Proposals To Reshape Chicago Schools Follow Shift in Ill. Legislature
The Illinois legislature returns this week to another month's worth of work that may have a lot to say about the future of the Chicago school district.
In the wake of victories that handed control of the legislature to Republicans this year, the nation's third-largest district has become a prime target for lawmakers from the suburbs and downstate who have been among its most strident critics.
"We are being pummeled, to say the least," said Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union. "We are just sitting and waiting to see what's left after all of this plays out."
Proposals before the legislature as it returns from its holiday break range from stiffening requirements for teachers to carving the massive district into smaller chunks.
A bill up for a Senate vote would penalize Chicago teachers who go on strike, abolish teacher tenure in the district, and require the city's teachers to pass subject-matter tests to renew their certification.
There is little doubt the bill will pass in the Senate. Its sponsor is James Philip, the Republican Senate president whom Chicago school backers consider their nemesis in the legislature.
Chicago educators will also be watching Lee A. Daniels, the Speaker of the House, who is working with leading Republicans to draft a bill that promises massive changes in Chicago. An aide to Mr. Daniels said the package, whose details are not yet public, should be ready within the next week or two.
An Easy Target
While emerging details of the House package may provide the best sign of how far lawmakers are prepared to go toward reshaping the 410,000-student Chicago system, there is already plenty of evidence that big changes may be lurking.
The House education committee has passed a bill that would split the district into 10 smaller districts, each governed by its own board. The bill also would allow the state to sell surplus district property in an effort to reduce the district's nagging budget deficit.
The Chicago School Finance Authority recently estimated that the district will need $150 million more than it will have on hand to open next year.
Such continuing frustrations over the district's inability to keep itself afloat are at the root of G.O.P. lawmakers' desire to clean house.
A bill in the House education committee would remove the authority that Chicago's local school councils--which govern individual schools there under a broad reform law enacted in 1988--have to spend state Chapter I money.
That remedial-education allotment has long been eyed as a source for paying off the district's deficit, and Gov. Jim Edgar is considering a recommendation that lawmakers take control of the money.
Another bill that has already passed the House would further scrutinize local governance in Chicago by requiring criminal-background checks of all candidates for local school councils.
Many Chicago school officials complain the proposal would drive up costs and deter people from participating in the city's chief school-reform program.
Much of the legislature's other action on education has implications for Chicago.
A pilot voucher program passed by the Senate would target a single Chicago subdistrict and allow poor students there to receive state-financed vouchers to attend private and religious schools.
A bill signed by Governor Edgar will allow school districts to seek waivers from state regulations. But it will also establish "learning zones" in Chicago where up to 50 schools would be managed by a separate board appointed largely by the Governor.
Finally, a bill awaiting a vote by the full Senate would give Chicago's mayor authority over the school board, abolishing the nominating commission that selects its members.
Out of the Loop
At every turn, school officials and political observers say, the powers of Chicago educators and administrators are being questioned.
To make matters more difficult, the Republican leadership has not only targeted the city, but has left its advocates out of the loop as decisions are made, school lobbyists said.
Details of bills and amendments are often not revealed until the last minute, they said, and district supporters rarely have a significant voice in the political discussions concerning the future of the system.
Veterans of Illinois politics said they have seen the backlash against Chicago building for some time, but Democratic control of the House had previously allowed city officials to defend themselves.
"Now, they are picking apart the district even though reform is happening and changes are being made," said Ms. Gallagher. "They are trying to break up the district with a lot of programs that chip away at the general tone of the district."
"Politically," she added, "this is very, very tough."
Vol. 14, Issue 30, Page 13