Staying in the Game, Part I

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints


For years, a vibrant reform community carried the ball in efforts to shape the Chicago schools. But these days, many activists feel they're sitting on the bench.

James Deanes used to be on the outside looking in at the Chicago public schools. As the head of the Parent/Community Council, an advisory group created in 1987 by then-Mayor Harold Washington, Mr. Deanes for years was a well-known reform activist.

Now, he has a new vantage point--from inside the headquarters of the nation's third-largest school district. Mr. Deanes is a human-relations officer for Mayor Richard M. Daley's reform board of trustees, working with communities and the local school councils that govern Chicago's schools.

"I liken it to what I see in my house," he explains of his switch. "I have a washing machine with an agitator. The agitator is not there just to stir things up, but to clean."

In Mr. Deanes' view, Chicago finally has a credible administration willing to tackle the problems plaguing the 413,000-student system. Three other former activists who work in his office clearly agree.

But some people involved in this city's lively school reform community take a less charitable view, charging that the new employees have been co-opted by the administration.

The shifting allegiances among these activists are a sign of broader changes in Chicago's robust network of school reformers. As the schools and the central administration have been transformed over the past decade--from the 1988 law that curbed the bureaucracy and created the local school councils to the 1995 law turning the system over to the mayor--so has the larger reform brotherhood.

Instead of driving school reform, many activists are now on the defensive.

Chicago is distinctive for the rich mix of groups and organizations that research, advocate, provide money for, and keep tabs on school reform. No other urban district can boast such sustained attention to education issues by so many people outside the system. In many other cities, people have done little more than talk about parent involvement and forging partnerships.

In Chicago, says Michelle Fine, an expert on urban education at the graduate school of the City University of New York who has been studying school reform here for several years, "the sense of democratic participation is very deep."

"What's been fundamentally accomplished is that the community knows that they own those schools," she says. "It's not like other cities, where it's presumed that the schools belong to some central board."

But the mayor's team runs the show now, and the vibrant reform community often clashes with the administration. The tension crops up most frequently when policies and practices are seen as top-down decisions at the expense of the local school councils.

The city's 550 school councils, which hire and fire principals and spend budgets of as much as $1 million, still wield far more authority than similar bodies in any other major city. More than 4,400 Chicagoans serve on them, in addition to 1,650 teachers and principals. But reformers say the new administration is chipping away at their powers.

Paul G. Vallas, the system's chief executive officer, has little time for what he calls "self-appointed school reform groups" and less appetite for the sometimes tedious public processes that allow activists to have their say and influence policy.

Nor is the schools chief awed by the city's wealthy and influential foundations, which kick in about $16 million a year. In fact, he's on the outs with several major foundations after questioning what improvements their contributions over the past decade have produced.

"The legislature did not go in [in 1995] and radically alter the balance of power in schools because the system was working or test scores were climbing or the dropout rate was dropping or the quality of graduates was improving," Mr. Vallas said recently. "I don't know what I have to do to satiate some of these groups. I don't have time to meet with them and wax nostalgic about the old days of school reform. I have a job to do."

Instead, Mr. Vallas, a tireless worker, goes "to the grassroots," meeting personally with members of school councils two or three times a week.

'Sustaining Piece'

Feelings about community involvement run particularly strong here, because it was widespread activism that produced the first reform law.

In the late 1980s, as strikes, budget turmoil, and poor achievement eroded public confidence in the schools, community-based organizations plunged into education issues. Reform groups were born, many with foundation support. Eventually, state lawmakers passed legislation altering the balance of power in the system in favor of parents and community members.

The new authority schools gained over their budgets bolstered reform activity. They could contract directly with universities or national reform projects for help, rather than wait for a green light from the central office. And they did. Most Chicago-area colleges and universities are now working with schools; 15 years ago, few bothered.

At one time, the Citywide Coalition for School Reform, a foundation-supported organization, provided a big tent under which reformers of all stripes gathered. As many as 125 organizations belonged, and they found plenty of things to talk about: chronic budget deficits, labor trouble, threats of schools not opening on time each September. For now, at least, those issues are history.

As of last fall, the coalition is defunct. Two of its former executive directors now work for the reform board of trustees. Like Mr. Deanes, they've been called turncoats. The charge doesn't bother Ronald Sistrunk, a former activist who now works with local school councils.

"It's a lot better to be at the table offering counsel than to be standing out in the wind blowing up at the building and saying, 'Hey, let us in,'" he says. The fact that school reformers have joined the administration, he adds, shows district leaders' commitment to making the school councils successful.

The death of the Citywide Coalition had little to do with the mayor's takeover, insiders say. The organization was plagued by leadership changes and the difficulty of holding together the wide range of members, many of which had their own projects and concerns.

But it is unmistakably a new day for reform activists.

"When there was a two-headed monster to fight," Mr. Sistrunk says of previous, less responsive administrations, "it was easy to rally and bring people to bear arms and holler and scream and rant and rave."

'We've got the richest set—praise God every day—of real people, deeply committed to schools. ... To have that be disrespected by this administration seems unfortunate.'

Anne Hallett
Executive director
Cross City Campaign

Instead of a single reform movement, Chicago today has a "diaspora of movements," says Ms. Fine, including people working to create smaller schools, advocates for more equity in financing schools, and supporters of linking schools more tightly with neighborhoods and social service providers.

This activity is partly due to the creation of "an economic market for direct assistance to the schools," observes Fred Hess, a research professor at Northwestern University who has many years of involvement with Chicago schools.

Many schools with low test scores have been paired with "external partners," usually programs at colleges and universities. The cost is being split with the central office.

And the Chicago Annenberg Challenge--organized by many of the same foundation executives, university professors, community activists, and reform watchdogs who once gathered under the Citywide Coalition--is using a similar strategy. Schools must pair with at least one other school and an "external partner" to receive money from the challenge, which is raising money to match a $49.2 million grant awarded by the Annenberg Foundation.

"We've got the richest set--praise God every day--of real people, deeply committed to schools," says Anne Hallett, the Chicago-based executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a national network. "That's what the sustaining piece has been here. To have that be disrespected by this administration seems unfortunate."

A 'Decade of Waste?'

Some of the conflict here stems from differing interpretations of the schools' performance over the past decade.

Designs for Change, a research and advocacy organization that helped write the 1988 reform law, points to significant gains in reading and math scores at about a quarter of the city's K-8 elementary schools. These schools have shown increases of at least 8 percent in the proportion of their students who score at or above the national average in those subjects.

"The general strategy is to say that nothing positive happened before they arrived," Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, says of the mayor's appointees. "The elementary schools, if the high schools were separate, still would be the third-largest school district in the country. To say that progress has just been in the elementary schools is to minimize substantial achievement."

In a bold move, the administration last fall placed 109 schools, including 38 high schools, on probation because of their low test scores. Each is working with an assigned "probation manager" and an external partner, usually a college or university.

"I submit that not a lot of progress was made" since 1988, Mr. Vallas says. "The bottom line is only 77 of the [557] schools have more than half of the kids at or above national averages."

In the late 1980s, as strikes, budget turmoil, and poor achievement eroded public confidence in schools, community-based organizations plunged into education issues.

Mr. Vallas isn't the only one questioning results. Patrick J. Keleher, a businessman and professor who played a prominent role in the reform movement of the late 1980s, shares the CEO's lack of enthusiasm. In a February commentary in the Chicago Sun-Times, he charged that school reformers elevated grantsmanship to "an art form" during "a decade of waste."

"The foundation is the tail that wags the dog in school reform," Mr. Keleher, who now advocates vouchers that would allow parents to send their children to private schools, said recently.

Other writers at the newspaper picked up the theme. "Feeding on generous subsidies from the city's good-hearted foundations, these reformers are still waiting around for a decentralized school system to fully kick in," Dennis Byrne, an member of the newspaper's editorial board, wrote in December. "But not every Chicago kid can afford to wait around for The Process to play itself out."

In response, the presidents and executive directors of seven leading Chicago-based philanthropies, including the Spencer, Joyce, and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations, signed a commentary in the Sun-Times asserting that reform is "producing real results."

Their foundations, they wrote, will continue to support improvement strategies.

Keeping Up With the Pace

Despite criticism of the generous giving--which in MacArthur's case alone will amount to some $40 million over 10 years--these grants have fostered expertise in schools that can lead to change, argues Peter Martinez, a program officer at the MacArthur Foundation. As an example, he cites the University of Illinois at Chicago's Small Schools Workshop, which is creating smaller, more intimate high schools. That strategy has the school system's blessing.

Mr. Vallas, the mayor's former budget director, "has a bias against educators that is not entirely without merit," Mr. Martinez adds. On its own, however, the central office doesn't have the know-how to turn schools around, he says. "When [Mr. Vallas'] instincts take him in the right direction and he wants to move boldly, he hasn't got the capacity."

Still, Mr. Martinez is sympathetic to the argument that school reform has lacked accountability. The school councils need intensive, focused training, he says, if they are to use their power well and stay in the game.

The number of council members who regularly appear in Springfield to lobby state lawmakers on school issues has dwindled in recent years, for example, something reform groups are trying to turn around.

But the citywide watchdog groups don't have expertise in community organizing, says Zarina O'Hagin, the director of the Lawyers' School Reform Advisory Project, which monitors legal issues that affect school councils. And council members get so busy with their particular schools, she adds, that they don't always see the big picture.

The administration's rapid pace puts activists at a disadvantage, many say. "There's no sense that [Mr. Vallas] feels that there are systemwide ways of looking at how these schools should be run and how procedures should be followed," Ms. O'Hagin complains.

Designs for Change has begun a training course for school council members who want to learn more about city, state, and federal policy and how it affects schools. The 40 to 50 active members who have completed the program plan to visit newspaper editorial boards and lobby legislators on behalf of the councils.

The organization also is working with the Consortium on Chicago School Research, a federation of local groups, on a study of student achievement since 1990 that will explore what conditions led to improvement.

The Chicago Association of Local School Councils, which represents 117 schools, plans to hire an organizer to rally more LSCs.

And Parents United for Responsible Education, or pure, a vocal grassroots group with 450 members, publishes an informational newsletter for council members.

Divided Loyalties

In its determination to move boldly, critics say, the administration sometimes treads on the school councils.

One example that inflamed reform groups was the passage earlier this year--with no legislative hearings--of a bill in the state legislature that allowed the Chicago district to set standards for principals. The 1988 law required only a state license, on the theory that the city needed new blood.

Led by Designs for Change, reform groups mounted an unsuccessful lobbying campaign to persuade Gov. Jim Edgar to veto the measure. Soon after, in addition to other criteria, the administration established a residency requirement for future principals.

'We know what promises are being made. That's why they don't like us—we know what we're talking about.'

Julie Woestehoff,
Executive director,

In order to be retained by their school councils, principals also must receive a satisfactory evaluation from regional administrators--another change that LSC advocates say weakens the councils' position. Mr. Vallas can veto contract renewals.

"Now the principal clearly sees the boss is the central office," says Sheila Castillo, the executive director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils. "We're concerned that takes accountability away from the local school community and moves it to the administration."

Mr. Vallas makes no apologies for trying to improve the quality of principals. "Parents want higher standards," he asserts. "You can't have incompetent people running the schools."

To keep up with such changes, members of citywide advocacy organizations meet once a week under the umbrella of a group called the Local School Council Summit. In addition to more than 200 LSC members, participants include Designs for Change, the schools councils' association, Parents United for Responsible Education, and the Lawyers' School Reform Advisory Project.

Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of PURE, which grew out of the 1987 teachers' strike, says it's crucial for groups with an understanding of legislation and citywide issues to monitor the school system. She compares Mr. Vallas' style to that of an alderman, who will meet with constituents face to face to settle issues.

"We know if more than one person is having a problem," she says. "We know what promises are being made. That's why they don't like us--we know what we're talking about."

The schools chief says that PURE and other foundation-supported groups don't speak for anyone but themselves.

"School reform has been an excellent employment agency," Mr. Vallas says. "You try to deal with groups in a constructive way, but when they're still out there criticizing over and over and over, I said, 'Fine, we'll just deal with the individual councils.'"

In January, reform activists were dismayed when the school system successfully lobbied the legislature to make the district's inspector general a mayoral appointee. Previously, the inspector general was named by the Chicago School Finance Authority, which once monitored the system's budget and issued bonds to bail it out of financial trouble.

One example of a lack of "process" often cited by reform advocates is the system's massive capital-improvement program. There has been some confusion about how schools are chosen for renovations. The magazine Catalyst, which tracks Chicago school reform, faults the administration in its April issue for failing to make clear its priorities and to detail where public money has been spent.

Mr. Vallas rejects the criticism, saying the administration has provided a detailed list of which schools fall under which phases of the program. "We are going to take action," he vows. "Some reform groups want us to spend another year holding hearings. Well, no."

Always, the reform groups are alert for signs that the school system or the legislature might chip away at the state compensatory education money that has provided schools with discretionary funds to carry out their plans. The city's schools currently receive $261 million in such funds, while the central office gets about $50 million. Activists say schools should receive an increase to cover rising costs and higher enrollments.

As for schools' funding, Mr. Vallas says the board of trustees has shifted $145 million to schools to pay for new preschool classes, a parenting program for children who don't attend preschool, alternative schools, summer schools, expanded after-school programs, and additional repair and maintenance funds, among other purposes.

These changes send strong messages to schools about what programs and services will benefit students. This, Mr. Vallas insists, is what school council members need.

Many of the initiatives are just what school reformers have long been advocating, Mr. Deanes notes. While activists should continue to scrutinize and monitor the central administration, he says, they also need to recognize progress.

"It's hypocritical for those of us who fought for that for years and years to now criticize because it comes from someone other than us," he says of the new policies and programs. "Isn't that what reform is all about?"

Web Only

Related Stories

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories