Can the Chicago Reforms Work?

After Ups, Downs, and Reconfigurations, There's Reason To Hope--and Wonder

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Though smaller in population than New York City and Los Angeles, Chicago is second to none in convention attendance, currency trading, and educational corruption. After voter outrage in 1988 over a 19-day teachers' strike, the Illinois legislature made provision for 550 local school councils. Six parents, two community residents, and two teachers--all elected by peers--were to appoint a principal, remove poorly performing teachers, and make plans to improve learning substantially within five years.

The first council elections were encouraging. In a city where voters--even dead ones--are said to vote early and often, the elections were clean. Many elected parents and community residents, however, were poorly educated and lacked mastery of parliamentary procedure and education policy.

Since the legislation called for substantial progress in attendance, dropout rates, and learning, we traced these indicators over three years of reform. Though a few blips occurred, the trends across years were generally flat. It seemed unlikely that the schools would attain the goals set forth by the legislature in two more years.

In 1994, a Northwestern University law professor, Daniel Polsby, corroborated these findings. He found no systematic trends in attendance, graduation rates, or achievement. Chicago high school students, he found, were much further behind national standards than were elementary students, suggesting that the longer students attend the Chicago schools, the worse their comparative performance.

After publication of the Polsby report, some school board members and reform advocates concluded that their accomplishments could hardly be measured with conventional examinations. They called for "authentic" tests to be scored by teachers, despite the technical and practical shortcomings of such tests uncovered by trials in California, Kentucky, Vermont, and the United Kingdom.

Those advocating a change of tests had yet to contend with Barbara Sizemore, former superintendent of the Washington, D.C., schools and now dean of DePaul University's school of education in Chicago. She argued that Chicago students would have to take conventional aptitude and achievement tests if they wanted to go to good universities. She won the day, leaving it possible to continue achievement trend watching.

Here are some other indicators and highlights from Chicago's recent reform history worth noting:

  • Leadership: Early on, the press discovered that the leading candidate for superintendent the leader who would promote the reform package lacked state-required credentials for the job, had a bogus doctorate in jurisprudence on his r‚sum‚, and had led only a small school system that the state of California declared academically bankrupt. Hired anyway, he later said he was lukewarm on reform. In choosing his successor, the board passed over several national leaders who had turned around large systems and hired a doctoral student who had never held a superintendency.

The first school board president after the passage of the reform law said she would do all in her power to make reform work. It later turned out that her family-owned health-services firm had noncompetitive contracts with the Chicago schools. Questioned by the press, she said she hadn't been aware of them but conceded that they might have the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such a seeming impropriety was hardly cause for board concern, but her tenure was interrupted by a 22-month sentence for federal-tax evasion.

  • Council elections: Despite such revelations, reformers wanted more time. Five years, as originally agreed, was insufficient. If the schools had taken a half-century to decline, they might need a decade of reform to raise test scores. In the meantime, they said, grassroots election of the local school councils was proof enough of ongoing success.

Probing this contention, political scientists Kenneth Wong and M.H. Moulton of the University of Chicago analyzed turnout for council elections. They calculated that total voter turnout steadily declined--by 55 percent--from 294,213 in 1989 during the first council elections to 131,798 in 1993. The parent and community-resident voters declined even more sharply, by 68 percent.

The average number of candidates running for each council slot declined from 3.2 to 1.4, meaning that, as in the former Soviet Union, nearly every slated candidate won. Even so, 33 percent of the schools lacked full slates. Combined with absenteeism, such growing non-incumbency threatened quorums and representativeness.

  • Back to the Illinois legislature: The trial period was ending in 1995. The Chicago school system faced a projected $300 million deficit. Test scores and other indicators had barely budged. Parents, business people, and civic leaders were again appalled. What to do?

Fortified by election victories, suburban and downstate Republicans began thinking: How about vouchers or breaking the system into free-standing, manageable pieces? Better yet, turn the mess over to Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose father led Chicago when it was the "city that works." A Democrat, his son was gaining a reputation for efficiency and privatizing services. He might succeed. So much the better for Chicago and Illinois. If not, the Democrats would lose credibility. Like Los Angeles and New York City, Chicago might wind up with a Republican mayor for the first time in memory.

  • The mayor's team takes command: The mayor appointed a new, reconfigured school board, which immediately replaced top administrators. Appointed chief education officer, Principal Lynn St. James had a sterling reputation among community groups. But, like Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, most new team members had business or legal backgrounds. Ungiven to academic gab, they liked acting decisively on the basis of hard facts and bottom-line numbers. Said Mr. Vallas: "No phony tests" (referring to proposals for locally developed and scored exams). Agreeing with Barbara Sizemore, he believed Chicago students would have to score well on competitive examinations to sign on the police force, at Merrill Lynch, or for Harvard.

The new board streamlined procedures and cut administrative staff. The savings allowed a four-year teacher contract with raises that solved a bitter parent grievance: lost school days.

An astute appointment was Chicago Sun-Times education reporter Maribeth Vander Weele to head the school system's new office of investigations. The author of front-page articles on board and staff scandals, she knew where and how to find corruption. Find it she did.

An immediate case in point was the director of the department of facilities. Though the local school councils pleaded for furniture, investigation revealed that the department hid a $5 million unused cache of 4,197 student desks, 8,749 chairs, nine pianos, and a Jacuzzi. While the previous board pleaded for state money from legislators, the director overpaid $7 million for goods and services. One contractor, for example, received $6,700 for a $600 water heater. With three associates, the director was soon indicted for kickbacks.

On the sensitive matter of race relations, Chicago's federal district court had approved in the 1970s the Monitoring Commission for Desegregation Implementation. In the most recent year, the commission spent two-thirds of its $325,000 budget on such items as theater tickets, massages, and flowers. Continuing investigations showed a host of similar revelations, which made clear that black, Hispanic, and white leaders had been united, shoulder to shoulder, against the poor.

Still, not all venal ambition resided with top education leaders. In January of this year, it was discovered that a principal was being paid for 20 mostly federal- and state-funded education jobs. Envisioning similar career prospects, an acting principal was caught bribing council members $3,400 at one school to secure a permanent appointment. At another school, five elected members of two families dominated the 11-member council, coerced the principal to do their bidding, and retaliated against parents who complained. Chicago's education reform had devolved malfeasance and power-block voting to local schools.

Defending the U.S. Constitution two centuries ago in the Federalist Papers, our founders anticipated Chicago's problems. Viewing self-interest as primary, they held that governance alone cannot protect people from their own representatives and public servants. The very size of big-city school systems allows for concealment, obfuscation, and insulation from citizen influence. In the shadows of big cities, those who speak for and serve the poor may put their own interests first. As Chicago exemplifies, altruism may be in short supply, and even educators may be tempted.

Chicago reform may yet succeed. As our examples show, the new board is purging corruption and inefficiency to concentrate professional energies on learning. Its latest initiatives go a step further: The board is taking over schools with nonfunctioning councils, soliciting universities and other agencies to help schools on state-designated academic probation, and fostering city-initiated charter schools to encourage educational entrepreneurs. The board further proposes to remove repeatedly disruptive students to privatized schools and to reward better-performing schools with extra dollars. In addition, Walter H. Annenberg, the philanthropist, former ambassador, and founder of TV Guide, gave the Chicago schools nearly $50 million to promote small-school virtues in the district's huge facilities.

Though these initiatives deserve trials, no one knows if they will work. Prediction is difficult, especially if it involves the future. Even so, given the board's actions and plans, we see more reason for hope now than at any time in the last four decades. In any case, we expect world-class political theater--like Chicago's architecture, basketball, and symphony orchestra--second to none.

Vol. 15, Issue 35, Page 39

Published in Print: May 22, 1996, as Can the Chicago Reforms Work?
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