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Reform or Rehash?

A watchdog group remains skeptical of the Vallas revolution.

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By Ben Joravsky

It's been a bountiful year for Paul Vallas and his sidekicks running the public schools, at least when it comes to winning praise.

In the last few months they've basked in the glow of one glorious testament after another, including a recent Newsweek write-up hailing the Vallas reign as an "inspiring municipal whirlwind that is whipping up desperately needed change in the city schools."

Almost lost in these torrents of adoration are the more critical words of PURE (Parents United for Responsible Education), a small but vocal group of parents that works out of Uptown. Though many judgments of the central office border on hagiography, PURE, a not-for-profit watchdog, is unafraid to bark.

Its latest issue has to do with Vallas's preschool education program, weeks late in opening because the central office didn't deliver desks, chairs, and other furniture to needy classrooms. "They had students ready to come, but no place to put them," says Georganne Marsh, associate director of PURE. "You had empty classes well into November."

It's hard to say for certain how many classes remain empty, because central office staffers did not return phone calls for comment. That lack of outside supervision or inside accountability may be the greatest problem with the new school administration, PURE contends.

"There's no critical thought put into evaluating what Vallas is doing," says Julie Woestehoff, PURE's executive director. "People in the schools are afraid to speak up. That's not healthy. That's not the way it should be."

It's certainly different from the way it was before Mayor Daley was given control over the schools. As only a handful of grayhairs seem to remember, it was only seven years ago that everyone declared the time had come to pry the schools from the hands of an all-powerful central authority and turn them over to "the people." In 1989 the state passed a "reform" measure that put each school under the control of a local school council consisting of parents, teachers, and community representatives.

The new law was hailed as revolutionary, a desperately needed agent for change that would send test scores skyrocketing while wiping away truancy, delinquency, and parental apathy.

Well, in 1995 the state legislature passed yet another "reform" law that reversed many of the aspects of the first. This time the watchword was mayoral accountability, as if scores would soar and delinquency vanish if all power was returned to a central authority. Daley was allowed to fire the old board and school superintendent and handpick their replacements, which is how Vallas, a former City Hall budget director, got to be CEO. From the start Vallas made it clear that he was the boss, never hesitating to fire principals or overhaul LSCs.

For the most part there's been surprisingly little protest over these changes. On the contrary, much of the same grandiose rhetoric used to usher in the '89 school reform was resurrected to sweep it out.

Part of the reason is that Vallas is an engaging character who disarms critics with his earnest eccentricities. He and his central office cohorts have been accorded unparalleled favorable coverage no matter what they say or do. The classic case, which still has most insiders laughing in disbelief, came in the summer of 1995. That's when Ben Reyes, another City Hall aide sent by Daley to the schools, called a press conference to announce that he was "shocked" to discover stacks of unused supplies in the board's musty central warehouse.

Surprisingly, the media fell for it, all but promising the public that these supplies would reach the classrooms now that schools finally were in capable hands. Never mind that incoming administrators are always trying to make themselves look good by "discovering" the abuses of their predecessors. Or that anything could shock Reyes, a canny political operative (aka "the Wizard") who ran Luis Gutierrez's early aldermanic campaigns and probably has seen just about every shocking sight Chicago politics has to offer. It was ludicrous to assume Mayor Daley's operatives wouldn't know what was in the back rooms of the central office, which his appointees had been running since the 1989 reform law passed. As one politico who knows Reyes from his old precinct days in Humboldt Park put it, "It's OK to give the new boys a honeymoon, but please don't be stupid."

Perhaps school observers don't dare utter a critical word for fear of alienating Daley, Vallas's mentor. "It's the City Hall mentality--you don't question the big boss," says Woestehoff. "A lot of groups are worried that their funding will be cut off if they speak up. PURE's difficult to attack, because we're just a bunch of parents who care about the schools."

Or maybe it's just a case of a dispirited public genuflecting to any boss in charge. "I was on the Callaway show with (board president Gery) Chico and he said, 'I doubt most people out there care how things get done as long as they get done.' I said, 'Well, Mussolini made the trains run on time, but is that the system we want?' It's very disturbing to turn power over to a central authority and say, 'Here, you're in charge. I don't want to know--just get it done.'"

PURE's main criticism is that there's little follow-through, as in the case of the preschool program, which Vallas has called the centerpiece of his efforts. Vallas was proposing to expand a state-funded program intended for three- and four-year-olds at risk of failing kindergarten because of poverty, poor health, or language barriers. The program employs social workers to search for eligible children by conducting interviews with prospective students and their parents. It also sets up clusters of experts (nurses, social workers, and counselors) who work directly with the teachers.

Last year Vallas won headlines with a declaration to offer the program to thousands of new students. To finance the expansion, he said he might eliminate the cluster workers, arguing that most of them were "assistants to assistants" whose salaries would be better spent in hiring more teachers. When PURE and others gently objected, noting that the highest-scoring North Shore schools don't think social workers and counselors are a waste, Vallas backed off. He kept the social workers but increased their workload by opening some 100 new preschool classrooms.

To make good on his promise to offer preschool to every eligible at-risk child, he initiated something called Parents as Teachers First. Under this program (whose motto is "A house is not a home without a parent tutor mentor"), welfare recipients are given a few days of training and sent out to homes to "prepare preschoolers for school and for the future by providing child development activities that foster success"--as the program's guide puts it.

Vallas contends that several lessons are all his tutors need to teach and counsel as well as or better than a social worker or teacher with years of experience. Most early childhood experts disagree.

"I have nothing against sending tutors out to homes, but it should be in addition to more classroom experience--it should not be a substitute," says Marsh. "Children should have the experience of working in a classroom with a teacher and other children. Of course it's hard to criticize the program without being accused of being an elitist who doesn't think welfare recipients should work. But that's not the issue at all."

In addition to the tutoring program, Vallas promised to open 300 (later cut to 125) new preschool classrooms in schools around the city. But as of mid-October, only 60 were operating. "We heard from our sources about empty classrooms and we started calling around," says Marsh. "We started calling teachers and they told us they can't open the classes because the central office hadn't sent them the furniture they needed."

So on October 28, PURE sent out a press release. "It hasn't been a great beginning for some of the pre-school children of Chicago, their parents and their teachers," the release began. "Sixty of the 125 new State pre-kindergarten classes scheduled to open in September are empty. The reason: no funds for furniture. Twenty-five classrooms opened with borrowed furniture, and another 40 had their own. What a waste."

Within a few days, a letter was sent from the central office to schools promising the furniture was on its way. But since central office isn't talking, PURE doesn't know if the furniture has arrived and how many classes have opened.

"If they say they want accountability, then let's have it," says Woestehoff. "You just can't assume something's happening just because the central office says it's getting done."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Julie Woestehoff, Georganne Marsh photo by J.B. Spector.

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