Chicago's 'Unprecedented' Populist Revolt

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Chicago--The thunderous noise from the basketball court above the small meeting room could not drown out the voice that is now being heard with increasing frequency in this city of strong wills and deep political traditions.

It is the voice of parent activism.

A newly formed group of about 100 parents, which calls itself Parents United for Responsible Education, had gathered in a community center here to find a productive way to channel their anger over a school system they say ignores the needs of children.

"Bureaucracies only do one thing," said F.K. Plous Jr., a communications consultant with a 4-year-old daughter. "They make incremental changes."

But incremental changes won't satisfy Mr. Plous, who wants to see the foundations for major educational improvements laid before his daughter enters the Chicago Public Schools.

The radical reforms needed, he said, will not come from the school system's current leadership, because bureaucracies "don't innovate."

"Innovations come from the outside."

But his comment drew an immediate protest from the meeting's leader.

"We're not on the outside!" said Bernard Noven, a social worker who helped form pure as a forum for parents frustrated over the lack of progress in settling the city's recent teachers' strike.

"We're parents, we're taxpayers, we're citizens of this community," he said.

His were sentiments being echoed in dozens of gatherings throughout this city this month as parents join in what many are calling an "unprecedented" wave of public outrage over the way this city's schools are run.

Weeks after the fulfillment of their initial demand that the schools reopen, parents here remain irate over the condition of education in Chicago. And they are directing their wrath at the leaders of the school system, the teachers' union, and the city and state political leadership.

Gaining Political Impact

Despite having weathered nine teachers' strikes in the past 18 years, parents of school-age children here, are "more aggressive, more up4set, and more angered than I have ever seen them before," said State Senator Arthur L. Berman, chairman of the legislature's committee on elementary and secondary education.

A series of joint hearings on school reform, hastily called this month by the House and Senate Education Committees and their citizens' advisory panel, is one of several indications that the anger is beginning to have political impact.

Mayor Harold Washington has also reversed the hands-off policy that has characterized his administration's stance on school matters.

"No more business as usual," he told nearly 1,000 parents who responded to his call for a citywide education summit on a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago.

Two days later, at the first of three scheduled legislative hearings here, he said, "Out of this turmoil comes opportunity."

Mayor Washington has also asked that state lawmakers not respond to the parents' concerns before he has had a chance to develop a comprehensive plan for reform.

"I do not think the Assembly8should run pell-mell to change the system and think they are the only ones to deal with this problem," he said. "Real change must come from those most intimately involved with the system."

"We will do the job," he promised.

Mayor Washington's 'Summit'

Over the next few months, the mayor will convene 10 community meetings to solicit advice and suggestions from parents and others concerned with the welfare of the city's more than 400,000 public-school students.

Fifty parents will be named to serve as an advisory council to the existing body, called the Mayor's Education Summit. That initiative, now a year old, has made little progress to date, activists say, towards its goal of devising a school-business partnership to provide jobs for the system's high-school graduates.

"The very active role of the community during the strike made us realize we have to go further than just working for employment opportunities," said Anthony C. Gibbs Jr., director of the mayor's office of information and inquiry, which is organizing the community forums.

"If you have a high dropout rate," he said, "who's going to fill the jobs that are created?"

According to the school board's most recent figures, slightly more than half of the freshmen who were to graduate in the class of 1985 did so.

Four Key Issues

The education summit has been asked by the mayor to address four main topics, Mr. Gibbs said. They include: facilitating community-based management of the schools; promoting parental participation; identifying and setting timetables for organizational and curricular improvements; and assessing the systems of administration, curriculum management, and labor relations.

A final report, including recommendations for legislative action, will be ready by next February, the mayor said. The due date coincides with the beginning of the next legislative session in Springfield.

In interviews over the past two weeks, lawmakers said they were eager to see the mayor's proposals. They recognize, they said, that reforms imposed by a predominantly white legislature stand little chance of succeeding unless they are supported by the city's black political leaders.

The mayor is in the best position to bring about substantive changes in Chicago's schools, said Senator Berman. "That's why we're allowing him some time."

But he added that state lawmakers "will review and participate in the final formulation."

"The mayor doesn't expect us to give him a blank check without a voice in the restructuring," he said.

'Entrenched' Bureaucracy

Mayor Washington's education summit has struck a responsive chord with many parents and community leaders. But even some of his strongest supporters admit that the mayor faces a formidable task.

"You can bet one thing," said Leon Finney, a prominent community activist closely allied with the mayor. "There will be a mile of pressure for change to get an inch of real proel10lgress, because that's how entrenched the bureaucracy is."

The activists emerging from the city's growing number of white, middle-class parents express even greater skepticism.

"Up to this point, the administration has not been responsive to our concerns," said pure's Mr. Noven. "We're certainly not going to disband over these promises."

Added Mr. Plous: "I am certain they will make noises in the direction of innovation, but I don't think they can do it."

"The initiative," he said, "now lies with parents and the state legislators who are responsive to them."

Parents Will Testify

Parents will have an opportunity to express their views to the legislature at a joint education committee hearing scheduled for Nov. 4, where they will be the only group permitted to testify.

On Oct. 26, teachers who work in the system will have their say at a similar hearing. More than 100 have already signed up to present their views, despite the risk that they may be labeled as "troublemakers" by school officials, according to Senate aides.

And, according to most observers, the lawmakers are likely to hear anearful. "We are seeing the city of Chicago politicize the school system to a greater extent than we've seen since World War II," said George Schmidt, an English and journalism teacher who has long been one of the most vocal critics of both the school and teachers' union leadership. "You can't even buy a drafting table for a classroom without paying a 50 percent markup to some crony of the mayor or one of the aldermen."

Mr. Schmidt, an associate editor of the newspaper Substance, which reports allegations of corruption in the school system, is also unimpressed with the mayor's education summit. "So now he's got his official parents that he's going to fund."

Swarming the Capitol

The legislature has already been touched by the tide of parent activism sweeping this city. Several thousand parents traveled to Springfield last week in an effort to cajole lawmakers into finding more money for the Chicago schools during their brief veto-override session.

"I was amazed," said Mr. Finney, who also made the trip to lobby for the city schools. "You could not walk into the state Capitol or the legislative offices without passing swarms of people with little buttons and badges and hats and caps and flags" emblazoned with pleas for the public schools.

Thousands of parents came from other parts of the state as well, he said, because every school district has a stake in the restoration of $61 million in education funding cut from the budget this summer by Gov. James Thompson.

A measure to override the Governor's veto of the funding package passed the House last week, but was not expected to gather enough votes in the Senate to be successful.

The Senate was working on a supplemental appropriations bill expected to provide some additional funding for school districts in the state, but Chicago will probably receive far less under that measure than the $21 million it will receive if the Governor's veto is overturned.

The legislature's last major intervention in the city's school system occurred in 1980, after the board of education veered so close to bankruptcy that it was unable to meet a payroll. Legislation enacted that year prohibited the board from borrowing against anticipated revenues, and created a finance authority with its own power to collect taxes, engage in long-term borrowing, and certify that the board's budget is balanced before it can be spent.

Money and Accountability

Had the state allocated funds this year that were consistent with its constitutional duty to assume "primary" responsibility for public education, school officials here maintain, the divisive teachers' strike could have been avoided.

Currently, the city of Chicago provides a greater proportion of the district's operating revenue than the state.

"Since the financial collapse of 1979, we have not been able to commence the rebuilding of our school system," Frank W. Gardner, the school-board president, told the joint committee. "Instead, we have continued, year after year, to scrape more flesh from the educational carcass."

"Until the state legislature is willing to address the issues of permanent, predictable, and adequate funding, I feel that we are destined to feed our system on its own flesh."

Manford Byrd Jr., the city's general superintendent, had a similar message for the lawmakers. "The easy solution to the problems we face ... is to 'reform,"' he said. "This gives the appearance of improvement and costs very little."

But none of the reform proposals under discussion, he said, "will solve the fundamental problem of public education in Chicago, and in the rest of Illinois: the permanent funding resources are not enough to support quality education."

'No Sentiment To Fund'

It is an argument that does not sit well with legislators, particularly those from rural and suburban districts, many of whom feel that the Chicago schools have not shown improvements that are commensurate with previous funding increases.

Legislators have a "legitimate concern" about the performance of the Chicago school system, said Representative Gene L. Hoffman, a member of the House Education Committee.

"The general consensus is 'here we are again,"' he said. "There's no sentiment to fund them to the exclusion of all other schools. Everyone else got cut, yet all of them opened without a strike."

Several prominent education watchdog groups in Chicago have urged that the legislature not provide additional funding while the schools remain structured as they are now.

"The problem is not money, it is politics. We have to do something different this time," said Michael Bakalis, dean of the school of education at Loyola University and a member of Chicagoans United to Reform Education, a coalition of educators, parent groups, and community organizations. Cure has developed over the past year a comprehensive plan for restructuring the school system.

The Chicago schools, Mr. Bakalis told the legislators, are like "the boy who cried wolf."

"You should not provide more money unless it is tied to fundamental reform that somehow instills accountability for the administration of the schools and brings decisionmaking to the local level," he said.

Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, said his organization had recently amended its blanket opposition to additional funding.

"We decided we would lobby for a small amount of money during the override session because some reforms were included in the teachers' contract," he said.

The panel adopted last spring a position opposing additional state funding, despite having calculated that per-pupil spending by the state in Chicago had declined, in real dollars, by 14 percent since 1976.

Strike Ramifications

Both funding and accountability issues were addressed this year during contract negotiations between the board and teachers' union.

The contract finally approved this fall contains a 4 percent salary increase for this year for all school employees. A similar increase in the second year of the two-year contract is contingent upon the board's receiving enough new revenue to fund the raise.

The settlement also included several school-reform provisions that had been agreed upon by the board and the union and were not major obstacles in reaching an accord.

"We have seen five items that we think are important movements in the direction of reform," said Mr. Hess.

Under terms of the contract, class sizes in grades K-3 will be reduced by two students in the city's 100 lowest-achieving schools. In addition, a teacher-review and remediation plan set forth in the 1985-87 contract will be implemented, a pilot program of teacher internships will be established in three high schools, and a joint board-union committee will be formed to design a school-based management plan.

Debate on Public's Role

But the provision that has been attracting the most attention from reformers will provide 36 schools designated by the board as overcrowded with $1.7 million in discretionary funding. The money can be spent for any educational purposes, including the hiring of additional staff.

Under a 1985 state law, parents' advisory groups at each school--so-called "local school improvement councils"--have the right to review and approve all spending from a4principal's discretionary fund. But the relatively small amounts of funding that have been available for discretionary spending in prior years have been a major source of friction between the lsic's and the board of education.

The board's "lack of responsiveness is very upsetting," said Senator Berman. "They're the ones that drew up the rules for the funds they defined as discretionary."

The 1985 school-reform law also requires the board to hold hearings at each school to seek public guidance on its proposed budget. In more than 100 instances, the lsic'shave recommended changes, but none has been adopted by the board.

At the joint hearing, Senator Berman grew visibly frustrated with the school leaders' responses to his questions on why they had failed to mmake any concessions with the lsic's: "If you lead the public to believe they will have some say but don't respond, that's misleading."

Bob Saigh, director of communications for the school system, insisted in an interview last week that the board has listened and responded to the parents' requests.

"We heard the pleas for additional money for building-maintenance and repair, textbooks, and school supplies, and we budgeted in additional funding in these areas this year," he said.

But the Governor's decision to trim the legislature's education appropriation this summer forced the school district to eliminate most of the new monies, according to Mr. Saigh.

In addition, he noted, "most of the budget is set by formula or in contracts with our employee groups."

Mayor's Role in Settlement

Yet the contract settlement had been reached only after a negotiating stalemate was broken by the intervention of a coalition of community groups strongly allied with Mayor Washington. Members of some of these groups had advised the mayor on his board appointments and played a major role in the selection of the current superintendent.

Dropping the neutral stance they had taken during the early days of the strike, the groups eventually devised "a tent big enough for everybody to sit under," said Mr. Finney, the activist ally of the mayor who is credited with playing a pivotal role in the settlement.

"Many of the groups were concerned more about reform than anything; others were more concerned with opening the schools than reform," he said.

Representatives from the groups "confronted" the board during the fourth week of the strike, said Mr. Finney, "demanded that the schools be open by Monday." They outlined a settlement similar to the one that was ultimately adopted, he said.

The board was told, he said, that if they refused to act, "the community will no longer support this board of education."

Leaders of the teachers' union were also confronted, Mr. Finney said, and asked to support the proposed settlement when it was offered. If they did not, he said, they were told, "we are prepared to be accused of union-busting."

The contract was tentatively approved by the board and the leadership of the 21 school-employees' unions on Sunday, Oct. 4, and students returned to classes the next day, ending the longest strike in the system's history.

The board and the teachers' union were also persuaded to sign a memorandum of agreement to participate in the mayor's education summit.

'Not Excited' by Settlement

Although the teachers' union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, ratified the tentative contract after a 10-day review period, fewer than 60 percent of those voting approved it. The final tally was 13,320 in favor and 9,058 opposed--the closest margin in the history of collective bargaining in the district.

The ctu's president, Jacqueline B. Vaughn, said the vote demonstrated that "the members are not excited about the package."

Other observers see the strike's denouement differently.

"Ms. Vaughn ought to be really concerned about what that vote indicates about her support among her membership," said Patrick J. Keleher, Jr., director of public policy for Chicago United, a consortium of 77 major businesses that works to improve the social, racial, and economic conditions of the Chicago area.

Mr. Schmidt, the editor of Substance, opposed Ms. Vaughn in the most recent union elections as the candidate of the Teachers Action Caucus and led a citywide drive to have the contract rejected.

The board's plan to fund the contract by eliminating between 1,500 and 1,700 school jobs in the district is, in Mr. Schmidt's words, "absolutely unnecessary."

"The board has found tself with a surplus at the end of each of the last four years that has averaged $65 million," he said in an interview.

"That means," he explained, "that we can expect that after they've gotten done screwing up the schools, next August we will look back and say I told you so. I don't like to do that."

But the union's membership had been unified enough, he argued, that ''the strike itself was still the most successful in this city's history."

"For the generals to surrender after the army has won the war is really an atrocity," he concluded.

Personnel 'Bloodletting'

The strike swelled the ranks of parent activists almost daily, giving them formal channels to express their mounting frustration over the lack of progress in the talks.

"On some days, there were between 200 and 2,000 people marching simultaneously in several places in our city," said Florence B. Cox, president of the Chicago region's pta.

Instead of dying down as expected after the strike, the activism was spurred by the announcement that the $40 million needed to finance the first year's salary increases would have to be funded through savings from employee layoffs.

Dozens of parents' and community groups joined with the union in protest when the board reported that nearly 1,000 positions would be eliminated from the "non-quota" teaching force--and that the layoffs might include hundreds more who provide direct services to students, such as counselors and nurses. Critics charged that all of the cuts proposed by the central office staff could be covered by existing vacancies.

"The funding of this settlement is relatively bloodless at the central office while the blood flows freely in the schools," Mr. Hess said at the time.

As of last week, 605 employees in the central, district, and field offices had been notified that their positions were being eliminated, school officials reported. The administrators with valid teaching certification are being permitted return to the classroom if they so choose.

Union officials have charged that, by this policy, the board has effectively imposed the cuts on their membership, since administrators returning to the classroom typically have enough seniority to bump younger teachers from the system.

No figures were available last week on the number of teachers who have thus far lost their jobs. School officials said they expected to have a tentative count by the end of this week.

Layoffs' Program Implications

For some parents' groups, including pure, opposing cuts that will directly affect students has become the most pressing priority.

"They're protecting these political patronage jobs and they're just giving our kids' money away," said Mr. Noven.

Some 960 of the staff cuts the board has announced would come from magnet schools and other specialty and desegregation-related programs, whose supporters are among the most politically active parents in the city.

Critics charge that layoffs in these programs would violate the terms of a 1980 settlement decree in a school-desegregation case filed by the U.S. Justice Department.

Rumors were rampant last week that the Justice Department had threatened to withold federal desegregation funding if the district proceeded with the cuts.

But Debra Burstion-Wade, a spokesman for the department's education division, said she was not aware of any official contact between Justice and the school board on the issue of the proposed cuts.

Union officals and community activists have complained that the administration has failed to respond to their requests for comprehensive lists of where the cuts will be made.

Last week, when a member of pure tried to cut through the mounting confusion surrounding the proposed cuts by requesting a list from the central administration, he was referred to a school offical who, according to Mr. Noven, "said he doesn't have to tell us anything."

"The board is re-examining all of its cuts," Ken Masson, a spokesman for the school system, said last week.

No 'Superficial' Solutions

Parent activists are insisting that personnel cuts come from what they consider to be a bloated bureaucracy. A recent report by the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance calculated that the board had created 318 new positions in that bureaucracy during Mr. Byrd's two-and-a-half year tenure.

Others, however, suggest that the board could avert the layoffs entirely by drawing upon the massive investment it has in valuable downtown real estate.

School officials are lobbying the legislature for funding to minimize or eliminate the need for any further budget cutting.

But regardless of the resolution of the immediate funding problem, the debate over long-term solutions to the district's academic and leadership dilemmas is not likely to subside this year. And most observers are betting that it will lead to significant reforms.

There is little agreement on what form the changes should take, however. Proponents of an elected school board have begun to debate those who favor an appointed board.

And those who favor decentralizing the entire governance of the district are facing off against those who prefer school-based management models.

"We don't want superficial solutions," said Mr. Keleher of Chicago United, echoing a sentiment heard many times this month.

"They could really backfire--they could up the level of cynicism in the legislature and prevent us from getting even one red cent."

"I think a lot of it will depend on how long the groups are willing to make this an important issue and stick with it," said Representative Hoffman.

Senator Berman concurred: "To make meaningful changes, we're going to need grassroots support to counter the entrenched bureaucracies in both the school board and the union."

Vol. 07, Issue 08

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