Annals of school reform: what the deal dealt with--and what it didn't | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Annals of school reform: what the deal dealt with--and what it didn't

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School reformers call what happened last month in Springfield a victory, and they say their future looks bright. "We did fine," says Joan Jeter Slay, interim executive director of Designs for Change, a prominent school watchdog group. "The legislators did most of what we wanted."

But their grim looks of frustration in the wee hours of January 8 suggested that what the legislators didn't do may matter most. On that day, the Illinois General Assembly rejected the pleas of Designs for Change, the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools (ABCs) and other reform organizations to immediately right the constitutional wrongs of Chicago's school reform law. Instead, the legislators promised only to act on the matter sometime in the spring, which means many more weeks of public meetings and back-room scheming over the future of Chicago's 600 public schools.

The specific subject of debate is the November 30, 1990, state supreme court decision that ruled unconstitutional the method by which local school councils are elected. But the problems of reform go much deeper than that. Reformers have still not demonstrated that their posturing and rhetoric are supported by a strong base of voters. Worse yet, the reform movement has been poisoned by black-white rivalries. Reform leaders like to say that their strength lies in diversity, but for the moment they are mired in petty name-calling exchanges that weaken their alliance and confuse those few politicians who want to help.

At play are rivalries left over from Harold Washington's untimely death. It was Washington who organized the first broad-based educational summit--in the fall of 1987, after a bitter 19-day teachers' strike--and no politician since has exercised the clout or charisma necessary to keep the movement united and strong.

Since Washington, the most prominent political leader of reform has been, of all people, House Speaker Michael Madigan, a shrewd southwest-side committeeman who has never displayed even a shred of educational ideology. His purpose in helping draft the 1988 school reform law was mostly political: he wanted to shield his loyal Democratic legislators from the kind of home-turf grumbling that might get them bounced from office.

In June 1988 Madigan invited anyone interested in the issue--activists, teachers, parents, and politicians--into the rooms of the state capitol building where the bill was being drafted. "That was what made it so exciting," says Diana Lauber, a staffer for Leadership for Quality Education, a group of business leaders concerned about education. "We were actually drafting the law."

The law they drafted, Illinois Public Act 85-1418, placed each school under the control of locally elected councils composed of six parents, two teachers, two residents, and the principal (as an ex officio member). The local school councils (LSCs) had the power to pick a principal, write curricula, and apportion state and federal antipoverty funds.

The new law won praise from educators throughout the country, who called it "empowerment"; but among local blacks, feelings were mixed. Many--Joan Jeter Slay, Coretta McFerren, and Ron Sistrunk, to name a few--were prominent leaders of the ABCs. Hundreds more were now elected LSC members. Before the reform law, grass-roots black activists--as opposed to a few black officials and politicians--never enjoyed so much control.

And yet several troubling trends emerged during the early days of the law's implementation. Traditionally, the Board of Education had been a source of black power and patronage. But interim board member Billy Singer, a former independent alderman turned Mayor Daley confidant, initially took control of the board, sending many well-paid black administrators packing.

It didn't help that such prominent reformers as Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, and Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, are white. Or that the main target of their criticism, former school superintendent Manford Byrd Jr., is black. Or that many reformers all but genuflected to Mayor Daley. All of this made it seem as though powerful portions of white and Hispanic Chicago were uniting to reverse the gains blacks had made under Washington.

Over time a new group of black activists began to emerge. Many, like James Deanes, Lafayette Ford, and Ron Mitchell, were themselves LSC members. And they were sharply critical of Daley, Lourdes Monteagudo (the mayor's top education assistant), Singer, general superintendent Ted Kimbrough, and selected members of the ABCs.

"When a black administrator gets fired they call it reform," says James Deanes. "Kimbrough makes much more money than Byrd, but that's reform. If Don Moore or Fred Hess speak out on an issue, that's reform. But if I speak out--a black man with kids in the schools--that's antireform. I call that a double standard.

"More than 60 percent of the kids in the public schools are blacks, yet so many of the so-called reformers are whites who don't send their kids to the schools. I'm not saying that all school leaders have to be black. And it's not my business where Singer, Lourdes, or anyone sends his kid to school. But I'll tell you this: if your kids go to the public schools, you're going to be a hell of a lot more concerned about what's going on in that system."

Such was the tumultuous state of affairs when the Illinois supreme court ruled last fall that the method by which LSCs were elected was unconstitutional because not everyone got an equal vote (parents vote for six parents, residents for two residents and teachers for two teachers).

Suddenly school reform really was in turmoil. No one even knew what the decision really meant. Were LSCs now illegal? Should they stop meeting and suspend all action? Were their previous acts invalid? Would they have to rehire dozens of employees or face years of costly litigation from principals and others seeking back pay and restitution?

Just about every school group met behind the scenes, frantically debating how to repair the damage. Eventually, the ABCs decided to demand that the General Assembly amend the law at its January 8 end-of-term session.

"We have to act immediately because there's a cloud over reform," said McFerren. "The longer we leave this matter unattended, the more time people have to tamper with the law. I can see principals and administrators trying to take away the powers that belong to councils."

Abetted by lawyers from Sidley & Austin (who waived their usually high fees, presumably for the public good), the ABCs devised the following plan: legislators would change the elected LSC positions to appointed ones and grant Daley special one-time powers to officially "appoint" all incumbent members. Legislators would also validate past LSC actions and amend the law to allow all voters the same number of votes. In other words, there still would be six parents, two teachers, and two residents on each council--after all, the whole point of the law is to give parents a bigger say--but all voters would vote for the parent, teacher, and resident members.

Rapid maneuvering by the ABCs hardly soothed the resentment of its critics. "ABCs doesn't speak for everyone," said Deanes. "They're only one group of interests with some lawyers from Sidley & Austin."

Watching it all was Madigan, who probably didn't like what he saw. The feud threatened the stability of his tightly controlled Democratic coalition. In an attempt to build consensus, Madigan invited all interested parties to speak their minds at three days of legislative hearings chaired by Anthony Young, Ellis Levin, and John Cullerton--one black west-sider and two white north-lakefront liberals--and attended by Democratic legislators from all over the state.

The end result was three days of griping, as the ABCs proposal was blasted by almost every black activist and politician who spoke. Deanes called it a poorly conceived "quick fix." South-side state representative Monique Davis said: "Laws will not be made in rooms where only certain groups get to participate." And mayoral candidate Danny Davis used it as an opportunity to lambaste Governor Thompson, Mayor Daley, the old school board, "special interests" (Hess? Moore?), and Sidley & Austin.

It's hard to imagine what ran through the minds of the out-of-town legislators as they watched the proceedings. (Who knows what concessions Madigan granted them just to get them to show up at all.) Most looked utterly baffled. Aside from Monique Davis, no legislator registered strong feelings one way or another.

When the hearings were over on January 4, the real power brokers (Daley, Madigan, Kimbrough, and senate president Phil Rock) disappeared behind closed doors, emerging after about an hour with the following deal: the mayor would reappoint the councils, the legislators would ratify past LSC actions, and the issue of what to do with the elections would be delayed until the spring legislative session, which starts in April.

It was a deal only a politician could truly appreciate. Daley liked it because it delayed a potentially divisive decision until after the mayoral election; Danny Davis liked it because it meant that it kept alive his chance of helping rewrite the new law should he beat Daley on February 26; and Madigan liked it because it kept Monique Davis, Anthony Young, and other black members of his legislative coalition happy. ABCs leaders were enraged; but since they had not demonstrated wide voter support, no politician really gave a damn about them.

On January 8, bus loads of reformers descended on Springfield to lobby for the ABCs plan. But by noon it was clear they had no support. "I worry about things I can obtain right now," north-side state senator Art Berman told a group of reformers. "Sometimes that means getting two-thirds of a loaf. I can get two-thirds of a loaf today. I will worry about the last third in April. I'm a practical politician."

Debate on the bill was classically minimal. Monique Davis blasted it for allowing Mayor Daley the authority to appoint LSC members ("That's not local control"); bill sponsor Ellis Levin defended it; and several legislators began to hoot and howl with impatience. "Shut up, Ellis, and get on with the vote," one legislator shouted.

The final tally was 107 to 5 in favor of what is now known as the School Reform Restoration Act, although exactly what it restored has yet to be decided. (It unanimously passed the senate and outgoing Governor Thompson signed it into law.)

After the vote, Marj Halperin, Kimbrough's press secretary, said: "I think this was a victory for all sides. There will be a consensus-building process now so all sides can have pride of ownership."

Deanes said: "I feel all right about this bill. I believe the legislators and the mayor have heard us. You can't fix those constitutional defects in such a short time."

McFerren said: "These politicians are a joke. The people have not been heard."

And one downstate legislator said: "I need a drink."

No one knows how, when, or if reformers will patch up their differences so the law's defects can be remedied. Assuredly, another summit will be needed. Kimbrough has offered to host it, but ABCs leaders say they don't trust him. Daley could host it, but Deanes and others say they don't trust him. That leaves Madigan to invite everyone into his chambers and start the talking all over again.

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

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