all appointed general superintendents, who then recommended the appointment of other members of their management teams. Thus, the structure of the Chicago district, like that of most urban school systems, was based on a professionalized administration (virtually all of whom carried educational-administration certification mandated by the state) responsible to a larger board representative of the citizens of the city. This governmental arrangement is the descendant of the early-20th-century “good government” reforms that sought to install professional governmental management through rationalized bureaucracies, civil-service appointments, and city-manager governance, all designed to reduce partisan political control of the operations of government in general, and schools specifically.

In large urban school districts, this heritage has evolved into bureaucracies that are professional enclaves. Subscribing to the motto that “as professionals, we know better what your children need than you do,” these enclaves became unresponsive, not only to parents and citizens, but to professionals at the school level as well. The Illinois legislature’s Chicago School Reform Act of 1988 was designed to re-empower both school-level professionals and nonprofessionals (parents, citizens, and neighbors). But it left bureaucratized professionals in charge of the central management of the district.

The state’s enactment of the Amendatory Reform Act of 1995 changed all that, and the team appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley has brought a very different notion of school district management with it. Not only were the top management positions exempted from educational-certification requirements, the criteria for the positions virtually eliminated those “ed admin” types. In addition, because both the managers and the smaller, five-member board were both directly appointed by the mayor, neither group was protected from direct partisan, political influence. The whole intent of the Amendatory Act was to restore political responsibility for, and control over, the school system’s management.

What has been the result of this shift? While the long-range implications are far from certain, the immediate impact is quite obvious. Pershing Road, the school system’s headquarters, is now understood to be “City Hall South.” Not only are the top managers ‚migr‚s from City Hall (Board President Gerry Chico was formerly the mayor’s chief of staff; Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas previously headed up the city’s budget department), but former City Hall staff members dominate the top three levels of management in all the operating departments, and all important educational appointments are vetted by Mr. Vallas personally. This assures that a common culture is shared by the upper reaches of the entire management team.

It is critical to understand that this shared culture is the culture of City Hall, not the culture of an urban school district. Many reformers worry about the specter of partisan control that accompanies the more than 60-year history of Democratic-machine control of Chicago’s City Hall. But from my perspective, the fact that this culture is the culture of “city halls” is what is important.

What distinguishes this team from previous district administrations is not its members’ loyalty to the mayor; many previous boards were totally responsive to a mayor’s wishes. What distinguishes this team is the conception it holds that the district is a unit of local government, not a professional enclave. Under this concept, decisions must reflect what is politically required and what is politically possible, rather than what is professionally judged to be correct.

Thus, the approach of this new management team is to determine what has to be accomplished to recover the political viability of the school system, and to do those things immediately. That means consulting with other political leaders, including the state leaders who may be in the opposite political party. It means building a public consensus on proposed remedies through a careful nurturing, and perhaps manipulation, of the media. It means being willing to walk away from one’s own mistakes.

For example, one nagging problem in Chicago schools is the overcrowding of predominantly Hispanic schools. This problem draws media attention, arouses sympathy for the affected students, and makes system managers an easy target for criticism. Besides, Hispanics are currently an important mayoral constituency. Responding to political pressure on overcrowding, the new team opened a recently closed high school as an overflow alternative to overcrowding at northwest-side, primarily Puerto Rican schools. However, as the school year began, the plan attracted fewer than eight Hispanic students into the old Cregier facility located in the west-side African-American community. When the plan failed, these leaders were willing to adopt a creative alternative proposed by others, declaring Cregier a multiplex host site for new small schools the team wanted to encourage. Recognizing failure and walking away from it so quickly is an approach that would have been impossible for professionalized bureaucrats, with their self-important “expert judgments” bolstering, and blockading, every decision.

Of course, the danger is that the new district management will become politically shortsighted or, worse, will be shaped, in turn, by the media’s ability to manipulate the managers by exposing politically embarrassing so-called scandals, like the staff retreats at “fancy resorts” misleadingly reported by one major newspaper.

For those concerned about what is currently happening in the Chicago public schools, and for those who wonder if Chicago may become the model for other urban school districts, what is important is to recognize that, for better or worse, things are not as they were. And the biggest way they are different is that decisions are being made as if the school system were a local unit of government that has to be responsive to its constituents. That is massively different from the professionalized clubbiness of a bureaucracy of “educationists” responsive only to other experts.

This change has created a problem for the school-reform movement in the city. Reformers had only recently mastered the techniques of influencing the bureaucratic professionals. They learned how to get the bureaucrats’ attention by changing the school code. They learned how to get problems addressed by conducting and publicly releasing expert research on student achievement or the dropout rate. They became experts on the school board’s budget to argue for higher priority for school-level funding and cutting the bureaucratic blob in the central office. Now, suddenly, their painfully developed expertise must compete with the voices of parents, out-of-favor academics, and even leaders of the Republican Party. The battleground is no longer over professionally correct solutions; the new battleground is political viability.

The magnitude of the change is hard for many school people to comprehend. It reminds me of the incident in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” when the young prince, on learning of his father’s death and his own ascendency to the throne, warns his former drinking buddies, “Think not that I am who I once was.” This new management team for the Chicago public schools is not a professional bureaucracy. In fact, it is unlike what any other school district management team ever was. It would be a mistake to expect it to act like any of them. And it would be a mistake to judge it by the same standards. Think not that they are like those who have preceded them, for to do so is to make a terrible mistake.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1995 edition of Education Week as Chicago’s New Perspective on District Management