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Rampant democracy: gearing up for the school-reform elections

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Next month Chicago will hold the most wide open elections in the city's history. All adult Chicagoans, not just those registered to vote, will be welcome at the polls--even undocumented immigrants. And any adult can run for office without trudging around to collect ballot petitions. Indeed, those without previous experience are not only allowed to run, they're being sought out and encouraged to run by scores of businesses and community groups throughout the city.

The elections, of course, will be for the 11-member councils that will run each of Chicago's public schools under the provisions of the new school-reform act. Each council will consist of six parents, two community members other than parents, two teachers, and the school's principal. Personnel at each school will vote for the teacher members, parents for the parents, and community members within the school boundaries for the community members. (In the case of magnet schools, two extra parents will replace the community members.) Elections take place October 11 for elementary schools, October 12 for high schools.

School reform presents many risks, and one of the most serious of them involves the question of who will be elected to the councils. Any number of fringe characters are possible, and at present there is no mechanism to remove them: if you elect them, you're stuck with them for their two-year term. Thus the demagogues and those who yell the loudest may wind up running some schools, and extremist groups may use the opportunity to gain community footholds. In recent years, followers of Lyndon LaRouche have occasionally won school-board elections--though they haven't usually openly espoused LaRouche philosophies. If south-side rumors can be believed, gangs may slate candidates for some school-council posts.

A common fear is that politicians will slate candidates for these school councils, intending to consolidate power. Another equally popular worry is that outspoken council members might use their school positions as the springboard to political office, much as Dorothy Tillman became known for her attacks on a local school principal.

But the biggest obstacle to school reform may not be the shouters, the extremists, or the pols but the "Ins"--those connected with local school-improvement councils, PTAs, and community groups. Many may jealously guard their influence and try to prevent other, well-qualified individuals from joining the group. Some may already enjoy a cozy relationship with a less-than-competent principal. In short, they may be part of the problem instead of the answer to it.

To give the school-reform plan its best chance for success, education and even business groups are working to keep the election process open. Leadership for Quality Education, a nonprofit organization set up by some of the city's corporate giants, has distributed some $750,000 to community groups to hire staff and implement outreach programs to educate community members about school reform. Recipients of these grants include such varied organizations as the Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation, Chinese-American Service League, Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, Midwest Community Council, and the Greater Rogers Park Association for the Development of Education (GRADE), a coalition of the Rogers Park Tenants Committee, and the Nortown Civic League.

The outreach techniques can take many forms: door-to-door campaigns, coffees, meetings with principals, setting up booths at block parties, and sending out speakers to explain the school reorganization to community groups. One group, the Organization of the NorthEast, plans an Education Fest, a potluck dinner featuring speakers and literature on the subject of school reform. "It's an exciting, grass-roots movement, similar in spirit to the Harold Washington campaigns," according to Cyrus Driver, a worker with the education-reform group Designs for Change.

Few if any areas in the city provide the challenge of Rogers Park. The Rogers Park and Northtown (West Rogers Park) communities may be the most multiethnic in Chicago. Robert Gallagher, principal of De Witt Clinton, estimates that there are some 30 languages spoken at his school. Another local school, Stone, employs bilingual-education teachers in Korean, Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu, Assyrian, and Spanish, and has students who speak more than 20 other languages.

How does one get the message of school-council elections to such a diverse group? In any way possible, according to GRADE director Judy Hertz. "We've made a huge list of ethnic papers--India Abroad, Korea Times, Philippine News, and so on--and published information in them. We've sent workers to any ethnic organization meeting possible--Assyrian, Vietnamese, Chinese, you name it. We've contacted local churches, particularly the ethnic churches. We've talked to bilingual-education teachers and asked them to pass the message along to their communities. And we are willing to send representatives into residents' homes for basic sessions. If, for example, someone from the West Rogers Park Indian community does not want to travel to us, we can send someone out to them."

Some of the most spirited outreach has been to the local Asian community, a group that historically has not been deeply involved in public affairs and elections. The Rogers Park/West Rogers Park Asian community includes Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Assyrians, Koreans, Chinese, Cambodians, and Hmong from Laos. To explain the implications of the school-reform law and elicit candidates might take a worker to the Lao Service Center, the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, a Korean pastor, an Assyrian club, a Pakistani restaurant, and an Indian newspaper.

The Rogers Park effort is not limited to those for whom English is a second language. In many cases, native-born Americans may be more difficult to enlist because "they've been out of or at the fringe of the system," says GRADE outreach worker Harry Armstrong.

"You go to the people wherever you find them--block clubs, community organizations, day-care centers, churches, sandlots, taverns, drug-abuse centers," Armstrong says. "Often we hold special meetings in people's buildings. We've asked area businesses for their support, encouraging them to ask their employees to run for the councils, and to pass out our filers with the employees' paychecks."

GRADE plans to distribute 10,000 brochures that explain the basics of the school-reform law, its goals, and the plans for implementing it. These brochures will be distributed at el stops and other public places, and Armstrong says he also hopes to place posters in store and home windows.

There are problems with informing such diverse communities. The language factor is one of them. "Our standard flier is two-sided, one part in English and the other in Spanish," says Hertz. "But when you're talking about providing information in six languages for one school, you've got a real logistics hassle."

Geography poses another problem. Even though many ethnic groups live in the Rogers Park and West Rogers Park areas, few have their main population concentrations there. They may shop, attend ethnic-organization meetings, and go to church elsewhere. Thus an effort to reach Koreans, say, must involve continual trips to Albany Park; to reach Vietnamese, organizers must go to Uptown.

The role GRADE should play is yet another issue. "We're in a spot with some would-be candidates who expect us to be the light at the end of the tunnel for them," explains one GRADE outreach worker. "But we can't help their campaigns. We encourage people to run for the school councils, but we will not side with one person or another. First of all, our agreement with Leadership for Quality Education prohibits us from partisan involvement. Second, we are primarily an educational resource group, which will continue its involvement with the schools even after the elections."

Dealing with principals and existing PTAs or local school-improvement councils, which may be indifferent or even downright hostile, poses yet another obstacle, says Armstrong. "Not all of the principals are opposed to the school reform, but some are less than helpful. If they are, all we can do is explain what we are trying to do to inform the public about the upcoming school-council elections. They may not like them. But hey, it's the law now."

Perhaps the main problem is lack of time. "Ethnic papers sometimes need three weeks' lead time," Hertz points out. "Some ethnic organizations meet only once a month. Fortunately we can work through the ethnic churches, which meet at least every Sunday.

"But on the whole, the time line is extremely short. Even though we have been working since the summer, most parental involvement has taken place only since school started."

Time is running out. Nomination forms (which may be picked up at the schools) are due September 27 for elementary schools and September 28 for high schools.

Once nominations have been filed, the school principals can hold forums to enable the public to see and hear the candidates--but they don't have to do so. "The law doesn't require that a school hold public forums or any other notice, except that nomination forms must be available for public viewing," Hertz explains. "Fortunately, half our schools already have forums set up. We hope the others will act likewise."

How much chance do "insurgents," those not already involved with the schools, have of winning the school-council elections? Nobody really knows. Gallagher predicts that, for the most part, "those who showed interest in the past will continue to do so." That means that the new school councils may well reflect the composition of recent PTAs or school-improvement councils, which in many cases are predominantly white and middle-class.

"Having an ethnic name on the ballot may be a way to turn out that community," Hertz counters. "But people must have realistic expectations. In a school with 13 ethnic groups and only eight parent and community-member slots, you can't have 13 winners. Still, it's probably worse if they don't even get on the slate. Not having a representative on the ballot may only depress the community. That feeling of disillusion may keep people from attending school-council meetings, thus compounding their lack of voice in the system.

"We want responsible people from whatever background to run for the councils, and we're moving toward that end. But we've got our work cut out for us."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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