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The Power Nobody Wants

Twelve years ago the creation of Local School Councils gave the public unprecedented control over their schools. Thousands of parents and community members got involved. So where's everybody now?

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By Linda Lutton

It's early February and Andy Wade is working the phones, counting candidates. Behind him, Chicago's 591 public schools are plotted out on a dog-eared CPS wall map. About two-thirds of the schools are highlighted; circles, lines, and penciled-in names of community organizations fill the margins and the spaces between schools.

"This is actually out-of-date," says Wade, glancing at the map. He grabs a manila folder and pages through last-minute proposals from community organizations that want money for specific schools. "What we need to do is catch our breath and find out, OK, after we've tried to fill all the holes, where are the other holes? Then maybe we can bring in this SWAT team approach."

This is ground zero--Wade's office at the nonprofit Chicago School Leadership Development Cooperative. It's the nerve center of a citywide campaign to recruit candidates and voters for the largest, if least publicized, municipal elections in the state and perhaps the country. On April 5 and 6, report card pickup day, Chicagoans will choose more than 4,500 parents and community residents to serve on the local school councils of nearly every school in the city. They'll have the power to hire and fire principals, map out educational strategy, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. If you want to run, all you need to do is sign up.

But you probably haven't. That's where Wade comes in.

"It's basic campaign organizing. We're trying to mobilize every resource we can to increase participation," he says. Wade's the thirtysomething executive director of the cooperative, which he helped found after the 1998 LSC elections attracted the lowest number of candidates ever, 10 percent fewer than in 1996. There was also a 14 percent drop in voters. The cooperative has been acting as a clearinghouse, passing money and information to community groups all over the city that are beating the bushes for candidates.

Less than a year ago, Wade was running a campaign from his dining room table to defeat Senate Bill 652, CPS-backed legislation that would have limited the councils' core power--their ability to choose a principal. "No SB 652" stickers are still pasted to memos and maps in Wade's new--if humble--digs at State and Adams, a reminder of what's at stake. "Local school councils have gone through some tough times the last few years," says Wade. "Things are rebounding, but the school council movement needs a good election."

Whatever the threat from an aggressive central office, the fundamental enemy of the LSCs is dwindling public participation. By design, the councils are a grassroots democratic institution that presumes the participation of thousands of people. If the public opts out, the foundation the institution was built on disappears. Aside from 1996, the year voting was changed to report card pickup day, the number of candidates and voters has dropped with every election. Whether this decline has been due to apathy, ignorance, or despair, or even to the complacency that often follows success, the goal of this winter's frenzied campaign has been to reverse the pattern and show that the councils still matter. Tuesday's the deadline for candidates to register. "This is drop-dead serious," says Wade. "February 29 is a very important date."

Eleven years ago, chaotic excitement surrounded the first LSC elections. "I hate to be like an old man talking about the good old days, but it really was wild," says John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education, a consortium formed in 1989 by Chicago businesses to make sure the new reform legislation was implemented. "There was so much publicity in the '88 period. There was so much discussion. This was the way we were going to change schools. Anybody with a civic interest and with young children was intrigued with this idea, that they could go in and see what a school was like and try to help a principal change it--cool."

The elections were big: there were 17,000 people running for 5,400 seats on the new councils, with about three candidates for every parent seat, four candidates for every community seat, and two candidates for every teacher seat. More than 312,000 people came out to vote.

Just two years earlier, Education Secretary William Bennett had called Chicago's schools "the worst in the nation." He said, "You've got close to educational meltdown here." Principalships were patronage positions guaranteed for life. Yet principals had no control over either their staffs or their curricula. The central office was a bloated bureaucracy; one schools advocacy group showed that the board was using nearly a third of its state Chapter 1 funds--millions of dollars intended for schools serving poor students--for "program support" at the central office. Dropout rates were around 50 percent--higher in poor neighborhoods--and just 8 percent of the kids who went to neighborhood high schools graduated reading at grade level.

In 1987 teachers hit the picket lines for the ninth time since 1970. The 19-day strike was the last straw; it brought together school reform groups, community groups, foundations, and the business community, which feared for the quality of tomorrow's workforce. By the end of 1988 this alliance had brought sweeping change home from Springfield. The most dramatic was the creation of the LSCs. Every school would be run by an elected body of six parents, two community members, and two teachers as well as the principal; high school councils would include a student representative as well. LSC members didn't have to be registered voters or even legal residents of the U.S. They didn't need to speak English. They didn't need a high school diploma.

The reform legislation terminated principal tenure overnight. The Chicago Principals Association sued on the grounds that principals' "property rights" were being denied. They lost. But principals also won: they gained autonomy over their curricula and budgets; they could now fill staff vacancies without regard to seniority. They could run their schools.

This was the backdrop for the first LSC elections. "There was electricity in the air," says James Deanes, a west-side parent of four and a key leader in the reform movement. "Of course, we didn't know it was going to be as much hard work, either, but it was good hard work, a good sweat."

Deanes was elected to two councils in '89. "Prior to that, we were trying to get African-centered curriculum at Prosser [high school]," he says. "The teachers were like, 'What are you talking about? We're not gonna do that shit.' Well, once we had the authority to change curriculum we said, 'Yes, we are now.'"

Councils introduced new reading programs and reduced class sizes by hiring new teachers. They mandated uniforms, designed discipline codes, and adjusted the school day, canceling recess or starting classes earlier or later. Councils put the heat on poorly performing staff, from classroom teachers to building engineers. They began art and music programs, introduced foreign language classes, expanded libraries, and started computer labs. They recruited parents and community members as volunteers, and they formed partnerships with universities and cultural institutions.

Today, Deanes heads the school board's Office of School and Community Relations, which administers the LSC elections. "The LSCs were about changing the attitude of disrespect," he says, a photo of the late Mayor Washington on the office wall behind him (his must be one of the few city offices without a photo of Mayor Daley) along with the same wall map of the system Wade has, though Deanes's isn't marked up. "Before, when principals were appointed by central office, they wouldn't respect parents. You never got to see the principal. The first principal I ever had interaction with--he was very, very old. His practice in the later part of his life had been to come to school and just go into his office all day. Central office didn't know because they didn't care. They put him there and they walked away.

"Some people would go to a school and the furthest they would get would be to the clerk. They thought the clerk was the principal because they would tell you what you could do. 'Yes, you can see this teacher.' 'No, you can't.' Now I'm talking to the principal as an equal. We're sitting around the table. We're voting things up and down based on merit. That's what LSCs and the whole school reform movement did--it made everyone equal."

No other large public school system has given so much power to parents. "What we started out with and what we still have is the most far-reaching and radical urban public school system in the country in terms of local participation in decision making," says Sue Davenport, executive director of the research group Designs for Change. But in the 1998 elections just 7,289 candidates ran for 5,664 seats and 147,000 votes were cast, less than half the number in 1989. Only 58 percent of the schools even held contested elections--and "contested" can mean as few as seven candidates for the six parent seats.

"We knew we could never sustain that level of activity, that it would regularize and normalize," says John Ayers. "But now we have a whole new generation of parents and community activists who need to learn about this possibility. People have a new shot at this."

It's the last Saturday in January at the public library at 91st and Houston. "I'm probably having a little bad luck today," says Leo Fontana. There are more people lined up in the next room to have their taxes E-filed to the IRS than there are at Fontana's event, an LSC recruitment meeting. "I probably called about 200, 250 people," says Fontana, who also passed out flyers over a 30-block area and dropped them at four schools. There are seven people in the room for the English presentation, and nine more will show up an hour later for the one in Spanish. "I'm not complaining about the turnout," says Fontana. "But I am."

Fontana isn't new to this. In the early 90s he worked for the United Neighborhood Organization, organizing parent groups around school improvement issues and recruiting parents to run and vote in LSC elections on the southeast side. With a largely immigrant Mexican constituency, UNO saw LSCs as a way to make the schools more culturally sensitive while bringing recent immigrants into the democratic process. UNO brought more buses to Springfield to support reform and recruited more candidates afterward than any other organization in the city.

Fontana was brought on by the Juan Diego Community Center last month and will stay through the elections in April. His salary is covered by an $8,800 grant from Wade's cooperative, and his assignment is to recruit LSC candidates at six schools in South Chicago, help them run their campaigns, and then get out the vote.

"The difficulty," says Fontana, "is that parents don't want to give up their time to serve on something where they're not gonna get any money, and the only thing they get is a lot of heartache and headache, and it really only gives them minimal prestige. Ask anybody who's served on an LSC. So it's not in the interest of parents to really run, a lot of times. Now, take principals. They're not exactly the most helpful. Some realize the importance of it, but it's not really in their interest to have a lot of parents telling them what to do."

The Urban League has tried to recruit parents to run at 23 south-side schools. But at two separate meetings in late January, no parents showed up; Urban League staffers munched the cheese and crackers intended for potential candidates. "We've tried flyers, phone calls, we've visited schools," says the Urban League's Katherine Raglin. "I guess we're gonna have to come up with some different strategies."

Raglin and Urban League researcher Ryan Tyler took their message to Libby School, at 53rd and Loomis. Libby's main entrance overlooks a pastoral corner of Sherman Park, but on every other side of Libby, houses are boarded up or burned down. Raglin and Tyler passed out information to a small group of mothers and grandmothers attending a parents meeting in a basement meeting room. Raglin spoke for 20 minutes about what councils are and why parents should get involved with them. But of the seven parents present, two are already on the council. Of the other five, four are paid parent aides who would have to give up those jobs to take office.

"I got four kids, so right now I need that little change that's comin' in," confessed one mother who gets $18 a day for working in the kindergarten. At Libby, six people had signed up to be election judges before a single person registered as a candidate; judges get paid $100 cash to train for two hours and then work the polls on election day from 6 AM to 9 PM. By February 10--just 19 days from the deadline--not enough parents had signed up at a single one of the Urban League's 23 target schools to fill its council. At only one school had the requisite two community members signed up.

"We don't want to be the same ones running all the time," says Victoria Barton, a Libby LSC member who attended the parents meeting. She's running again, but she believes that the more candidates there are the more new ideas will be generated. "I would like to see a lot of new faces. I think it's important."

On the other side of Chicago, the Northwest Neighborhood Federation has targeted nine schools and asked the current LSC members to help recruit more candidates; it's an idea some of the members themselves proposed. Organizer Judy Kollins says, "It seems that there's a sentiment among some current LSC members, like 'Our LSC is not effective enough.' It's a feeling of 'We want to improve our LSCs.'"

Andy Wade is young, white, and has no kids. He did a short stint on the Mitchell School LSC in West Town, filling a vacancy, but when elections came around he lost the only race he's ever run. He's an unlikely choice to head up a public schools organizing drive--but then, he's the one who spotted an opening and stepped up to fill it. "I think of myself much more as a communications person than an organizer," says Wade. "We'll hook you up to the people who are doing the organizing, but they do the organizing."

Wade worked on the '98 LSC elections for Leadership for Quality Education, coordinating community outreach in a three-week blitz campaign that was made possible by an 11th-hour $85,000 grant from the Annenberg Challenge. When LQE received the grant, 1,833 people had registered as candidates. When registration closed 16 days later, 7,289 were signed up. Convinced that community organizing had boosted the numbers, Wade institutionalized the niche he'd just occupied. The Chicago School Leadership Development Cooperative--which is such an impossible mouthful that everyone just calls it "Andy Wade's group"--lets him do the same thing all over, but with foundation money, staff, and a downtown office.

In 1989, foundations gave somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million to support community organizing. Two years later that amount dropped to $318,000. By 1996 community organizations had $246,000 to work with, and in 1998 merely $130,000.

But Wade's cooperative, ringing foundations' doorbells in tandem with Ayers's LQE, has rounded up grants in a big way--some $420,000 all told. As the fiscal agent, LQE handles the money and writes the checks. The cooperative deals with the community groups. In addition to distributing $250,000 among 36 groups, Wade has hired two organizers to help them and to work areas where no groups are active. He's retained a PR firm and created a $50,000 radio spot targeted to black and Latino audiences. He has a two-minute infomercial running every half hour on cable TV, and the cooperative airs its own cable show every Thursday night at seven. The ads and shows all give the co-op's toll-free bilingual phone number, 1-877-VOTE-LSC. Callers are referred to community groups doing election work in their areas.

Wade has forwarded to those groups the CPS's dismal reports on candidate registration. "I want people to see that," he says. "It's a very good motivational tool. Yeah, CPS is breathing down my neck, and everyone wants this thing to go differently than it usually goes. But all I can say is, things that had not happened in the past are happening.

"This is not a process where it's like hundreds of people at a time," he continues. "You get 'em in threes and fives and tens. It's grassroots, and sometimes it feels a little nickel-and-dime, but by the end of it I think we'll be better off than we were two years ago--by a lot.

"This isn't the revolution, you know. There's a certain element of--this is a campaign to get people to eat their broccoli. Being on an LSC is hard work."

You won't hang around Ninos Heroes Academy long before you run into Don Norwood. "My wife put me out because she said I couldn't cook," jokes Norwood, who was the first black mail carrier in South Chicago. "So what I did, I came up to the school. See, when you retire you have to have a hobby, and my hobby is trying to make my community better."

Ninos is a big box plunked down on flat, open land a stone's throw from the 83rd Street Metra stop. Seventy-two percent of Ninos's students are African-American, and except for one or two white kids the rest are Latino. Ninety-two percent of the 800 students are low income. Ninos is one of Leo Fontana's target schools.

Norwood chairs the LSC. "I'll stand with any child at Ninos," he says. "There are some good schools, but you never hear of the good schools--you always hear of the ones that's failing." Ninos is a neighborhood school that's been climbing for the last decade. Norwood, whose granddaughter is in the gifted first- and second-grade classroom, is sure the LSC made Ni–os better.

In 1990, 22 percent of its students scored at or above national reading norms as measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. By 1999 just over a third scored that high. In 1990, just 26 percent of the students scored at or above national math norms; in 1999 half did. The teachers work from a curriculum they created themselves--"If teachers are 100 percent involved in the design then they're going to implement it with more energy," says the principal, Gloria Stratton.

The inside of Ni–os Heroes is bright and orderly. Student papers line the walls outside every classroom. "That's my comment right there," says Stratton, pointing to a happy face on a second grader's paper. She reads 800 compositions a month, every month--one from every student in the school, kindergarten through eighth grade. She stops in every classroom at least once a day, "to see if teachers have everything they need, to see that the children are wearing their uniforms." Stratton's grandson also belongs to the gifted first- and second-grade classroom. "My grandson is here because I think it's a good school," she says.

The LSC controls nearly a million dollars in state Chapter 1 funds--roughly one-third of the school's budget. By contrast, the typical school in most big-city systems controls only about $25,000 in discretionary funds. So what has the LSC bought? In every classroom from kindergarten through fourth grade there's either a teacher's assistant or a paid parent in addition to the regular classroom teacher. Every classroom has a small library of books and three or four computers. A large resource room is packed to overflowing with novels, workbooks, and audiovisual material that the teachers chose. In the computer lab, the words "Excellence in Scholarship" flash across some 20 computers, all Internet connected, as photos of students who got straight A's the previous quarter fill the screens. The LSC was instrumental in getting two mobile units from the board to reduce overcrowding, in organizing an after-school reading program, and in starting a mentoring program that Norwood is constantly haranguing other retired postal workers to join.

There are 1,800 African-American parent and community LSC members and 700 Latino parent and community LSC members in Chicago, the largest concentration of minority elected officials in the nation. Norwood is in many ways typical. A 1997 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that 63 percent of the parent and community reps had completed at least some college, and that the average LSC member spent 11 hours a month on official LSC duties and another 17 hours volunteering at the school. Norwood has two years of college under his belt ("I don't know what good it did me," he jokes) and spends so many of his days at the school that "everyone in the kindergarten calls me granddaddy."

When the old principal retired in 1991, the council chose Stratton, a Ninos teacher, to replace her. Stratton took over in 1992 after a court battle--some community members were insisting a Latino get the job. If Norwood has his way she'll never leave. "I'm going to really get mad when the board tries to move somebody from here," he says, displaying his suspicions of the central office. "If they ever try to make a move..."

Norwood says Stratton is open and responsive with her LSC. "But we call her on some things," he says. "It's not one of those we-go-along-with-everything councils, because no, we don't. See, a good council fights." Under the old principal the school was a "dictatorship."

"But that's the way most schools were then," says Stratton. "Yeah, they were dictatorships, because that's the way they were designed. The board itself was a dictator. And those principals did what they were told. Some of them ran better buildings because they were better dictators, but still, they were the law. And they read the law as it was given to them.

"The feeling that I get when I talk to principals--none of them have ever been enamored of local school councils," she says. "I think that's just a throwback from the dictatorship days. Everybody likes a little power if they can get it. But the kinds of innovations that they make at their schools are often due to the fact that we've got reform here. They were forced to do some things.

"I would have tried to do some of the things I am doing now whether reform came or not. And the reason I think I could have done them is because the board--they've never been known for coming out and doing any monitoring. This was the same reason I was able to do things in my own classroom, because the principal didn't come to the class.

"When this first started, a lot of little groups that were doing the training, their major focus was, 'We're going to show you how to hire a principal.' Because everybody wanted to get the principal out--they didn't know whether the principal was any good or not, let's just get him out. But once they got past that--they did that for about four, five, six years--people began to say, 'What could we do at this school?' And principals, once they got past the fear that they were going to be fired, they began to settle back and say, 'You know what I could do here? I could do this!' And then it began to be, 'We could do this.' And you began to get more and more councils working as teams with principals, and I think now that is more prevalent than not."

Norwood recalls there were a couple dozen candidates for Ninos Heroes' first LSC. This year 11 signed up for the eight parent and community seats, and that, by the city's current standards, is a lot. "I think if we could have 70 run, then I'd like to see that," he says. "That means the principal and everybody else that's in the administration knows that we're watching them. It's just the idea that people care.

"When you get the same people running over and over, they can just become a rubber stamp for the principal."

Stratton sat on her school's first LSC as a teacher representative. She remembers that the new council kept the principal on despite wanting someone different because they didn't know how to make a change. "I saw the principal here, when they did that first vote for her--this woman was visibly shaking. A woman who basically when she became a principal knew that she was a principal for life--now her life was in the hands of ten people. And when they told her yes, you're gonna get a contract, her knees actually buckled. I mean, I was watching her. She almost collapsed because she was that tense.

"And a lot of principals were like that. They were scared to death that they were going to be out of work. What were they going to do? They weren't gonna go back in the classroom. And to be told by a parent that you can't have this job! 'You don't have any education and you can tell me that!'"

Reform, says Stratton, liberated the creative principals, teachers, and parents to reinvent their schools. "That's why there's so many differences in the schools now, because you have different people with different visions and different communities, so they could create things that fit them. So you're under a contract. So what? Shouldn't you be? Shouldn't you be accountable, seriously accountable? I personally think that teachers should be under a contract as well."

It's easy to find newspaper stories about Chicago's improving public schools, but not ones that tie the improvements to the LSCs. Indeed, "reform" has been redefined by the mayor and school board--with the acquiescence of the press--and no longer refers to 1988 but to the 1995 state law that gave Mayor Daley the power to appoint a "reform" board of trustees and a schools CEO, who'd be Paul Vallas. The image of LSCs in the public's mind--and therefore its inclination to get involved with them--is surely affected by coverage of the councils that's limited to their conflicts and controversy, while everything good in the schools seems to be the work of Vallas.

"I remember back in the very first set of principal selections," says Anne Hallett, executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform. "I think there were 275 schools that chose principals. The 10 that were controversial got all the play, so there was a big New York Times article about 'Ten Schools in an Uproar Over Race Issues' or whatever the issues were, and all over the country for years after everybody said, 'Oh, I just hear things are a mess in Chicago, everything's so controversial.' Well, they didn't talk about the 265 schools where LSCs did a very fast turnaround, did a very thoughtful job of selecting new leadership."

The larger picture isn't sexy, and it's also not easy to cover. "Very quickly after the '89 elections, school reform activity completely outstripped the dailies' ability to cover it, because it was decentralized," says John Ayers. "They couldn't really get a handle on it. Vallas is a godsend for the dailies because he packages things nicely and makes it all simple."

LQE isn't anti-Vallas; the business community helped write the 1995 law that allowed Daley to take over the schools. But the fact that Chicagoans who pick up a newspaper now read about changes that seem to have everything to do with Vallas and nothing to do with LSCs does lessen participation, Ayers believes. And just as Secretary Bennett's "worst in the nation" comment incited the public to work for change, story after story about improving test scores might reassure people that there's no pressing need to get involved.

"Clearly, now the attention is on Vallas and on the centralized attempts that he is making both to fix the system's infrastructure and to increase student accountability and school accountability," says Ayers. "I think there is a sense that he's not as invested in the LSC strategy. However, if you know Vallas and you talk to him, he recognizes the power of the LSC to be a great help to a well-performing school. But he also is the manager of the system, so he gets to see LSCs at their least effective--he gets to see them in schools that are working poorly."

Just after the 1988 reform law passed, Ayers took a tour of his neighborhood school, Darwin Elementary. "The tour is perfunctory, it's very short, and then this chatty coordinator pulls out the magnet guide and basically said, 'I can see you're middle-class--these are the schools for you. This is the school for poor people.' Now, we still do that in Chicago to some degree--middle-class parents naturally seek out magnet options. But here is a person who, after the school reform bill passes, I would think would be thinking, 'Oh, here's some middle-class families, let's bring them in here.' But her version was 'This school is not for you.' I was just appalled by that."

So when elections came around, Ayers ran. "I had an 18-month-old baby, and I ran a piece of campaign literature that said, 'Maya's going to attend Darwin School, because in six years it's going to be a shining example of greatness.' And I did win the election as a community rep. That campaign promise was very interesting because it showed the kind of optimism we all had."

But Maya didn't go to Darwin. "The school was chaos," says Ayers. "I was not part of a successful LSC. We had a set of Hispanic parents who wanted the black principal out." Ayers tried to promote a school-within-a-school concept that didn't catch on. "We lost a vote on small schools, we lost a vote on uniforms. At some point I said out loud--and I probably shouldn't have--I said, 'You know, this is like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. We're running through the halls yelling "Jailbreak!" and everybody wants everything to stay the same.'"

But his faith in the concept wasn't broken. "For every story like me, there's good ones," he says. "It was discouraging for me, because I really did want to put my kid in that school--it was a half a block from my house. But more than most, I got to see other success stories. Even in Logan Square I saw some other success stories. You could say, 'Yeah, it's corrupt,' and so on, but because it's a democratic process it has the potential for turning around. If you can get 50 people or 100 people to vote for you, you can win an LSC election, and that's not that hard to organize. You can change your school."

That's what eventually happened at Darwin. Ayers was defeated for reelection as the school went through four principals in five years, was ranked by test scores as one of the 100 worst schools in the city, and was put on remediation. Graffiti covered the building, and morale among teachers hit bottom. But heated elections in 1996 unseated most of the council. Test scores have gone up significantly each year since a new LSC was voted in. In 1996, just 14.9 percent of Darwin students were reading at or above national norms; in 1999, 30 percent were. The school is graffiti free and boasts a model parent-mentor program.

"It is one step away, and it's not everything of what an excellent school is, but it's part of it," says Ayers. "Governance sets the table for a good school."

Ayers doesn't see Vallas as an enemy of LSCs. "I've seen him stand and take notes for three hours with individual parents and teachers about what's going on in their schools. He will just stand at an event and he will write on index cards. Now, a guy who didn't care about LSCs and about the political structure we've created wouldn't do that. He would say, 'Good-bye. Talk to my staff.' He knows that he has to try to solve the problem that school people have with the central office. He's respectful when he's one-on-one with people. The way he spends his weekends is trying to get information out of people about what's going on. He's a complex character."

Vallas and board president Gery Chico have said they'd like 10,000 candidates in the race, and if the final number's anywhere near that, Vallas won't deny himself the credit. "I think the heightened activity surrounding this year's elections--a lot of that activity is being promoted by the board," he says. According to deputy chief education officer Carlos Azcoitia, CPS has spent $1 million to $1.5 million on every LSC election since '89, mostly on logistics--printing ballots and paying judges, for instance. This year the board is doing more. It's paying a stipend to an election coordinator at every school. Thanks to lobbying by Wade, it's allowing community organizations to register candidates. CPS printed jazzier election materials this year and hit the streets earlier with them. Vallas, not to mention Mayor Daley, has repeatedly talked up the elections. "If you don't want me to pick the principal," Vallas told community newspapers a few days ago, at a luncheon reported by the Lerner papers, "then go out and elect a local school council."

"They are taking a more positive attitude about the elections than they have in the last ten years," says Sue Davenport of Designs for Change. But the most dramatic step Vallas took to spur interest in this election wasn't positive at all. "In the wake of Senate Bill 652, lots of attention was focused on LSCs," says Wade. "I think it woke a lot of people up."

Vallas fought hard for the bill, which in effect would have allowed the central office to veto LSC principal selections it didn't agree with and appoint its own principals instead. LSC members and reform groups saw the proposed law as an attack on the core power of the local school councils; their aggressive opposition led to a compromise that most community people view as a defeat for Vallas. The central office gained no new powers, while principals who feel they've been unfairly cashiered can now ask an independent arbitrator to step in.

Vallas says the system simply needed another check on the power LSCs have over principals--and got one. "I think now what you have is decentralized decision making and centralized accountability. So I really think that you have a balance. And the fact that you do have from time to time some tension between certain groups that are advocates for greater local control, and perhaps others who advocate greater centralized authority--that's healthy. That's a healthy tension. There's a good check and balance."

But even before Senate Bill 652 was introduced, Vallas had said on the record that LSCs had about the right amount of power. And just weeks after the compromise legislation passed, Vallas was attacking again; he asked the board to expand his powers to declare a school in educational crisis, a status in which its LSC can be dissolved. So it is that even people who work closely with him wonder about his commitment to LSCs. "Does Paul Vallas want to see the LSCs have less power? Yes, I think he does," said James Deanes. "Now, it depends on who he's talking to that he'll say that, but he's generally pretty consistent that there are too many cases for his comfort level where the LSCs get involved with 'I'm running it, I'm the boss, you've got to do what I say. I don't care what Paul Vallas says.'"

Organizers from Blocks Together, a northwest-side community organization Nancy Carrasquillo has been active in, asked her to run for her local school council. She's lived in Humboldt Park for 20 years and worked on an array of school and community issues. After attending a Blocks Together meeting for potential candidates last month, she went home convinced. "I said, 'Oh, this is something good. I fully agree with it that the parents and the community have a say-so into what's going on at the school. This is exactly what I'm talking about.'"

Carrasquillo's older son had gone to Catholic schools, and she didn't know much about the LSCs. But now she's so sold on the idea that she intends to run at two schools, as a community representative at Lowell Elementary, a block from her home, and as a parent rep at Sabin Magnet, where her younger son is in fourth grade. "I didn't know that they had so much to do with the schools," says Carrasquillo of the LSCs. "Now I know that's the only way you can really change things." At Lowell, Carrasquillo plans to run on a platform of smaller class sizes, more help for teachers, and either a larger school or a new nearby school to reduce overcrowding. At Sabin she'd like to get other parents more involved--"so they can see what it is their kids are learning and what's going on in the school."

The differences in the two schools anger her. Her son could walk to Lowell, but a teacher warned her not to put him there, so he's bused three miles to Sabin. At Lowell "each room has about 40, 45 kids, and the teachers don't have any teacher's aides." At Sabin "there's between 15 and 18 or 19 kids in a classroom, plus the teacher has a teacher's aide. I said, 'What is going on over here? This is not right.' And I say, 'Well, I have to put my two cents in because I don't see the justice.'"

But though Carrasquillo started campaigning in January, with just a few days to go till the deadline she hadn't actually filed. "I've been so busy telling everybody I know that I'm running, I just haven't had the time," she says. Andy Wade has to hope there are 8,000 late but committed Nancy Carrasquillos in Chicago. By last Sunday, nine days before the deadline, just 2,000 parents, community people, and teachers had signed up. In 1996 and 1998 the Board of Education extended the deadline, but James Deanes has said that won't happen this year.

Wade's "SWAT teams" have hit the street. They're canvassing areas where community organizations aren't--mostly on the south and west sides--descending on schools twice a day to catch parents who are dropping off or picking up their kids. And when that campaign ends Tuesday, Wade and the folks in the neighborhoods will be only half done. Then they'll have to go looking for voters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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