Next week, Chicago voters will exercise their distinctive brand of school democracy by choosing more than 5,000 fellow citizens to serve on panels that wield potent influence over their neighborhood schools.
Chicago has elected local school councils every other year since 1989. But the contests on May 1 and 2 are taking place at a time of renewed interest in the role that the councils play in the city’s long-standing tug of war over control of its schools. Education in the Windy City is at a turning point, according to education leaders and activists, who say they are embroiled in an intensifying debate about the city’s renowned 1988 and 1995 school system restructurings.
The first change shifted many powers to local school sites and created the school councils. The second handed pivotal authority to the mayor. Both phases of change have been regarded nationally as milestones in the efforts of big-city school systems to decentralize and centralize authority.
The new round of thinking and talking in Chicago comes as Arne Duncan, who was appointed last June by Mayor Richard M. Daley to serve as the school system’s chief executive officer, is winning praise from local school activists for setting a tone that they see as open and collaborative.
Discussions are centering on how best to balance the powers of the central administration with those of the community members, parents, teachers, and principals who serve on local school councils.
On a practical level, leaders are hashing out such issues as how to draw more people into active roles on the panels, better define the panelists’ roles, and outline what the district can do to enhance their work. But on a symbolic level, observers see larger issues at stake in the conversation.
“This is not just about, ‘Oh, parent involvement is nice,’” said Andrew G. Wade, the executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Cooperative, a nonprofit group that provides support to LSCs. “This is about a democratic model of governance.
“This is systemic reform at its truest,” he said. “We need to decide whether we want this or not, because you can’t do it halfway.”
“We’ve had some years of decentralization, and some years of recentralization,” Mr. Wade added. “Are we going to keep on this pendulum, or are we going to get it right, with pieces of both?”
When local school councils were new, and excitement over the grassroots innovation was high, more than 17,000 people turned out to run for the 6,200 seats at 540 schools in the first election in 1989.
In the next election, two years later, the number dropped to 8,400, and has hovered between 7,000 and 8,000 ever since, according to figures kept by the 435,000-student district’s office of school and community relations, which oversees LSCs.
Each panel comprises six parents and two community members elected by the voters, the school’s principal, and two teachers elected by the school’s staff. At the high school level, a student representative is added. Illinois’ 1988 School Reform Law empowers each council to hire and evaluate its school’s principal, as well as to approve or reject the school’s discretionary budget and school improvement plan.
While studies of Chicago’s local school councils have shown that most work effectively and that many improved their schools’ attendance, morale, physical condition, and academic programs, their troubles have received at least as much attention as their accomplishments.
Many observers and supporters of the 1988 restructuring perceived the six-year administration of former schools CEO Paul G. Vallas as hostile to the panels. They cite dozens of letters sent by the district’s law department to LSCs, invalidating their votes—usually on principal selection—for a host of reasons, ranging from improper use of parliamentary procedure to discovery that one or more panelists were not properly qualified to serve.
On occasion, LSC members have even been arrested and escorted off school grounds when they were deemed to be engaged in activities considered disruptive and beyond their authority, such as visiting classrooms to observe.
“Under Paul Vallas, LSCs were constantly under attack,” said Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, or PURE, a nonprofit group that advises and trains LSC members. “We are now at a point of opportunity with the new administration that LSCs might be able to come into their own.”
James Deanes, who has headed the office of school and community relations since 1997, said that for some LSCs, the previous administration “was not as easy to work with” as the current one. But he said critics offer a “slanted view” of what was by and large a good working relationship between Mr. Vallas and the panels.
The legal department did what was necessary to correct violations of procedure, said Mr. Deanes, who is a former LSC member. He added that his office gets little credit for the many times it has intervened successfully to solve local council disputes.
In the 10 months that Mr. Duncan has been in office, he has signaled support for the councils and a desire for good relations with their advocates. He has held meetings with PURE and other groups that were frequent critics of the Vallas administration and that had previously found such access difficult.
As the March deadline approached for LSC candidates to register, Mr. Duncan called publicly for 10,000 community members to run, and reached out to religious leaders for help in drumming up candidates. When only 4,000 had signed up, he agreed to extend the deadline a month. The school and community relations office kicked into high gear with publicity and outreach. In the end, the effort produced enough candidates to cover all the races, even though some seats are uncontested.
Anthony S. Bryk, the senior director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, said he sees the city as being “at a point of fine-tuning” the balance between the decentralizing 1988 reforms and the recentralizing effects of the measures adopted in 1995.
The second phase of reform aimed to give the district’s top guns the firepower to battle persistent financial and academic problems. It included a number of additional local-governance measures, but is remembered chiefly for its splashiest impact: giving the mayor control of the schools.
“We are at a crossroads as a new [school] administration comes in,” Mr. Bryk said.
With the new leadership perceived by LSC allies as more collaborative, such advocates believe they can forge better ways to operate school councils, which they consider a linchpin of the democratic spirit behind the first phase of reform in 1988.
Among those holding that view is Donald R. Moore, the executive director of the local school advocacy organization Designs for Change and one of the Vallas administration’s most vocal critics.
“Now we’re talking about a third phase of school reform,” said Mr. Moore, who was involved in crafting the 1988 law. “It can be a more constructive collaboration, aimed at giving LSCs what they need to work the way they are supposed to.”
Mr. Moore and others who are working on or studying school improvement in Chicago advocate better training for council members.
State law currently requires 18 hours, but critics contend the large-scale lecture format in which it is often given doesn’t properly prepare panelists. Training must be interactive, tailored to their job responsibilities, and be ongoing throughout their two-year tenures, Mr. Moore said.
Archon Fung, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, spent nearly three years studying the function of LSCs as a tool of participatory democracy. He sees them as providing a crucial avenue, especially in low-income neighborhoods, for the citizen engagement that he believes is necessary for school improvement. But to function properly, he said, the councils need a strong central administration.
“We’re not talking about a command-and-control type of administration,” said Mr. Fung. “I mean an administration that offers support, information-sharing, training, and guidance.”
Kenneth K. Wong, a former University of Chicago scholar who is now a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., suggests that LSCs could benefit from a clearinghouse where they could receive a range of services, information, and advice.
He believes they might benefit, as well, by the addition of community members with specific expertise, such as in finance or management, that could assist them in their work on budgets and hiring.
“They run the risk of getting marginalized [in] the new climate of accountability, given that it is data-driven and that decisions have to be made with the proper kind of data,” Mr. Wong said of the councils.
Mr. Deanes’ office of school and community relations has been reaching out to the business community, holding breakfasts and lunches with civic leaders to try to get their support and participation in local school councils, a step Mr. Wong believes is important.
Additionally, local philanthropies are raising money for a $1.2 million election fund to assist in the biennial election campaigns of council candidates. Local advocacy groups are developing plans for a training institute for panelists.
Dolores Gotay is glad to see a renewed energy being invested in LSCs. She has seen the good, bad, and the ugly in the panels. As a parent at one school, she said she watched as the council clashed often and intensely with its principal. Then, as a parent member of an LSC at another school, she participated on a council that worked harmoniously and accomplished much good, she said.
“The concept is a good one,” said Ms. Gotay. “It can be a partnership, or it can get to the point where people who have a power over something they know nothing about try to micromanage everything. It needs checks and balances.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Chicago Ponders How to Balance Governing Power