Parent Power in Chicago

Chicago Parents Struggle to Institute Radical New School Reforms

By Stan Karp

“This is what we were hollering about in the ’60s,” says teacher and union activist George Schmidt, speaking about the radical changes taking place in Chicago schools this year. “This is power to the people. This is community control.”

“This” is the Chicago school reform plan now settling—shaking might be a better word—into place as part of the most radical restructuring of an urban public school system in recent U.S. history. The plan is designed to turn around a school system that’s been labeled the worst in the country by drastically reducing the size and power of the central administration and putting over 500 parent-dominated local school councils in positions of real power. The reform unceremoniously strips every Chicago principal of tenure, gives local councils broad authority over curriculum and budgets, and empowers these councils to hire new principals (who will have vastly increased powers of their own). The plan includes provisions to increase spending on poor schools at the expense of the central bureaucracy, extend school choice programs, monitor accountability, and staff schools without regard to union seniority.

Even for those whose eyes glaze over when the news turns to education reform, the changes now under way in Chicago should grab attention. The Chicago plan will put to the test some of the most radical proposals being made in a period when the battle over the nation’s troubled schools has so many fronts it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening, let alone who’s winning. Moreover, in Chicago these battles will be fought not in the controlled environment of a few isolated experimental schools or programs, but in the day-to-day heat of big city politics, on a scale involving every one of the 540 schools in the nation’s third largest district, and with the active grassroots participation of tens of thousands of Chicago residents.

Roots of Reform

Many interests had a hand in shaping the Chicago plan, but the roots of the reform lie deep in the historic failure of public schools to make good on their democratic promises of educational opportunity and in the struggle of the victims of that failure to do something about it.

Chicago schools were tagged as the nation’s worst in the mid-80s by Education Secretary William Bennett whose quips were always better than his ideas. Bennett told a national audience that Chicago schools were “close to educational meltdown,” and there was lots of hard evidence to back him up. About 50 percent of the kids who enroll don’t graduate. Reading scores in nearly half the schools fall in the bottom 1% of the nation.

For years there’s been a long list of educational atrocity stories coming out of the Windy City. Between the mid-70s and mid-80s, for example, Chicago schools placed over 12,000 students (10,000 of them black) in classes for the mildly mentally retarded. When the system’s own consultants discovered that 60-80% of these kids weren’t retarded and didn’t belong there, a $10 million project was designed to correct the problem. But it returned only 30% of the students to the regular program, and support services for the transition were so inadequate that many failed or dropped out.

Overseeing these “factories for failure,” as one neighborhood group called Chicago schools, was a massive bureaucracy. The central office swelled to over 3,300 nonteaching personnel and swallowed up tens of millions of dollars in funds intended for the city’s many low-income students. While enrollment dropped almost 20% in the ten years before 1986, the central administration grew by nearly 50%, and was spending 20% more per pupil on administrative costs than districts elsewhere in the state.

The showcase school reforms instituted during the 1980s only made this bad situation worse. Higher graduation requirements and the standardized testing plague pushed more kids out the door. Instead of new and better educational programs, the higher standards were accompanied by funding cuts, drastically reducing aid from both state and federal sources. In 1979, the schools were declared fiscally bankrupt and a bank-dominated financial authority balanced the books on the backs of the city’s students, teachers and parents. Inequality and despair grew as even the best high schools in Chicago, where over 80% of the students are black or Latino, chalked up higher dropout rates and lower achievement scores than the worst high schools in the surrounding suburbs, where the student population is over 80% white.

Just as in the ’60s, when militant calls for educational change in poor communities came from parents mobilized by the struggles of the civil rights movement, the drive for radical reform in Chicago schools got a huge push from a broader mobilization: Harold Washington’s campaign for Mayor. In 1983, Washington carried a black-led urban coalition to victory against the white Democratic machine built by Richard Daley, Sr. Several years of turbulent political in-fighting followed, though for the schools little seemed to change except the color of some of the faces appointed to positions of power.

But Washington’s populist politics set him in opposition to the central office bureaucracy and made him an ally of reform. “The public schools are terrible,” the Mayor told one conference. “You may have heard that they were good in the good old days. Don’t you believe it. They were worse. They were worse for the black and poor communities than they are today. The difference is that the school population is 90% black and poor so the whole system is disrespected the way only a few of us were disrespected before.”

With Washington in office, community, academic and corporate reformers began to make headway. In 1985 the Illinois legislature passed an Urban School Improvement Act which set up local school improvement councils and gave them authority to write a school improvement plan that would be binding on principals and the Board of Education. But the power of the central board was unbroken and it stonewalled, evaded and ignored the reform efforts. The Act had little lasting impact.

Community and parent groups continued to organize, as did business and academic foundations alarmed at the deepening social disintegration represented by educational collapse. Corporate planners clearly associated rising gang activity, drugs and crime with school decay. The fact that 450,000 Chicago adults, including 44% of black adults and 56% of Latino adults, were functionally illiterate posed labor supply problems and had urban policy implications that one didn’t have to be a radical activist to worry about.

The 1987 Strike

But it was the ’87 teachers strike that really opened the political space for basic reform. The fourth and longest strike in five years, it was provoked by the central administration’s high-handed efforts to carry out the bankers’ austerity plans and it enraged parents as it dragged on. Equally important, the narrow, shortsighted positions of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership thoroughly alienated parent and community support. George Schmidt, a leader of the rank and file Teachers Action Caucus (TAC), recalls that the union lost all credibility by failing to address issues of concern to parents (e.g. class size, educational failure, community involvement) until it was too late. Because the “union failed to have vision,” by the time the strike ended there was intense hostility in Chicago neighborhoods towards both the CTU and the central board. This climate had a formative impact on the reform plans that emerged afterwards.

In the wake of the strike, Mayor Washington convened an “Education Summit” giving input to parent and community groups along with business representatives and others who’d been working for reforms. The summit was committed to coming up with a comprehensive plan in 180 days. Coalition groups like Chicagoans United to Reform Education (CURE) and parent advocacy groups like Designs for Change, stepped up their organizing and lobbying efforts. As Schmidt put it, “we were bouncing off the bottom,” and the need for fundamental changes was more obvious than ever.

The following spring comprehensive school reform was on the state legislature’s agenda. Reform lobbyists argued that setting up a local school council to run each school in a city like Chicago was really not much different from the system in many rural and suburban areas where community residents elected a board to oversee the schools. The average Chicago high school, for example, has an enrollment larger than three-quarters of the school districts in the state. Electing a local council for each school, reformers reasoned, would simply give to minority urban residents the same sort of access to school power that affluent white suburbanites already enjoyed.

It was in deciding the composition of these boards, however, that the divisions and rivalries of the recent past found
expression. The parent and community groups pressed for boards of six parents, two nonparent community residents, and two members elected from the school’s professional staff. Principals would also serve on the councils, though they’d have no voice in their own hiring or firing. (In high schools, students would also elect one nonvoting member.) The CTU naturally opposed this formula, as did the TAC and other progressive teachers. They wanted councils with teacher representation equal to that of parents.

But alliances of equality between groups have to be built, and in Chicago this hadn’t been done. One TAC statement summed up the situation: “Since the strike last fall, parents have been organizing around the city for school reform. They are right to do so because the present conditions in our schools are unacceptable. Unfortunately there is a strong anti-teacher and anti-union current in many of the proposed reforms. But our union bears some of the responsibility for that feeling in the community. If our union leadership had been actively, publicly and militantly fighting for quality schools we would now be in coalition with parents—not fighting them over who will control the local school….”

The union’s failure to build the necessary alliances left it isolated and exposed. The Illinois legislature was about to institute a law giving parents real administrative and fiscal power—not just the usual advisory or supportive role—and on a broader, more comprehensive scale than had ever been tried. The chief sponsors were business representatives, community and parent advocates and Illinois legislators, many with anti-union records. The parent majority on the councils was written into the bill.

It still took considerable public pressure to push the reform through. A coalition which had grown steadily more adept at rallying and focusing public support for reform with slogans like “Chop the Top” and “Don’t Come Home Without It,” bused parents to the state capitol at Springfield and haunted legislative offices. Corporate sponsors provided funds and clout. Several parents held a three-day vigil at the state capitol where they rolled up 11,456 diplomas—representing one year of dropouts from Chicago schools—and piled them high on the capitol steps. Pressure on legislators grew and in July ’88 the reform finally passed

Councils Take Shape

For many it was only as the law began to go into effect throughout 1989 that the magnitude of its impact became clear:

  • The Board of Education was replaced by an interim body (appointed by new Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Jr.) whose main charge was to set the reform in motion. It would eventually be replaced by a board to be selected from a list of nominees generated by the new local school council structure.
  • More than 500 central administration positions were to be cut by the time the 1989 school year began. Statutory restrictions on central office spending were to provide $40 million to the local school councils to support the reform.
  • Nomination and election processes were set up to elect over 5,000 local school council members to two-year terms. Parent and community training projects were started to familiarize potential council members with the provisions of the new law, and the powers and responsibilities of the new councils.
  • A lottery system was devised whereby one-half of all principals would lose their positions on June 30, 1990 and the remainder on June 30, 1991. Incumbent principal can apply for their former jobs, but the councils are free to hire anyone who meets state certification requirements. New principals are to be hired on a four-year “performance contract” and be accountable to the local school councils. (Legal challenges to this provision by the principals union were overturned by a judge who called Chicago “an educational wasteland” and let the law stand.)
  • Some $240 million in state funds earmarked for low income schools but repeatedly swallowed up by the central administration or dissolved into general funds began to go directly to the targeted areas.
  • Teachers and other professional school staff are responsible for constituting Professional Personnel Advisory Committees (PPACs). These vaguely defined bodies, which are something of a wild card in the new reform (see below), could be a key element in whether the entire plan succeeds or fails.
  • Under the new system, teachers deemed incompetent can be removed from the classroom after 45 days, a far shorter period than previously mandated.
  • Teachers who lose their positions due to declining enrollment or other causes no longer have a seniority claim on positions in other schools. Though tenured teachers are guaranteed employment in some capacity by the system, those who lose their slots can be thrown into a sort of limbo without specific assignments.
  • Study committees have been set up to recommend changes in teacher-training programs and school choice options. Within three years of the law’s effect, parents will have the right to seek placement for their kids in schools outside the residentially assigned neighborhood school.
  • Although the funds to ensure it were not part of the law, provisions were passed calling for a reduction of class size which often runs in the high 30s—to state averages and the institution as soon as possible of public schooling for four year-olds.

Once the law took effect in May, the first key test of how it would actually work was the election of the local school councils (LSCs). To encourage thousands of parents and community members to participate in an educational system that had systematically discouraged their involvement in the past, the process was opened up in ways unheard of for a big city, let alone one with the legendary machine politics of Chicago. Anyone who filled out a simple form could run for a council seat. Anyone who was eighteen or older could vote without preregistration and without citizenship or language barriers. Campaign and training materials were printed in both English and Spanish.

Participants were encouraged to “vote early and often” and, for once, this was legal. Residents could vote twice, at both their local elementary and high schools. Parents could vote for parent representatives at each child’s school and then again for the community members from their area. Teachers could vote for staff members in their schools, and vote again if they were parents or city residents. Corporate sponsors poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into publicity and training sessions and, in at least a few cases, encouraged employees to run by pledging time off for council service.

Seventeen thousand Chicago parents and community residents answered the call by becoming candidates. Fewer than a dozen schools had problems fielding a complete slate. The elections were put into place so quickly and the unprecedented process was so open that, with only a few exceptions, none of the organized political institutions that might have tried to dominate the elections—the Democratic Party ward machines, the CTU, the administrators association, etc.—managed to do so.

Church groups, grassroots community organizations and local neighborhood machines-on-the-make did mobilize, but the slates that formed hardly compromised the open, democratic character of the elections. Energy usually reserved for heated state or national races was poured into contests for school council posts. As Cyrus Driver, a training coordinator, told one reporter, “People are used to knocking on doors for someone else running for citywide office. Now they’re knocking on doors for themselves.” Dan Solis, executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization, said, “This is going to be the largest experiment in grassroots democracy the country has ever seen. We have a community with a large number of people who are not citizens, who have been intimidated for years because their English wasn’t that good, who are now suddenly able to leapfrog into the system into positions with real power.” And Don Moore, head of Designs for Change, one of the primary reform lobbies, saw the councils as just a beginning: “We’re talking about broadening of democratic and voting rights in a way that’s unprecedented in a big city. I see these councils becoming a base for a level of activism in the neighborhood around a lot of issues.”

The elections held in October were as legitimate as U.S. elections get. Though the reported 30% turnout was less than the 50% optimists hoped for, it was considerably larger than the dismal average for school board elections even in wealthy suburban districts. Turnouts in poor African American and Latino areas were equal to or better than those in other areas.

There were some problems, of course: one candidate illegally had his name put on the ballot for 23 different magnet high schools; in some places winning candidates represented hundreds of voters, in others only a few dozen, and a few machine politicians did slide into council seats. But these problems were largely isolated incidents.

More significant was evidence of racial polarization, which left some veteran activist white teachers out in the cold at all black schools and led some parent councilmembers to talk about getting rid of all white teachers in minority areas. While this polarization does not yet approach the bitterness that has poisoned other community control struggles, for example those in New York City, there’s no question that given Chicago’s history of segregation, racism, and inequality, racial divisions pose a serious long-term obstacle to the plan’s ultimate success.

The councils’ first tasks were to organize themselves, choose one of the parent members as president and begin learning the nuts and bolts of setting school policy under the new law. The reform calls on each council to prepare a three-year school improvement plan that assesses the school’s strengths and weaknesses and sets out a direction for curriculum, staff development, cutting dropout and absentee rates, and other educational issues. While some local councils have already begun to dispense discretionary funds without the approval of higher-ups, real school-based budgeting based on “lump-sum” allocations tied to enrollment will begin next year. Sub-district councils, designed to pool resources and share information among schools, will be constituted by choosing one parent or community member from each LSC. And, of course, the councils will begin to consider hiring principals to implement their plans.

The authority of these new principals will be increased in several telling ways. The hiring of teachers and other staff, long a bureaucratized central office procedure, will become the preserve of the principal who can interview and appoint applicants at his/her discretion without regard to seniority. New or old teachers rated unsatisfactory by principals can be dismissed after a 45-day “remediation period.” Custodians and foodservice managers are now responsible to principals and obliged to carry out all “reasonable orders.” In general, the principal is responsible for administering the budget, managing daily affairs, and carrying out the school improvement plan.

As for teachers, their position is more uncertain, though it is strengthened in some ways compared to the old system. Teachers have two seats reserved on the local councils, a position of considerably greater influence than exists on most school boards. Teachers are also called upon to constitute Professional Personnel Advisory Committees in each school. The size and specific make-up of these bodies is left to the discretion of each staff; in some places PPACs may be small committees dominated by appointees of the principal, in others they may be democratically elected representatives of the teachers or even assemblies of the whole school staff. However, by contrast to the prominent parent and community roles written into the reform statutes, the PPACs are “advisory” bodies whose exact role is vague. At best, the PPACs could become key links in the reform process, providing schools with the day-to-day in-school body needed to really engage and support teachers in the effort to transform educational practice. They could, if cooperatively integrated with the LSCs, help build a parent-teacher-community alliance that does not now exist. On the other hand, the PPACs could become the sort of lifeless paper bodies that parents were offered for so many years or, worse, centers of defensive hostility to the new reform. The PPACs are an unknown quantity, and in the words of George Schmidt “will have to earn their merit badges.” This uncertainty reflects another potential obstacle to the plan’s success.

Parents and Teachers: Allies or Antagonists?

Conflicts between parent and teacher groups are common and probably inevitable in community control struggles. It was Albert Shanker’s intense hostility to parent power that led the United Federation of Teachers into the notorious strike against New York City’s Oceanhill-Brownsville community control experiment in the late ’60s. While such conflicts can be traced in large part to racial tension between black and Latino communities and largely white teachers unions, there are other complicated issues involved as well. Uppermost among these is the issue of just whose power should be increased once existing arrangements are recognized as ineffective and intolerable. The revival of interest in “school governance reforms,” of which the Chicago plan is just the most radical example, is once again posing questions about what combination of “teacher empowerment” and “community control” can revitalize failing school systems.

Although teachers organizations and parent groups have not often succeeded in forming a radical alliance, there’s little hope of improving schools without one. Addressing the deep social problems gripping urban schools without a broad political and social mobilization of the communities they’re located in is simply not possible. In fact the failure to make this connection is one of the reasons most of the highly publicized reforms of the ’80s won’t amount to much. Nor is it an accident that real possibilities for changing the schools are most likely to arise in areas where broader mobilizations like the Harold Washington campaign or civil rights struggles have occurred.

When it comes to schools, community mobilization means giving parents real decision-making power, the kind embodied in the Chicago plan, and not just advisory or supportive roles. At the same time if parent and community power is instituted against, rather than in alliance with the teachers inside the school buildings it will just as certainly fail to produce positive results. An aggressive “you-work-for-us” attitude on the part of parent boards grossly distorts the social character of existing educational institutions, no matter what the degree of community input. It’s also counterproductive. Teachers have important information and insights about how kids learn that parents often don’t have. What’s more, recalcitrant teachers who see themselves as besieged employees under attack can and will effectively subvert any plans for progressive school change.

Attempts by crusading parent boards to make wholesale changes in teaching staffs in the name of reform are as likely to lead to purges and patronage scandals as they are to better schools. Just as teachers in the classroom need a community alliance to win the necessary educational resources, to motivate students and sustain their educational commitment, and to turn schools into institutions that truly serve urban communities instead of just occupying them, so too parents need a partnership with teachers to prevent any newly won powers from becoming just another bureaucratic layer in a system that doesn’t work.

Initially, Chicago parents pushed for a parent-community majority on the councils in part because they feared that teachers would be creatures of the principal who supervises them or of the hostile union that formally represents them. Yet without a supportive alliance with teachers, it’s equally possible for parent-community boards to themselves become the creatures of powerful administrators intent on instituting management systems and educational programs that are not much more effective than existing ones.

In fact, the greatly strengthened role of principals, while an understandable outcome of a struggle against a bureaucracy that was both suffocating and maddeningly unaccountable for its failures, nevertheless holds the seeds of new problems. Since parents will bring to the boards limited experience and information, and since the turnover of parents is likely to be fairly rapid (certainly more rapid than the turnover of teachers), the possibility of skilled professional administrators becoming the primary source of information and direction, and dominating parent boards is very real. Radical school reforms that seek to make schools more representative, more democratic institutions should consider alternatives to the “chief executive-board of directors model” to which some have compared the principal-LSC arrangement. Radical plans might let the staff elect its supervisors or choose from several nominees. School management by committees, or by teachers rotating in administrative jobs might allow for more collective and democratic, and perhaps even more effective, school management than the domination of a single principal. Just as reformers seeking new definitions of effective schooling are going to have to experiment with methods of pupil assessment that get beyond the usual standardized tests, so too, reforms of school governance will have to get beyond a fixation with powerful principals in the name of accountability.

Supply-Side Schooling?

In fact behind a certain entrepreneurial focus on the principal’s role lies an agenda quite different from that of parents concerned about their kids’ education. Some of the corporate and academic planners who helped to push the reform through the Illinois legislature want to break up centralized public education systems entirely. They want a voucher-driven, privatized choice system in which schools deliver education services on a cash basis to students and parents (who are seen as customers, rather than owners of educational institutions).

Last June, three influential policymakers, including Michael J. Bakalis, Dean of Education at Loyola and a major participant in advancing the Chicago reform legislation, wrote a glowing account of the plan in the education journal Phi Delta Kappan. The authors gave a misty-eyed account of where this could all lead in the future. “An even bolder step may be in the offing in Chicago,” they wrote, “and in other districts: education rebates. Education rebates would increase competition between the private and the public schools…Rebates would also allow taxpayers to exercise individual control over part of the taxes they normally pay to support the Chicago Public Schools. Any taxpayer (parent or nonparent) who makes tuition payments to any registered school in Chicago (public or private) would qualify for a property tax refund. Thus more than one taxpayer could contribute toward the educational expenses of a particular child. Parents could solicit the help of friends and relatives to make tuition payments and those friends and relatives would receive rebates. Businesses could also participate by contributing up to 10% of their previous year’s property tax bill to the schools of their choice.” The authors conclude this supply-side fantasy by noting: “Our recommendation for education rebates is consistent with a worldwide tendency toward privatization and the ‘contracting out’ of public services to private firms. The great bulk of studies show that, other factors being equal, private organizations perform significantly better on average and at a lower cost. For this reason, many states and cities are now experimenting with private prisons, police forces and fire protection.”

This, of course, is a formula for making universal public education a fading memory. It’s part of a drive to dismantle social services, privatize them and leave basic human needs to the inequitable mechanisms of the capitalist market. Education budgets, the only government spending citizens get to vote on in many communities, have always been fair game for sacrifice at the altar of the angry property tax payer. But today’s zealous right-wing planners see education reform as a foothold for new and larger designs. (On the other hand, don’t hold your breath until one of them suggests giving you discretionary power over the part of your taxes that goes to the military. Imagine a voucher system that lets you decide whether the Pentagon or the Sandinistas get your tax dollars for “defense.”)

To be sure, the Chicago plan doesn’t necessarily lead down this road, but knowing where some of its major sponsors want to steer it is important. Decentralization, local initiative, choice plans and community control—or for that matter “teacher empowerment”—can become elements in a strategy to break union power, set groups against one another, replace old layers of bureaucracy with new ones and create a “modernized” school system that’s more efficient at producing labor power and sorting social groups, but no more just, equitable or democratic. As one neighborhood manifesto put it during the struggle for reform: “The solution is not to repackage disrespect in smaller packages by some method of decentralization. If you are receiving a notice that you don’t have a place in the human race, it doesn’t matter how large or small the envelope is—the message is the same. The solution is to change the basic assumption that underlies factories of failure and turn them into centers of opportunity where people believe that the entire next generation can lead successful, productive, creative lives in a society based on reason and fairness.” Supporters may be right in claiming that even if the reform does nothing but break the power of the central administration it’s a step in the right direction. But they still need to keep the big picture, and the aims and interests of all contesting groups clearly before the public eye.

None of the potential problems, of course, is any reason for standing on the sidelines and watching while the most important attempt at community control in recent history is played out. If it fails, it will be used as an excuse to defeat grassroots control in other cities. If it develops in the direction of inequality and privatization, it will mean disaster for still more generations of urban youth. These possibilities only make a teacher-parent- community alliance to keep the reform on a progressive track that much more pressing. It means that in Chicago, as in so many other places where school reform is on the table, if progressive activists don’t take advantage of the openings that reform provides to make schools better and more democratic, other powerful interests will step in with an entirely different set of objectives. The Chicago school reform may well bring some “power to the people,” but, as usual, it will depend on just how alert and how organized “the people” are.

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