Change Afoot for Chicago's School Team
Even by Windy City standards, the month of May closed with a bluster of activity around the schools.
Chicago school board President Gery J. Chico resigned, and school board sources speculated that Paul G. Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, might not be far behind.
Local newspapers published leaked reports of declining high school test scores—news likely to rankle Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose public support for both men has waned of late.
Meanwhile, the teachers' union voted out its incumbent leader for a more combative president.
After an era of stable leadership and nationally watched improvement efforts, the combination of events could move the nation's third-largest school district onto a new course—one that might diverge from the direction set six years ago, when Mayor Daley installed the Chico-Vallas team.
"As I read the overt signals, it seems that a complete turnover at the top is in the offing," said Anne C. Hallett, the executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a Chicago-based network of urban school activists. "There's always been that speculation around Mr. Vallas, but it seems stronger than ever now."
A spokesman for Mr. Daley said last week that the mayor was reviewing candidates for Mr. Chico's post, and that selection of a new board president could come early this month.
Mr. Chico, whose tenure as president has been longer than that of any predecessor in more than a century, announced his plans May 24. He said he wants to spend more time with his three young daughters and return to full-time status at the law firm where he is a chairman.
"I have a strong passion for [education]. I know the importance of education to society, the state, and to the city," he said. "Of course, I have mixed emotions. I loved working to make progress."
Former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett once called the Chicago school district the worst in the nation. But that was in the 1980s. Since then, the 432,000-student system has gained new respect in many quarters and landed at the front of some national trends.
Mayor Daley's 1995 takeover of the district, which was mandated by the Illinois legislature, has been replicated in a handful of other cities, such as Cleveland. Chicago has also provided blueprints for ending the automatic promotion of students to the next grade level, requiring low-performing students to attend summer school, and writing daily scripts for teacher lessons.
Critics, however, fault the Chicago approach as too centralized and overly focused on test scores. They charge that the district relies too heavily on threats of punitive action and intervention in its efforts to raise the achievement of low-performing schools and students.
"We could get new people, but if these policies are not changed, children are not going to be any better off," said Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change. That Chicago advocacy group promotes local control of schools, the philosophy behind an earlier push to improve the school system.
"Let's research what's worked and what hasn't worked," Mr. Moore said, "and move ahead."
Mr. Chico defended the district's use of tests. Acknowledging some recent drops and stagnation, he noted that, in general, those scores have risen over the past six years.
"People are not going to believe that you have a good system or an uptick just because you tell them," he said. "At the end of the day, you have to be believable and credible, and the best way to show that is through objective data."
His successor as school board president should keep that in mind, he added. "Whoever takes over must have a passion to support progress," he said. "Anyone who feels there's no platform for progress hasn't been paying attention."
There are many signs, however, that satisfaction with the direction and pace of improvement under the current administration, including Mr. Vallas, the CEO, may have run its course.
To many observers, the most ominous signs have come from Mayor Daley himself.
On the eve of Mr. Vallas' May 30 state-of-the-schools address, the mayor told local reporters that the schools chief "can stay if he wants to," but no one's "irreplaceable," the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Mr. Daley in recent months also has urged school leaders find new ways to raise reading scores.
"Is the mayor getting Vallas to resign? Well, he has a tradition of turning over top leadership every three years. Vallas has doubled that," said G. Alfred Hess, the director of the Center for Urban School Policy at Northwestern University. "Daley probably feels it's time to make changes. It's his style."
Mr. Vallas said in an interview last week that he was not ready to talk about his future in the district. "I'll decide that at the end of the school year," he said. The last official school day in Chicago is June 12.
Meanwhile, Mr. Vallas has had plenty to keep him busy.
He's focused on getting the school board to pass a $4.3 billion budget this month for fiscal 2002. His plan seeks to close or cut about 400 central-office and nonteaching jobs to make room for new teachers. The budget plan is his seventh balanced budget in as many years.
The district's top administration is not the only power center in flux.
In a major shakeup for the teacher workforce late last month, former 8th grade teacher Deborah Lynch-Walsh ousted Chicago Teachers Union President Thomas Reece, who was first elected to the post in 1994.
Local news organizations, meanwhile, reported that soon-to-be released test data would show that scores in some elite high schools had dropped.
Mr. Vallas downplayed the reports. Not only is the exam the students took being phased out, he said, but the scores were high to begin with. "These are scores that are already in the stratosphere," he said.
Vol. 20, Issue 39, Pages 1, 11Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as Change Afoot for Chicago's School Team