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School Reform Politics


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To the editors:

It was a relief to see Florence Levinsohn's article on the Stockton Local School Council and the recent election [November 8]. The feature was pretty evenhanded and accurate. The description of "Unity Slate" council members as rubber stamps of Karen Zaccor and Jeri Miglietta tells just how it has been the past two years. Finally the Reader has published an article establishing that our local grammar school's council has become the political playground of Alderman Shiller and her friends at Fair Share.

To us as neighbors of the school, this seems a horrible abuse of the idea of school councils and reform. Instead of allowing the community to elect representatives according to a natural process of parent and neighbor involvement and interest, we have Justice Graphics and the Shiller Forces creating campaign literature, sample ballots, giving rides to the polling places, and wino's getting bussed in to skew the election.

The same thing happened in the first school council election, too. Both times, an independent community representative came within a few votes of taking a seat--without, as Levinsohn accurately describes, any machine or carefully orchestrated and financed campaign effort. The first election, the distance was around 20 votes, this latest one just 4 votes. These results came from the spontaneous efforts of neighbors who care about the school. (Levinsohn errs in stating there was a non-Shiller community "slate" in the first election. There was not. At the time, no one knew the Fair Shares would apply such heavy-handed political strategies to a grammar school election.)

Even now, those who worked in the campaign for Joanne Gannett are attending the Stockton School Council meetings regularly--more often and with greater consistency than the "elected" council members from Fair Share. (The newly elected Fair Share secretary missed the October meeting; two Fair Share representatives missed a majority of meetings during the first two years of the council. They simply aren't interested in the process or activity, and are apparently forced to run for the Council by Miglietta, Zaccor, et al.)

The article makes one wonder why the Fair Share group is so intent on control of this school council, and also several other school councils in the neighborhood--where it runs similar campaigns for control. From what I see, the answer can be found in the October 27, 1991, issue of the All Chicago City News, also published by Justice Graphics (Karen Zaccor is president of that firm, which is located in Helen Shiller's ward office building at 1140 W. Montrose) and featuring articles by Shiller's son, Brendan, Managing Editor, and Miglietta's son, Anton. In a commentary by editor Slim Coleman, the philosophical director of the whole Fair Share movement, we find a call for a citywide council of school councils. Coleman and his friends would like to see the local school councils form the basis for an alternative, "people's" governmental body. "The one element conspicuously left out of school reform was a way for Local School Councils to meet together, make plans, and act in unity," says Coleman. The activity at our little Stockton School, grades K-5, is part of this grand political scheme.

What does this have to do with reading and writing? And will this effort help our school children? Clearly another social agenda is the focus of the movement by Fair Share. They find it important to block true community involvement, supplanting it with an engineered community group that offers little in terms of ideas or legitimacy to the effort of school reform.

One other point that Levinsohn dismissed with perhaps insufficient attention--the idea of tracking in education. Tracking was abolished in the third grade of Stockton not because of any professionally derived educational analysis that it was harmful, but because it runs against the social program of the Fair Share group. To them, the efficacy of separating students based on ability and teaching them at appropriate levels runs counter to their social program. "There are no stars," is how one of the Fair Share standard bearers put it during a council meeting. All children must work at the same level.

However, there is a distinction that should be made between tracking and "ability grouping," where students move at their own pace on a subject by subject basis--learning with fast learners in math, for instance, and studying with slow or middle rate learners in English. (An article by Daniel Singal in the November, 1991, issue of Atlantic Monthly discusses the matter in more depth.) This approach might work at Stockton. But whatever approach is taken, it should be based upon sound principles of education, and not a reformist social ideology.

Among us folks that live around the Stockton School, the Fair Share social agenda finds both support and opposition. But many of us question why its political machinations have been introduced into the management of the local grammar school, and how ultimately this will teach our kids how to read and write. If after two years as president of the Local School Council Karen Zaccor can only say, "The teachers don't teach," one wonders whether the LSC is doing anything effective to inspire, direct and manage change among them--which ultimately is the mission they should be carrying out.

Bill Esler

W. Leland

Florence Levinsohn replies:

In the first election there was indeed a slate of candidates who represented the anti-Shiller forces, among them Barbara Littwin, who was elected and served two years.

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