By BEN JORAVSKY
The Chicago school mess
It was early October and the teacher strike was moving into its third week when the parents of Chicago rose as one as if to say: "That's it, we've had enough; we won't take this bloated, mismanaged Chicago public school system any longer."
White parents from the north side marched downtown to protest, Hispanic parents demanded a meeting with then-Mayor Harold Washington, and in the back rooms of the board of education's offices black activists laid it on the line: Give the teachers a raise, and settle this strike now.
Within a matter of days, the raise was offered and the strike settled. But the rage of parents did not go away. Feeling the heat for substantive change, Washington convened an education summit, bringing together parents, board members, teachers and business leaders. The spirit of the movement was "reform." Change with us, the reformers told the board, or we will change the system without you. "The earthquake was in California," proclaimed 43rd Ward Ald. Edwin Eisendrath, at the time referring to a recent tremor in Los Angeles. "But the ground is shaking in Chicago."
Alas, the hope, optimism and expectations that fired that movement have been dissipated somewhat by the hard work and negotiations that followed. Oh, the outrage is still there on the part of many parents and business groups. There are still dozens of citizens valiantly working on so many reform proposals that it is difficult to keep track of them. And the staff of Mayor Eugene Sawyer still plans to package proposed reforms with a plea this spring before the General Assembly for more state money. But the passionate feeling of urgency faded, once the strike ended and its major headache thousands and thousands of children out of school and in the streets was cured. On top of that, several suggestions by reformers have run into opposition from the teachers' union and the board's top command. Along the way, small rivalries have developed between reform groups who have refrained, for the moment, from public feuds.
As a sign of his commitment, Sawyer has vowed to smooth over the differences and to produce one package that all sides will accept. But as the countdown proceeds to move the issue to Springfield and the state legislature's spring session when any reform or new funding measure must be considered it is not clear whether Sawyer has the clout or the charm to turn rhetoric into reality.
"I've been getting calls from all sorts of groups offering to show me their proposals," says state Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-5, Chicago), whose district includes several predominantly Hispanic communities on the near northwest side. "I tell everybody the same thing. 'Send it to me, but try to work things out in the summit.' Because I don't see anything happening in Springfield unless the mayor is behind it. And even if he is, I don't know if this mayor has the clout to pass any significant educational reform legislation."
The biggest problem, most participants agree, is definition. Ask two reformers to define reform and you're liable to get two distinct replies. The concept has become something of a buzzword whose meaning varies with the user.
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Some reformers maintain that reform requires no additional state funds; others say increased aid is what the movement is all about. There are parents who view reform as a hammer of sorts with which to belt about lazy school employees particularly teachers as if a derelict staff was the main cause of low achievement. And there are teachers who maintain reform means improving working conditions and salary to insure that the best and brightest teachers remain in the classroom. Almost all participants agree that the main issue is achievement. The $1.9 billion system employs 42,000 workers and serves about 400,000 students, though not very well according to most accounts.
The dropout rate nears 50 percent, highest in the state. On any given day, one-third of the students are absent. Only one-third of students read at or above grade level. One-half of Chicago's high schools rank in the bottom 1 percent in national ACT test scores. The situation has deteriorated so badly that exasperated businessmen, working in the summit, complain that Chicago students lack the basic reading and writing skills for minimum-wage employment. At one point last year, several chiefs of industry offered to set aside a few thousand jobs for high school graduates, if the board guaranteed improved levels of academic performance. The deal fell through because niether sides could agree on standards to measure excellence.
"You can get a good education in some public schools," says Tee Gallay, president of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, a budget watchdog group. "But the best schools are limited to a handful of magnet or middle-class schools. Systemwide, there's no consistency." Magnet schools have specialized curricula, such as the arts or science.
School officials insist that it is unfair and misleading to blame them for the deficiencies. The system, they insist, is the victim of the same inequities that plague the city. Over two-thirds of public school students come from low-income families. One out of every 10 comes from a family in which English is not the major language. Many are raised by parents who either cannot or do not read. Often the main source of culture and entertainment in their homes is television. And, unlike private or parochial schools, with whom it is often unfavorably compared, the public school system cannot limit enrollment. It must take all comers, even those who have been expelled from private parochial schools. "Every social problem in our society is laid at our feet," says General Supt. Manford Byrd Jr. "No parochial or private school has that challenge."
Indeed, some reformers, like representatives of the Urban League, have tailored their demands for change with a cry for renewed parental responsibility. "The issue goes beyond governance of the school," says Gwen Laroche, director of the Urban League's education department. "The bigger picture is how do we get parents involved in the overall education of their children. We've got to get parents and children in the habit of getting library cards and checking out books, or going to museums or doing other things besides watching television. It's all about changing behavior and expanding the network that supports kids. We've got to get the community to take more overall responsibility."
In addition, Laroche and other reformers insist that class size must be reduced. This has been a refrain uttered by concerned teachers for years usually with little response. "I look at my colleagues in the suburbs, and I can't believe the advantages they have," says one veteran elementary school teacher. "Class size in some of those communities is no more than 20 and those are kids from well-to-do or middle-class families. I have 35 kids in my class, almost all of them poor. If we were serious about city and suburban kids competing, the first thing we'd do is get that class size down."
As it now stands, classroom teachers are not rewarded with extra pay or status. Most bureaucrats make at least $40,000 for desk jobs (of questionable significance) far removed from the rigors of teaching. In contrast, the highest paid teacher a Ph.D. with at least 15 years experience earns only $36,000.
"All of the major action occurs in a classroom," says Eisendrath. "We must figure ways to encourage teachers to remain in the classroom." So far, only one proposal hits this problem head on. The United Neighborhood Organization of Chicago (UNO), a coalition of Hispanic community groups, proposes to hire more teachers in order to cut classroom size to no more than 25 students. "Next to students, teachers have to be the most important part of the school," says Dan Solis, UNO's executive director. "You can't just get rid of teachers, because we have a shortage. If a teacher is doing bad work, he or she must get some training. We also must begin the career ladder in the school, so they can start as interns and work their way up to master teachers, who have additional duties besides teaching, for which they are compensated. No matter how good a professional, if a teacher is overwhelmed by a lack of materials or a large student body, he or she can burn out. That's what we have to protect against."
Other proposals, however, have been propelled by a spasm of outrage most of it justified against the system as a whole, teachers included. Almost all plans, particularly one advanced by the Chicagoans United to Reform Education (C.U.R.E.), puts day-to-day control of schools in the hands of a local advisory group, comprised of parents, teachers and the principal. "Our proposal puts kids first, and sets a tangible boundary for what should be done," says Renee Marie Montoya, associate director of Designs for Change, the not-for-profit advisory group that helped organize C.U.R.E. "Everything done in a school building will contribute toward two major objectives: increasing performance and decreasing dropouts."
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C.U.R.E. backers say their plan can be implemented without new expenditures, by trimming waste. They base their proposal on the assumption that academic performance will rise once schools are controlled by principal, staff and parents. Besides Designs for Change, other members of C.U.R.E. include Centers for New Horizons, a large social service organization on the south side; the Near North Development Corporation, which serves the Cabrini-Green area; the People's Coalition for Educational Reform, whose genesis was last year's strike; Save Our City/Save Our Neighborhoods Coalition (SON/SOC), consisting of community groups representing mainly the northwest and southwest sides; and Loyola University of Chicago School of Education, whose dean is Michael J. Bakalis.
Currently, principals have little leeway in selecting staff because seniority rules prevent them from removing veteran teachers. These rules are designed to protect employees from administrative harassment. But they have often backfired, particularly when teachers, on leave for illness or other reasons, return to the classroom, thus bumping a popular though younger colleague from assignment. "The teachers' union has to bend on some of its seniority rules," says del Valle. "My own son who goes to a local public school ended up with three different teachers in one year because of seniority disputes. The system is out of touch with reality."
After two years of uninterrupted classroom service, a teacher wins tenure which means he or she cannot be fired without a hearing, subject to court appeal. The rule also applies to employees even if they are "promoted" out of the classroom and are no longer teachers. "The process of removing someone from the system is long, tedious and requires documented evidence of wrongful behavior," says George Munoz, a school board member since 1983. "It's not a simple matter of firing an employee, even for serious abuse." The most flagrant example is the case involving James Moffat, a high school principal who was convicted of having coerced high school boys and girls into having sex with him. Taking advantage of the board's tenure policy, Moffat managed to stay in the system at full pay even after he was indicted.
To do away with these abuses, C.U.R.E. proposes to give the community a say in firing incompetent or abusive personnel, or, as its legislative plan reads: "If the school governing council votes for dismissal, the staff member should be dismissed." It is a proposal guaranteed to raise the union's ire.
"We think parents should have a say in a broad range of matters, like curriculum," says Chuck Burdeen, a spokesperson for the Chicago Teachers Union. "But we spent 30-odd years working for a system that would eliminate patronage in hiring and firing, and we don't want to go backwards. We don't want a situation where the parents say, 'I don't like the grade you gave my child, so I don't like you as a teacher.'"
The union proposes to better train younger teachers by creating internships, filled by trainees who have full-time assignments, but not full-time pay. "It's an intriguing proposal," says Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy and Finance. "It gives teachers better training, and it takes advantage of the experience of veteran teachers who will work with these interns." The school board may accept this proposal, if only to save money on salaries.
But it's hard to gauge how the board's 11 members will react to other reform proposals (as one of the groups involved in the education summit, they have refrained from comment until all the plans are presented). Appointed by the mayor, school board members represent black, white and Hispanic communities that are rarely united in point of view. In general, they concede that their influence over the system is limited. "I think it's a cop-out to say that there is nothing that the board can do to change the system," says Munoz. "But I'm realistic. This system is 150 years old; it has seen superintendents come and go. I don't hold high expectations that it will be completely accountable to the whims of a board member. It will outlast me. The bureaucracy has its own life, so what I try to do is modify it, and redirect its function. I try to improve staff morale and the school's image."
None of the board members has publicly endorsed the one element that is key to all reform proposals decentralization. "The basic area of agreement on the part of all reformers is the need for the devolution of authority from central to local levels," says Gallay. "There's so much abuse out there now, it's ridiculous. Take purchasing. Everything that a local school wants be it supplies or foods has to go through the central system. The horror stories of abuse are outrageous. Sometimes perishables are bought under contract, so we pay much more. When apples at the local [food store] were three pounds to a dollar, the school had to pay a dollar and a half. There are also delays as the supplies first go to the central office, and then are transferred to the local schools. It could take days, and meanwhile the kids are without paper, pencils and textbooks. I know a lot of teachers who just pay for the supplies out of their own pockets."
Critics also complain that money is wasted on a bloated central office bureaucracy. Before the strike, central and district office staff had grown to about 3,700, up from 3,300 in 1985. Supt. Byrd has pledged to cut that staff to about 3,380. Some of the staffs and departments have duties that overlap. There are, for example, at least four divisions charged with the task of analyzing and preparing the budget. Yet Byrd and the board strongly resist attempts to cut back. "In some key areas of delivering services the board is understaffed," says Byrd, pointing to recent studies by several consulting groups to prove his point. "The notion that we are overstaffed and bloated is a myth."
Fueling the tension is the feeling on the part of many officials that key decisions ought to be left in the hands of educators, not parents. Recently, for example, Grace Dawson, a principal from a predominantly black south side school, "demoted" or held back 250 students who performed below class standards in reading and math. Demanding that their children not be demoted or held back, many parents picketed the school, eventually forcing Dawson to change her policy. The moral of the story, teachers and principals conclude, is that parents are unwilling to take responsibility or face the consequences for their own child's behavior or performance.
"Just once I would like to see a reform group talk about the parent's role in all of this," says an elementary school teacher. "They think all they have to do is drop their kids off at school,
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and we'll take care of them." Almost all the research on performance particularly studies written by University of Chicago sociology professor James Coleman maintains that students from poor families perform better in those schools that require parents to play a consistent role in their children's education.
These issues, and others, will be dumped into the lap of the Sawyer administration sometime this spring when the summit prepares its final proposal for Springfield. Hal Baron, Sawyer's key adviser on the summit, declined to comment on the group's progress, saying he was "too busy" to be interviewed.
And if Sawyer does not have enough problems juggling the interests of parents and educators, he has to worry about rambunctious legislators in Springfield. "Right after last year's strike, Mayor Washington called a group of us in, and he asked us not to be rash," del Valle recalls. "He said give the summit time before you introduce any new legislation. We were willing to give him the time. But that time may be running out."
Tough talk about Chicago schools is not rare from the General Assembly. For years, suburban and downstate Republicans have demanded that the legislature link reform to increased aid for Chicago. More and more, however, such talk comes from Chicago Democrats who, like del Valle, represent low-income communities whose schools desperately need supplies and teachers. "It used to be chic around here [in Springfield] to attack Mayor Daley," says Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park). "Now it's chic to attack the Chicago school system. The attacks come from all corners."
One of the strongest critics is Rep. Doug Huff (D-19, Chicago), who calls the teachers' union "rapacious," the bureaucracy "bloated," and has proposed to divide the system into 20 districts. Even Ald. Eisendrath, considered an advocate for the schools because he was once a teacher, calls for reform before new funding. "I don't think the public schools are getting the money they need from the state, but right now, to me, that's not the main issue," says Eisendrath. "The main issue is how they spend the money they get. There's far too much waste. . . . Every other school district when it wants to raise more money for its schools, puts a referendum on its ballot. In Chicago, the board has to go hat in hand and ask the state legislature to raise our tax rate because they're afraid to go before the public. They know they would lose."
Some Chicago legislators attempted to force the system to improve even before last year's strike. During last year's session, del Valle, frustrated by a persistently high dropout rate, proposed legislation that would change the attendance formula by which the state allocates funds. "The state now allocates funds based on the three best months of attendance," del Valle explains. "Those months are usually at the beginning of the school year before a lot of kids drop out. The system was getting money for kids who weren't in school. I proposed to base that formula on an average for all the months." If passed, the new formula would cost the city millions of dollars in state funds, unless it could immediately reduce its dropout rate. Board and city lobbyists branded del Valle a traitor, and the proposal eventually died in the Senate Elementary and Secondary Education Committee chaired by Sen. Arthur Berman (D-2, Chicago), whose district straddles Chicago and Evanston.
Berman intends to hold public hearings on the various reform proposals this spring. House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago) may also hold meetings on school funding and reform during the spring session, his aides say. Inevitably, Berman, Rock and Madigan will hear demands from Chicago lobbyists to hike aid for the schools. It is a request that may not pass.
"There won't be any major money for anybody without a tax increase," says Berman. "If there's a tax increase, the reform movement in Chicago will be part of the total picture. Overall, I have to say Chicago does all right by Springfield. It has 22 percent of the kids and out of the pot it gets about 33 percent of state aid. We've recognized in the formula the difficult needs of children that come from poverty level homes. But it's going to be very difficult to get senators from out of the city to vote more money for Chicago."
The result could be a disaster not only for reform initiatives, but basic operations. To settle last year's strike, the board pledged to raise teacher salaries by another 4 percent (which would cost at least another $60 million). But that pledge is contingent on more state aid, which, alas, is linked to reforms. Without a raise, the teachers may strike. In that case, the system will be where it was last September with a few major drawbacks. More parents will have yanked their kids from the public schools, and those who remain may be less willing to work for change.
"The stakes are high," says Gallay. "This is a great opportunity, and maybe one of our last chances. I hope it doesn't go down the sewer. "□
Journalist Ben Joravsky is coauthor of Race and Politics in Chicago and has been covering Chicago issues for many years in The Chicago Reporter and the Reader.
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