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Chicago school reform defies conventional wisdom


It's far too early to tell whether Chicago's school reform program actually will reform the schools, but it already has demolished a lot of conventional wisdom. We all know, for example, that the Illinois General Assembly never breaks new ground, always waiting to adopt an idea until after it has been tested in at least a dozen states.

But no other state has anything like the revolutionary school reform law Illinois legislators passed last June, turning over control of Chicago's 540 schools to elected local councils. Every educator in the nation, it seems, is watching breathlessly to see how it works. A front-page story in the New York Times quoted Stanford University Professor Michael Kirst as saying: "If it fails, there will be very little interest anywhere else. If it works, it will be a beacon for the country."

We all know that Chicago business people long ago stopped getting involved in public policy; so many of them live in the suburbs and work for international conglomerates. They have little interest in what goes on in the city. Yet many of the city's biggest employers — companies such as AT&T, United Airlines and Sears Roebuck — pushed for school reform and encouraged their employees to run for school councils. Apparently, they really are concerned about maintaining an educated workforce.

We all knew that Chicagoans were apathetic about their schools. Yet more than 17,000 candidates ended up running for 5,400 slots last October.

We all knew that Chicago politicians would attempt to take control of the local school councils, but that didn't happen either. Each council will hire the principal and spend an average of $90,000 this year on programs of its choice, but that's too few jobs and contracts to interest even the smallest Chicago pol.

Finally, we all knew the councils would be beaten into submission by the educational bureaucrats and unions, which have run the school system for their own purposes (having little to do with education) for years. On this count, there's a depressing likelihood that the conventional wisdom may be right. The councils already have had trouble getting the simplest questions answered by the swarms of administrators, coordinators, facilitators , deputy assistant superintendents and assistant deputy superintendents who populate the Board of Education's sprawling administrative complex on Pershing Road.

And shortly after they took office council members received an unpleasant surprise, courtesy of the building engineers' union. Under union rules, nobody can use a school in the evening unless a building engineer (what we used to call a janitor) is present — at a cost of $162 a night in overtime. The Board of Education has only enough money for two evening meetings a year, so the school council —incredibly — will have to hold most of their meetings outside the school.

The bureaucrats and unions undoubtedly will find other ways to keep from surrendering their power to the local councils. After all, they've humbled a succession of superintendents and school boards over the years and they're not about to let a bunch of mere parents push them around. Each council comprises six parents, two non-parents living near the school, two teachers and the principal.

But don't bet against reform quite yet. In the struggle between the amateurs on the local councils and the "experts" on Pershing Road, most of the public is likely to sympathize with the amateurs. They've had it up to here with professional educators who communicate in at penetrable jargon, trying to turn education to an arcane science that only they can understand.

The educationists might have gotten away with it, except for one problem: the schools weren't working. The children weren't learning anything. So the amateurs are trying to take control away from the professionals. Like the citizens of Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the

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parents of Chicago school children are throwing off the yoke of inefficient centralized government.

Of course, there's always the concern that the parent-controlled councils will make foolish policy. But the bureaucrats are doing foolish things all the time. One of them wasted $35,000 of taxpayers' money on commemorative paperweights for the school council members, who aren't even issued any paper by the central office.

Animosities have broken out on some councils. At one, on the southeast side, Mexican-American parents took control of a black-majority school and conducted meetings in Spanish with an English translation. At another, on the near southwest side, parents of children in special education programs failed to elect any council members; now they feel the council is ignoring their children's needs.

But at scores of other schools, the reform program has unleashed a surprising amount of creative energy. Councils are hiring new teachers' aides, buying computers and speciality books, advertising for new principals and immersing themselves in budget minutiae that once was the sole province of the experts. Their members talk about making the school the center of the community, a place students look forward to coming to every day. If you talk to enough school council members, you can almost get inspired.

It will be up to Chicago's new school superintendent, Ted E. Kimbrough, to harness all this energy without imposing the crushing weight of the central bureaucracy on the councils' endeavors. That will require considerable skill; unfortunately, there's nothing in Kimbrough's record to indicate that he's anything more than a run-of-the-mill administrator. Kimhrough, an Evanston native, was a controversial figure during seven years as superintendent of the tough, gang-ridden school district in Compton, Calif. He has come under fire from the Chicago press and politicians for fudging his resume (a law degree turned out to be honorary) and for his $175,000 salary.

If Kimbrough is kept busy fending off his critics, maybe the local school councils will be left to run the schools the way they like. Nothing wrong with that.

John Camper is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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