Court Throws a Curve At Chicago School Reform

By Stan Karp

Chicago’s radical school reform program, temporarily derailed by a court ruling that overturned the electoral process used to create some 500 parent-dominated local school councils, is back on track again. But important questions remain about just where the nation’s most ambitious experiment in restructuring public school power is headed.

Last November, the Illinois Supreme Court found that the voting procedures used to create local school councils (LSCs) at each of Chicago’s 540 public schools were unconstitutional. These councils, made up of six parents, two community residents and two members of each school’s professional staff, were the foundation of the school reform plan. Members had been elected to two-year terms in the fall of 1989. The LSCs were given extensive authority to develop school improvement plans, hire and fire principals, and draw up budgets. Their creation reflected a massive community mobilization and was a huge step toward the decentralization of school power. (see Rethinking Schools, Vol. 4, No. 3, March/ April 1990)

Suit Brought by Principals

But the legitimacy of the entire reform law, and by implication the councils’ authority, was challenged in a suit brought by the Chicago Principals Association. The same reform law that authorized the creation of the councils had stripped principals of their tenure and the Association hoped to restore it by challenging the reform on a variety of grounds.

In handing down its decision the Court rejected the heart of the principals’ case. It ruled that the state legislature did not violate “due process” in revoking principal tenure and investing authority in the councils, which the court called “the indispensable foundation of the school system.”

Instead, the court found that the weighted voting system used to create the councils, whereby parents voted for six parent members while other residents voted for two community seats, was a violation of constitutional standards requiring one person, one vote. The court didn’t challenge the make-up of the LSCs themselves, but it reasoned that the voting system gave too much weight to the votes of parents at the expense of other residents. “Although a parent’s interest in the quality of the school his or her child attends is clearly identifiable,” the Court said, “it is not an exclusive interest. A school is not an island within the community; it is an integral part of the whole city.” The Court ordered the legislature to devise a new electoral process for choosing LSC members.

There was considerable confusion in the wake of the court’s ruling and, initially, many council members were put on the defensive. Doubts were raised about the legitimacy of LSC actions already taken and whether the councils could continue to function and move forward with school-based budgeting and the next round of principal hirings scheduled for this year.

There was also uncertainty about whether the decision would throw open the entire reform law to reconsideration. Though the Court had clearly dismissed the principals’ arguments about tenure, the Association attempted to portray the ruling as a victory and promised more lawsuits from the 71 principals not rehired by LSCs last year.

Legislature Responds Swiftly

Some measure of stability was restored, however, when the most immediately pressing issues were addressed by the Illinois legislature in January. Urged to act quickly by LSC members and parent advocates, the legislature passed a bill validating previous acts of the LSCs and authorizing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to reappoint all current council members to their positions for the remainder of their terms. The measure also required the legislature to devise new voting procedures by July 1.

Although many LSC supporters would have liked to resolve the voting issue right away and avoid a new debate on amending the law, they still saw the legislature’s response as a positive step. It reaffirmed the legitimacy of the councils and allowed them to refocus their attention on school issues. And the mobilization of LSC supporters in a successful lobbying campaign helped restore their momentum. As Sue Davenport of the education advocacy group Designs for Change explained, the experience left parents and other LSC members with “a better understanding of the dynamics of people who are trying to take their power away. Council members seem very determined and ready to keep on marching.”

Still, the battle is far from over. Between now and July 1 the legislature must decide how to address the Court’s objections to the voting process and whether to use this opening to make broader changes in the reform. Davenport expects “a replay of what’s been happening since the law was passed, which is that the forces who lost, like the principals, the subdistrict superintendents, and the central office are basically looking for any way they can to strengthen their position and to weaken the power of the local school councils.”

The narrow focus will be on revising the voting procedures themselves. An obvious remedy would simply be to allow residents to vote for parent candidates and vice versa. Some have expressed concern that more generalized voting might dilute the parents’ power and leave elections more vulnerable to the influence of political machines that can deliver large blocs of votes. Others are confident that as long as parents retain their majority on the LSCs their power is safeguarded.

While the Court’s objections to the voting scheme centered on the imbalance between parents and nonparent residents, it may also be necessary to change the way the two teacher or professional staff representatives on each LSC are chosen. Instead of opening up these seats to voting by the general electorate, some have suggested that each school staff could continue to choose its own teacher representatives, as before, and then have their choices certified or ratified by the citywide Board of Education. (Having such LSC members “appointed” in this way by officials who are themselves elected would satisfy the Court’s legal objections.) There also will have to be some new provisions made for LSCs at “magnets” and other multi-district schools which effectively draw upon the entire city.

Long-range Outcome of Ruling Unclear

At any rate, administrative and procedural adjustments that would meet the Court’s objections are clearly within reach. The more significant issue is whether the ruling will be seized upon to push for more extensive changes in the reform. The inability to agree easily on a new electoral system in January reflected, in part, the intention of some forces to seek such changes.

These efforts could involve attempts to recentralize authority or restore cuts made in central office staff and administrative resources. (In the first year of the reform’s operation, Designs for Change says more than 1500 administrative jobs were eliminated, a 31% reduction in the size of the central administrative staff.) Other steps backward could involve attempts to restrict the budgetary or oversight power of the councils or even redefine the make-up of the councils themselves.

Chicago Decentralization Goes Farther Than Others

In less than two years, the Chicago reform plan has established itself as the most radical experiment in school governance in the nation’s history. It goes considerably farther than other school-based management or decentralization reforms.

For example, Miami’s highly publicized school-based management reforms have involved very little participation, and even less exercise of real power, by parents. New York City’s 1969 decentralization plan created “local community districts” that are still bigger than 98% of the school systems in the country. By contrast, the Chicago reform has put over 5400 parents, teachers and residents in positions of real authority and created school councils focused on small units serving an average of just 744 students.

A Designs for Change analysis also shows that the councils are “overall reflective of the student composition of the school system, except that Hispanic and Asian members are somewhat underrepresented and white members are significantly overrepresented.” The report found that 59% of the students and 55% of LSC members are African Americans; Latinos make up 26% of the students and fill 17% of LSC seats. Whites account for 12% of the student population and 26% of LSC posts. By comparison, blacks and Latinos nationwide make up over 26% of the student population, but hold only 6% of all school board seats.

During the first round of principal hiring last year, the Principals’ Association tried to make a racial issue out of the decision by a small number of LSCs with black and Latino majorities not to retain white principals. But this effort was undercut by a Designs for Change analysis showing that in 1990 over 80% of all principals citywide were retained, and “white principals with majority Hispanic and racially-mixed LSCs were retained at rates above the systemwide average retention rate.”

Some critics have contended that though the Chicago reform is strong on school governance and community involvement, it is less dramatically progressive on issues of curriculum reform, teacher empowerment and classroom change. Designs for Change’s Sue Davenport disagrees. “It’s a very false dichotomy from the beginning,” she argues. “You simply cannot make decisions about who your principal is, what your school curriculum should be and how to spend your money without considering the educational aspects of it.”

Teachers’ Role Still a Question

A “Teachers Task Force” of the citywide Committee for School Reform has been formed to strengthen the teachers’ role in reform and coordinate efforts to make the Professional Personnel Advisory Committees called for in each school more effective. In the reform law, the PPACs were vaguely defined “advisory” bodies whose exact form and activities were not spelled out. How effective PPACs will be in integrating teachers into the reform process remains a key question. The narrowly conservative polices of the Chicago Teachers Union and its lack of community/parent support helped marginalize teachers’ influence during the time the reform was being shaped; the CTU originally opposed the overall plan as weighted too heavily toward parents at the expense of teachers. Whether the PPACs can help fill the void left by the CTU’s shortcomings and create the kind of vital, energized organizing among teachers that will be needed to make the reform a success remains to be seen.

Earlier this year, one telephone survey of about 100 schools found that nearly all had PPAC meetings once a month or more often. Many of the teacher representatives on the Local School Councils were also active in the PPACs. Davenport points to a variety of evidence suggesting a new climate of support for teacher initiatives, including principals redrawing the school day to make meeting time available, curriculum innovations like the Bob Moses’s Algebra Project instituted at several schools, and a general atmosphere encouraging teachers to get together to make change. “There are all these windows open in a system that hasn’t had any air for years,” she says.

It took decades of decline and a growing sense of desperation to bring Chicago public schools to the point where radical reform was recognized as the only hope. Even now many of the social and economic problems plaguing the schools go well beyond the reach of school reform alone, no matter how radical. Still, a fresh breeze is blowing through schools in the Windy City and educational activists hope it keeps moving in the right direction.

Stan Karp teaches English and Journalism at J.F.K. High School in Patterson, New Jersey.