State Board Calls for Chicago Reform Monitor

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The Illinois Board of Education recommended last week that the legislature create a powerful independent authority that would oversee efforts to reform the Chicago Public Schools.

"The capacity of the authority should necessarily include the ability to invoke a form of receivership on the school district, suspending the authority of the local board and management, if it is concluded that good-faith reform implementation is not occurring,'' said a report approved by the board.

In addition, the board called for the creation of a special state-level group that would incorporate state and local views into a reform package for the city's schools.

It also directed the state superintendent to support efforts to increase funding for the city's embattled school system from both state and local sources. District officials have repeatedly said that the ultimate success of any reform plan will depend on the addition of resources.

In its recommendations, the state board added its voice to the chorus of criticism that has accompanied the gradual disclosure of a consensus reform plan developed by Chicago's "education summit'' over the past six months.

The summit is a 54-member panel of Chicago business, education, civic, and political leaders created by the late Mayor Harold Washington. Its membership and charter were expanded in the aftermath of bitter protests provoked by a 19-day teachers' strike last fall.

While indicating that the summit's recommendations represented a "giant step toward agreement'' on confronting the school system's problems, the board said that its members "continue to wait for a crisp, prioritized statement from the summit on what the important needs are and how they must be addressed.''

Lawmakers Critical of Plan

During two days of hearings late last month before the combined education committees of the Illinois House and Senate, lawmakers told representatives of the summit that their plan needed a major overhaul.

"It is the same old bureaucratic structure that has failed up to this point,'' said Representative Ellis Levin, a Chicago Democrat, during the joint committee hearing. "The proposal, as it's constituted now, isn't going to fly. It's going to take a nose dive.''

The summit recommended that parents be given more control over their children's schools, including authority to review budgets and curricula and to hire and fire principals. It also recommended tougher academic standards for students, goals for reducing dropout and failure rates in the system, and more training for teachers and principals.

Several legislators also said the cost of the reforms--estimated at $210 million to $290 million--would have to be scaled back or at least phased in gradually.

Gov. James R. Thompson has said that public schools will receive no increase in state funding next year without a tax hike. And he and other political leaders have conditioned support for additional taxes on reform of the Chicago school system and changes in the formula for distributing state funds.

No tax proposal is yet before the legislature, which probably will not seriously consider tax and budget matters until late June.

Much legislative criticism of the Chicago proposal centered on its failure to spell out cuts in the district's bureaucracy. Representative Levin said the 3,381 administrators the district now has should be cut by 500--to the level that existed in 1981, when student enrollments began to decline sharply.

Eugene Sawyer, the new mayor of Chicago, agreed that "the central administration of the Chicago public schools is ... simply too big,'' and he later urged that the administrative staff be cut by 5 percent. But he defended the overall reform plan before the joint committees.

The mayor said he disagreed with the recommendation that parent councils have the power to fire principals. Such authority could undermine the accountability of the district's superintendent, he said.

The education committees told Chicago's superintendent of schools, Manford Byrd Jr., to provide a timetable for implementing reform measures, and members asked Mayor Sawyer to submit by June 1 a legislative package for restructuring the school system.

In a related development, a group of Chicago lawmakers last week introduced a package of reform bills developed by Chicagoans United to Reform Education, a coalition of community groups. The package includes a stronger version of the summit plan's major feature--the creation of parent-led councils.

Correspondent Don Sevener contributed to this report.

Vol. 07, Issue 31

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