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Mad as hell: school reformers declare war on the central bureaucracy



Back in September, some of the old-timers at the school system's Pershing Road headquarters figured the reform movement was like a bad headache that would fade once the local school council elections were out of the way.

Well, the local school elections came and went in October, but the administration's worst fears remain: far from fading, the reform movement seems to be getting bolder.

Last month, a coalition of reformers released the "Sunrise Statement," a pretty title for what amounts to a declaration of war. "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore," begins the 12-page manifesto. "After four years of work for school reform, we are still standing in the dark, waiting for a new day to dawn for our children. Well, we won't stand in the dark any longer. We are going to make the sun rise over our schools, whatever it takes."

What follows is a ten-point plan that calls for the abolition of the central bureaucracy, which would be replaced--over the course of a year--by a scaled-down system modeled after the Catholic schools.

"The bureaucracy reminds me of the political systems in Eastern Europe," says William Ayers, an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois, who played a key role in drafting the Sunrise Statement. "It's a huge, expensive monopoly that's not at all responsive to what's going on at its base. We should get rid of it."

School officials accuse the Sunrise activists of overstating their case. "Many of the things they want, [general superintendent] Ted Kimbrough is already instituting," says Bob Saigh, a spokesman for the school system. "Kimbrough has said time and time again that reform is not a one-shot deal. You are not going to snap your fingers and have things change overnight. You've got to approach reform with the idea of sustaining it if it's going to be successful."

For the moment, the "Sunrise Statement" has been obscured by the hullabaloo generated over Kimbrough's coronation. But reformers are marshaling their forces. By April they plan to complete an audit of the bureaucracy to determine which departments in the $2.58 billion school empire are justified.

After that, they want Kimbrough and the interim school board to appoint a task force--including parents, teachers, and principals--to recommend cuts. No department would survive the budget ax. And if Kimbrough or the school board resists, the reformers will take their case to the General Assembly in Springfield.

"We want to give [Kimbrough] some time, he's still new on the job," says Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a school watchdog group. "But we're serious about these proposals. We went to Springfield once before to win school reform, and we're willing to go there again."

Part of the reason for their confidence--which borders on cockiness--is that so far they have been very successful. The document is the creation of a diverse coalition called the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools, which includes Hispanic leader Dan Solis of the United Neighborhood Organization of Chicago; Sokoni Karanja, executive director of Centers for New Horizons, a community group based in a black south-side neighborhood; Coretta McFerren, leader of the Peoples Coalition for Educational Reform; Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance; and interim board member Joe Reed, who heads a coalition of business leaders called Leadership for Quality Education.

Most of these people were at the forefront of the reform movement ignited by the bitter 19-day teachers' strike of 1987. They drafted their own legislation and aggressively lobbied for its adoption--winning in the face of strong resistance from the school system. The result was a sweeping reform bill that mandated cuts in the central bureaucracy and the election of autonomous local councils that would govern principal selection and a good portion of each school's budget.

"The reform law cleared the way for local school control; it empowered people," says McFerren. "There's no going back."

But in the first few days after the local school elections, activists were frustrated. They boldly talked of independence, but most school councils depended on the central administration for such elementary instructions as how to run a meeting. In those early days, school council members had to decide how to spend state antipoverty funds and whether to rehire their principals. And they had to make their decisions fast.

"The bureaucrats instituted a series of unrealistic and conflicting deadlines," says Moore. "We'd get calls from school councils who were confused. They were told that they had to tell their principal whether he or she would be retained by February 28. Meanwhile, the board still hasn't publicized a list of people eligible to be principals. How can the councils make a decision?"

The central administration also inundated local councils with a barrage of paperwork. "In one day, I can get as many as five sets of forms to fill out," says Michael Radzilowsky, president of the school council at the Hayt Elementary School, which is in Edgewater. "Mostly they're questionnaires that don't relate to what we need in the school. It's a total waste; they're choking us with paper."

At the same time, Radzilowsky and other local school leaders complain that they can't get basic school supplies.

"For a while we were running out of paper and pencils because it was taking Pershing Road three weeks to deliver supplies," says Radzilowsky. "When we complained, they said that with all the mandated cuts they had to fire the people who process orders. Somehow or other I don't believe that."

The complaints only angered many central office administrators, to whom the reformers were a bunch of self-aggrandizing and unappreciative whiners. "First they want us fired, then they complain about the quality of service after we've been fired," says one veteran employee of the central office on Pershing Road. "We're their scapegoats for the system's woes."

Indeed, it is a bit simplistic to blame all the problems in the public schools on the central administration--which never, by the way, gets any credit for the successful schools that do exist. In their eagerness to maintain unity, reformers overlook parental irresponsibility as a factor in school failure.

In addition, the reform movement has fostered some central-office bureaucrats of its own. There's now an "office of reform" that oversees a "reform implementation unit" that's supposed to "coordinate" reform efforts and act as a "liaison" to local school councils--whatever that means. In the long run, no doubt, it would be best to use that money to cut class size and give teachers a decent wage.

As it is, the system is a bewildering monolith of 603 schools, 408,000 students (68 percent of whom come from poor families), and 42,500 employees. At its peak in 1987, the central bureaucracy numbered 13,000 employees, and was riddled by duplication and waste. Some central employees--like Saigh, who handles calls for information, and the people who manage the payroll--are necessary. "You have to pay people," says Hess. "I think all reformers would agree about that."

But no one has ever adequately explained a department like curriculum, which employs dozens of coordinators who apparently do little more than devise silly tests and teaching methods that teachers have little use for.

"One of the underlying causes for school failure is the inequitable distribution of resources," says Ayers. "People in Chicago are starving for resources, while schools in the suburbs like Lake Forest are resource rich. But you don't advance this argument if we spend so much money outside the classroom."

The "Sunrise Statement" attempts to rid the system of such waste.

"Corporations and government agencies that are restructured start with a clean slate," the document reads. "We demand that the following steps be taken to restructure Pershing Road once and for all: the general superintendent and Interim Board must establish three or four major task forces to recommend a quick and thorough restructuring of the bureaucracy. The task forces must start from scratch, recommending ways to carry out only those obligations of the central administration required by the reform law. They must recommend staffing and budgeting needed for the new responsibilities, starting with zero-based staffing and zero-based budgeting. . . . A sunset date must be set for each department. After that date, each department must cease to exist. Its budget must be shut off, its staff position closed, its activities stopped, and its guidelines made null and void."

Departments deemed necessary by the task force would be reopened--with fewer employees and smaller budgets.

"Zero-based budgeting means wiping the slate clean; it means asking ourselves: if we could build Pershing Road from scratch, what would be there?" says Ayers. "The way we've done it in the past is to start from what is there and work backwards to eliminate things line by line."

Just how far they get with their proposals depends on how well they organize, particularly in the black community, where support for reform has been weakest. (Many black activists have complained that reform is little more than an attempt by white politicians and corporate leaders to fire influential black school leaders--a charge that reformers, particularly the black ones, deny.)

"The other day, one of my colleagues reminded us about Eyes on the Prize," says McFerren, referring to the television series on the civil rights movement. "She said we've got to be prepared to go to jail if necessary. That says a lot. But we are willing to go as far as we have to go to make our dreams come true."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.

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