The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
GOP clears field, Daley runs with the ball
What a difference three months make.
As state lawmakers left Springfield in May, Mayor Richard M. Daley was complaining. The General Assembly had given him vast new powers to reshape the city's schools, but it had not given him any money to get them open in the fall.
Today, the mayor can be forgiven a Cheshire-cat smile: The takeover team he sent to Pershing Road not only overcame a $150 million deficit for this school year, but also erased far larger deficits forecast for the future. In addition, it wove teacher raises, new schools and new programs into the budget for several years running.
Mayor Daley gets Republican help
As it turned out, the Republican-inspired school legislation was as good as gold: It gave the new School Reform Board of Trustees the wherewithal to solve its own financial crisis, and then some. (For details, see related story.)
"Pate may turn out to be Chicago's best friend," quips James Nowlan, a former Republican lawmaker who is now at the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
Nowlan was referring to notorious Chicago-basher James "Pate" Philip, a Wood Dale Republican who is president of the Illinois Senate.
Nowlan and others reason that only Republicans could give Daley what he needed and wanted—for example, freedom to tap teacher pension funds and to fire unionized blue-collar workers.
"Chicago [legislators] couldn't agree among themselves to hit at the unions and to make the other necessary moves because of the existing political culture," Nowlan explains.
"I think there are a lot of things Daley wanted but wasn't able to advocate due to political considerations," agrees Al Grosboll, Gov. Jim Edgar's top aide on Chicago school reform. "In the final analysis, he got most of what he wanted, short of a huge infusion of state dollars."
And while Daley and union officials have claimed that Daley was out of the loop in drafting the legislation, several knowledgeable sources say the city administration played a major role.
"When Edgar's folks were trying to put together the plan, the staff didn't know how," relates one Springfield observer. "They called on a third party, a student of government, who advised that the mayor's office would know. It was actually his [the mayor's] staff people who did it."
Also, business organizations such as Chicago United and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club acted as intermediaries between Daley and Republican leaders.
"The business community certainly helped us convey the message to the Republicans that we wanted certain provisions, like rolling property-tax funds together and [state] block grants," acknowledges Diane Aigotti, the mayor's point person on the school legislation and now his budget director.
Aigotti insists that most of the legislation was crafted by Republicans without input from the mayor's office. But given the Daley Administration's lightning response, many school observers believe the mayor and his staff were more involved than they are willing to admit publicly.
"I think that's probably true," says Carolyn Nordstrom, president of Chicago United. "We worked very closely with the mayor's office, the governor's office and legislators in crafting the governance pieces."
Nowlan also believes that Daley benefitted from the competition for leadership among Edgar, Philip and House Majority Leader Lee Daniels (R-Elmhurst).
"Edgar wanted to beat legislative leaders to the punch with a proposal," says Nowlan. "Philip and Daniels were distressed that Edgar stole their thunder. But my guess is, they all agreed pretty much on the outlines—limited teacher union influence in the process, more authority to principals, forced cost reductions and giving the mayor authority and responsibility."
New accountability network
Chicago mayors traditionally have held the school system at arms length, involving themselves only in union contracts. "However, Daley had no choice," says Paul Green, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration at Governors State University. "He could have side-stepped direct school governance, like all mayors have done, and left controls in the hands of a luminary superintendent. But without local accountability, the Legislature isn't going to fund the system."
While some legislators clearly wanted to get the Chicago school system off their backs, many "think the new law makes sense in terms of accountability and authority," Green adds. "But they didn't expect Daley to successfully run with it."
The Chicago Teachers Union took some hard knocks from lawmakers, but it, too, likes direct accountability. "We've been seeking accountability, and now maybe we'll get it," says union spokesperson Jackie Gallagher. "What we had before was a board with no constituency, which enabled someone like Sharon Grant to say that she was 'doing it for the kids.' She was accountable to no one."
Grant, who was president of the old board, recently pleaded guilty to income-tax evasion; in addition, she's under investigation for alleged conflicts of interest and using her influence to arrange board contracts.
"The new board has to answer to the mayor, and that's a healthy move," Gallagher says.
Under the 1988 reform legislation, the mayor had to choose from nominees submitted by a grass-roots committee, which repeatedly gave him candidates he didn't want.
And while the new legislation puts severe limits on CTU power, Daley hasn't taken advantage of them. For example, to the consternation of many school principals and reform activists, the new board voted to continue teacher seniority rights as a matter of policy.
Asked whether there was a quid pro quo for the seniority-rights vote, Gallagher says, "There was no quid pro quo. It was just a case of us coming together to hit back at the Republicans."
Meanwhile, the CTU is challenging the offending sections of the law in court. (See related story.) "This isn't the time for direct action," Gallagher adds. "It wouldn't be good tactics and would probably have a negative reaction among the voters."
Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, notes that since the union no longer can get its way in Springfield, it can't afford to alienate Daley. The mayor, he adds, will accommodate the union whenever he can to bolster those political ties.
Technocrats take charge
Daley's public contribution to this new phase of school reform has been to put a team of politically savvy technocrats in charge. The new chief executive officer, for example, is his highly-regarded budget director, Paul Vallas.
"Maybe Daley's team will be the implementers, where the educators were only the dreamers of reform," says Green. "This is a policy issue for them—not a religious issue. They don't go to education conferences. They are involved in budgets, personnel matters and what needs to be done."
Green is not optimistic about success, however. "Two or three years from now, Daley will be attacked not on administration, but on [educational] results," he predicts.
Former Supt. Manford Byrd, who opposed the decentralization thrust of school reform, is skeptical, too. "If you go back and read the press clippings about Daley's Interim Board, the media was saying the same things then," he observes. "There was the same kind of glowing reports: 'They're moving quickly. They're acting decisively. They settled the union contract.' But the verdict was in too soon."
In hindsight, even school reform leaders view the Interim Board, appointed by Daley to serve until the new nominating process was in place, as having caused as many problems as it solved.
Besides, adds Byrd, "Any superintendent could have done these things [e.g. balance the budget] quickly with a law that wiped out all the impediments, like due process, the School Finance Authority and not being able to intermingle funds."
School reform activists counter, however, that past superintendents never willingly cut the bureaucracy. In any event, Chicago's new school management team is being closely watched by school activists and politicians in big cities across the country.
"They say that if it works for us, they may try it themselves," relates Warren Chapman, a program officer at The Joyce Foundation, which is promoting school reform in a number of Midwestern cities.
And the Aug. 7 issue of Newsweek reports: "From Chicago to Boston, impatient big-city leaders with shrinking resources are fed up with the educators who traditionally serve as superintendents. They hope to replace the bureaucrats with financial wizards—or, in Seattle's case, a former Pentagon aide—who can whip school budgets into shape."
Not surprisingly, Byrd is critical of the emerging trend. "It is only happening in the poor, urban school systems populated by poor and minority students," he notes. "It's about politics and controlling expenses, not education."
Potpourri of plans
In the educational arena, the new regime has pieced together a playbook that reflects the spectrum of school reform in Chicago.
It plans to open alternative schools for violent youths and dropouts, long on the agenda of the Chicago Teachers Union. In conjunction with the CTU, it is developing a system of peer review for teachers.
It has adopted "performance assessment" from the progressive agenda. But it also wants standardized test scores to play a role in teacher evaluation, a conservative cause. With foundation money, it's moving ahead with the development of new paper-and-pencil tests as well as performance assessments.
Ignoring the most ardent decentralizers, the new regime has created regional offices to replace subdistrict offices and given the regions substantial responsibilities.
However, James Deanes, a persistent Daley critic who had championed the subdistricts, contends that the regions are "being set up to fail." They have twice the number of schools but only half the staff, he explains.
With Mayor Daley himself taking the lead, the new school team is touting small schools, a favorite of reformers of just about every stripe.
The new team has added some educational items of its own, most notably an as-yet-undefined "back to basics" program for some of the city's lowest achieving schools. That initiative, along with a pot of money for school security devices, reflects public opinion polls showing that parents and the general public put safe schools and the Three R's at the top of their agendas.
Complaints/cheers for new system
Like most school reform leaders, Sheila Castillo is uneasy about the new arrangement even though the new law gave reformers much of what they wanted, too. "We still depend on the good will of those people who are wielding the power," explains Castillo, coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils.
Although she likes what CEO Vallas and Board President Gery Chico are saying about support for local school councils, Castillo is concerned about follow-through. "We want to make recommendations on the Lump-sum Budgeting Committee, but the committee met twice before LSC members became part of it," she says. "I think we have more chance for decision making now than we did before, but we've also heard Vallas say that he doesn't want LSCs messing around with curriculum. So, we'll have to wait and see."
Other reformers are quietly complaining about a number of developments, including elimination of the Office of Reform, the cutback in African-American males in top leadership, and the declining influence of educators.
However, the new team's extraordinary openness has all but silenced criticism. For example, parent organizer Bernie Noven, who had been a pariah to previous administrations, got an immediate audience with the board chair and several top administrators to discuss lead abatement in schools. "In the past, we have gone to [former Deputy Supt.] Robert Johnson, who just waved us off and wouldn't acknowledge us," says Noven.
CEO Vallas also quickly set up a meeting to discuss another concern of Noven's group, Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). "This is a big difference from the old system," he observes.
Even Deanes got a prompt promise to fix up the exterior of Austin High School, where he is helping with the remediation effort.
Jay Mulberry, principal of Jacqueline Vaughn Occupational High School, reports that Larry Gorski, a consultant on special education, already has visited the school and met with parents. The old board voted to close the school, but Vaughn won a reprieve in court.
Mulberry expressed regret that the new administration fired "some good people," but he says he's "impressed by their seriousness and intelligence. . . . They mean to do something. Where it's questionable is, what's going to happen with education? After all, this isn't just about management, but about education."