A quarter-century ago this month, more than 300,000 Chicagoans took part in—part of a revolutionary experiment aimed at improving student outcomes by handing significant control of schools over to parents and the community.
Chicago’s experiment in local democracy was not completely unique: Kentucky’s 1990 education reform law also vested autonomy in local schools, though those councils were dominated by educators, and New York City had also had for some time community school boards. But the Windy City’s school governance model was unusually strong because it gave local parent-majority boards the power to hire and fire their school principals.
The parent- and community-powered reform movement emerged in Chicago from a confluence of factors—a crushing teachers’ strike, dissatisfaction with a school system that U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett had famously labeled the worst in the nation, a yawning disconnect between parents and those who ran the schools, and the vision of a mayor intent on overhauling the nation’s third-largest school system.
Besides hiring and firing principals, the new 11-member local school councils—composed of six parents, two teachers, two community members, and the principal—had the authority to set budget priorities and develop school improvement plans. (High schools had a non-voting student member.)
Today, the councils are so intimately woven into the fabric ofthat, for some residents, it is hard to envision the system without them.
But the enthusiasm that changed the Illinois School Code in 1988 to create the councils has waned. Financial support from foundations and other nonprofits that sprung up to finance and advise this new experiment has dried up, participation in elections has plummeted, and—perhaps most significantly—a later state law put the city’s schools under mayoral control.
Meanwhile, the councils’ contributions to improvement in the 400,000-student system are still being debated.
That no other urban district has chosen this path to transforming its troubled schools also raises the question of whether the councils could ever have lived up to the idealistic goals of their early proponents and provided a model beyond a specific time and place.
Dorothy Shipps, a retired education professor who taught at Baruch College in New York City and is the author of School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-2000, argues that the 1980s school improvement movement that spawned the councils brought a radical governance reform—not an educational reform—and that it was rooted in Chicago’s unique and complex political, social, economic, and racial dynamics.
"[The law] said nothing about what’s going to happen in the schools,” Ms. Shipps said. “It said nothing about what the curriculum was going to be, what the qualifications for teaching were going to be, what the outcomes expected for kids were going to be. ... It was all about who is in control, and who is in control of what.”
The change was premised on the assumption that if the coalition of businesses and community activists that pushed for local control gained a greater voice, then “whatever good ideas both of those groups had, [they] would now have an opportunity to flourish and be implemented,” Ms. Shipps said.
Still, the Chicago school councils were and remain an important vehicle for participatory democracy, allowing key stakeholders—particularly parents—the opportunity to make important decisions about how their children will be educated, Ms. Shipps and others argue.
When the councils were established, students entering the city’s schools were, according to research from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. That is no longer the case: Chicago students are posting higher graduation rates, with 69.4 percent of students graduating in the 2013-14 school year. And ACT college-entrance-exam scores are also up.
Today, the demographic mix in Chicago’s local school councils is more white than the district’s public school population.
SOURCE: Chicago Public Schools
Nationally, though, Chicago’s schools continue to lag behind those in other large urban systems. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Chicago’s 4th graders averaged 206 points (out of a possible 500) in reading in 2013, an improvement over its 2002 score, but still behind the 212-point average for other big-city districts. In 8th grade reading, the difference was narrower—253 points for Chicago, compared with 258 for other large districts.
In a 2011 report, the consortium’s researchers examined educational gains in the system across three eras of reform efforts: decentralization, the period that included the creation of the local school councils; accountability, beginning in 1995,; and diversification, characterized by the opening of contract and charter schools and a focus on literacy, math, and professional development for teachers during the tenure of district CEO Arne Duncan.
Graduation rates rose during decentralization and increased steadily under Mr. Duncan, who is now the U.S. Secretary of Education. Reading scores improved in the lower grades during the accountability era, while elementary and middle school math scores improved across all three periods, but remained low overall. Notably, African-American students lagged behind all other groups in key indicators during all three eras.
Consortium researchers refrained from opining on which initiatives led to specific outcomes.
“But we do know that at the time of decentralization, many schools across Chicago improved. There was a lot of involvement at the local level, especially in that early era, especially in the areas where you have more resources, less poverty, less crime,” said Elaine M. Allensworth, the executive director of the consortium.
Gery J. Chico, the chairman of the Illinois state board of education and the president of the Chicago board of education during part of the Richard M. Daley administration, said the councils deserved some credit for the improvements in the past 25 years.
"[The local school councils] are the ones who are choosing the leaders of particular schools, which is critical in my view,” Mr. Chico said, adding that councils can decide to spend dollars in specific areas, such as reading and math. “They set an overall tenor for the environment in the school building,” he said.
Period of Conflict
Mr. Chico presided over the district board during a fractious period between the school councils and the central administration. Mayor Daley, after gaining control, appointed Paul G. Vallas, his budget director, as the chief executive officer of the schools.
Advocates of the local school councils see mayoral control as an attempt to recentralize some of the authority the councils won in the 1988 law. The advent of mayoral control also brought a tenuous relationship between the central office and the school councils that continues to this day.
Those in favor of a strong central authority—including Mr. Chico—argue that if the mayor is being held responsible for school performance and overall improvement, he or she should have the requisite authority over the system.
School council members say that the councils perform a vital function, even though the education landscape has changed tremendously since 1989. They cite contributions that include improving facilities, reorganizing school priorities, and, most often, choosing principals who share their vision.
Atin the Norwood Park section of the city, Lisa A. Schwieger, the school council chairwoman, listed the recent hiring of a new principal; collaboration with the local alderman to obtain roughly $17 million to install new windows, purchase new student lockers, and repaint the facilities; and a change from a school uniform policy to a new student dress code as among the recent accomplishments.
With a few exceptions, voter turnout for Chicago’s local school council elections has been on a downward trajectory since the first elections were held in 1989.
SOURCE: Chicago Public Schools
Elections are a kind of barometer to gauge enthusiasm for the local school councils. In the councils’ inaugural year, 311,946 people voted for 17,096 candidates (seeking roughly 5,940 seats), and the numbers have been dropping steadily ever since. In 1996—the year after the mayor won control of the schools—voter participation increased, but then headed downward to where it stands today. () Many candidates run unopposed. Some win with a single vote. This year, the district couldn’t find a single parent-candidate in 86 schools—even after it extended the deadline, according to Catalyst Chicago.
The school system, through its, sees its role as limited to ensuring that the councils comply with the law. It provides technical support to the groups through training sessions, which cover various aspects of conducting meetings that comply with the state’s open-public-meetings law, understanding budgets, and evaluating and choosing principals.
The office is staffed by nine facilitators—a number that is woefully low to monitor 516 city school councils, according to Guillermo Montes de Oca, who runs the office.
“They are our partners,” Mr. Montes de Oca said of the local school councils. “The only way we can make sure they are effective is by providing support, in different ways.”
Some council members, though, say that the district does not treat them as partners in school improvement efforts and, at times, is an impediment.
Julie Woesterhoff, a former executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, or PURE, a 25-year-old advocacy group, has been critical of the district-provided training, arguing that an independent group should conduct those sessions. Others have criticized the overhaul of the principal-selection process, which since 2008 has required that principal résumés be forwarded to the district’s talent-management office instead of being sent directly to the councils.
“In the last few years, it seems like the people who are in power don’t really respect ... all of the stakeholders enough to sit down and say, ‘Hey, let’s have a conversation about what success is and what it looks like so we know what it looks like when we get there,’ ” said Jill Wohl, a former council member atand a board member of the group .
“Instead, schools get these blind directives to implement this test or implement this policy, and don’t ask questions,” she said.
Clarice Berry, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said the arbitration process is one thing she might change about the state law that created the councils, which she otherwise supports. In the 35 years she has been with the school system, no principal has successfully challenged a local council decision not to renew a contract, she said.
But, generally, she said, “the local school councils work well with their principals, and the principals work well with them.”
But that’s not necessarily a good thing, said Chester E. Finn, Jr., the president emeritus of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank. Parents and those close to the schools are less likely to spearhead the kind of radical overhaul necessary to dramatically improve outcomes in urban schools, Mr. Finn said.
“The kind of big-picture overhaul that a lot of urban districts need, and the radical turnarounds that a lot of really bad schools may need, also are the kinds of things that are in conflict with the LSC idea,” Mr. Finn said.
There are many reasons why the Chicago model may not have spread beyond the city, including a recognition that other state legislatures may be unwilling to change laws to devolve such expansive powers to parents and community, said Norm Fruchter, a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and a parental-involvement advocate. Mr. Fruchter thinks the pendulum is shifting once again as a backlash emerges to what he described as “corporate reform and corporate-foundation-dominated reform.” He points to the election last year of Bill de Blasio, a populist Democrat, as mayor of New York City—home to more than 1 million public school students, with the largest district in the country—as evidence.
Mr. Chico, the Illinois state board chairman, said that the school councils still have a role to play, despite their flaws.
“We still need engagement—not only by parents but the business community, by others who may not have children in the schools but still care deeply about the quality of the schools in their neighborhoods because they are a bellwether or barometer of how the neighborhood is doing,” Mr. Chico said. “But I think it will be wrong to just think that, by itself, [the school council system] is going to help a large urban district get where it wants to go.
“You still need strong leadership,” he added. “You need resources. ... You need a good plan, and, the most important thing you need in my view, are excellent teachers.”
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Power of Parents Tested by Changes in Chicago Schools