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What Went Wrong?

Insiders spill the dirt on the Vallas-Chico revolution.

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Alexander Russo was working as a Senate aide on Capitol Hill back in the mid-90s when he heard about the education revolution in his hometown. "Everyone in Washington was talking about it," says Russo, a freelance writer who grew up on the north side. "All the great cutting-edge themes--accountability, the end of social promotion--began right here." But by the time Russo moved back to town in 2000 the revolution was washed up. The following year its main architects, schools CEO Paul Vallas and school board president Gery Chico, were forced out by Mayor Daley, who wanted to take the system in a new direction.

Russo's new book, School Reform in Chicago: Lessons in Policy and Practice, is the first attempt to put the Vallas-Chico revolution in perspective. It's a collection of essays by Russo, educators, activists, and central-office insiders, who mix praise and disappointment as they describe the petty rivalries and hubris that brought the revolution to a halt.

As Russo explains it, the Vallas-Chico era marked the second of two education revolutions in the past 16 years. The first occurred in 1987, when the state legislature passed a law decentralizing Chicago's school system. It gave the authority to hire and fire principals, write curricula, and assess budgets to each school's local school council, a nine-person board elected by parents, teachers, and neighborhood residents. Then in 1995, at Daley's request, the state legislature reversed itself, transferring many of these powers back to the central office.

That spring Daley brought in Vallas and Chico, two former aides, to run the system. With Daley's backing, they had more power than any of their predecessors, and they made it clear they intended to use it. It wasn't just education they wanted to change but the culture of the school system. There would be no more excuses--accountability was the new buzzword. Everyone--teachers, janitors, students, even parents--who underperformed would be punished.

Vallas and Chico demanded that schools raise their test scores, and those that didn't were put on probation. The two fired union trade workers and laid off teachers. They were particularly tough on teachers, forcing them--with the complicity of their weak union--to accept a paltry pay raise even though the system was relatively flush. Vallas and Chico held back thousands of students, most of them low-income blacks and Hispanics, as part of their plan to abolish social promotions. If students "failed" the annual standardized achievement test--which hadn't been designed to be pass or fail--they wouldn't be promoted. Both men seemed to take an almost perverse delight in holding press conferences to announce how many thousands of students they were either sending to summer school or holding back.

"They intimidated people," says Russo. And they got away with it because, as the beneficiaries of a hike in state aid and a boost in property taxes, they had more cash on hand than their predecessors, and they weren't afraid to spend it. Vallas in particular loved to play the role of Santa Claus, doling out funds for playgrounds, lockers, roofs, computer labs, and new school buildings.

By 2000 the money was running out, and it was harder to promise new schools in order to win over parents. In the spring of 2001 Vallas found himself in a nasty feud with outraged Hispanic parents, who demanded that he make good on his promise to build a new high school in Little Village. Other parents and teachers had grown tired of hearing about the benefits of tough love from two people who didn't have to deal with the consequences at home and in the classroom. In May of that year the teachers elected Deborah Lynch head of the union, kicking out the former head in part because they thought he'd been too close to Vallas and Chico and wouldn't stand up to them. It became increasingly obvious to Daley that Vallas and Chico had become political liabilities, and in June he asked both to resign. They were replaced by the lower-profile, less-combative Arne Duncan and Michael Scott.

Most of this history is recounted in the essays in Russo's book, some of which include fascinating new details. One must-read account is by Timothy Brandhorst, an attorney brought in by Vallas in 1995 to work in the school system's law department. The deparment was then ensconced in the board's old, sprawling Pershing Road headquarters--a former army warehouse of "massive desks" and "stained carpeting." The "basements were like dungeons, a jumbled maze of hundreds of sealed storage rooms," he writes. "Each division within each department kept possession of its own room or rooms, with its own lock and key; most hadn't been opened in years. Entering one of these was like opening a time capsule. Broken lamps and chairs and desks and shelves were piled high atop file cabinets holding employee work records dating back decades. Rain fell through broken ceiling-level windows onto 1930s-era student attendance records."

Brandhorst also writes that one of his first tasks was to deal with "a roomful of typographical workers--the men and women of the district's print shop, all of whom were laid off when their printing work was privatized." Being tough was part of the job description for the new crew of Vallas aides, "mostly twenty-something budget analysts and lawyers, the kind of young politicos who dream of one day running a city department." They were "the tentacles of the Vallas octopus, an independent network with all lines leading back to Paul."

Their fight against the old guard was as much generational as cultural. "Vallas' new team installed a pair of large, do-it-yourself coffee urns holding Starbucks coffee in one corner of the cafeteria, with a stack of Starbucks cups and lids," Brandhorst writes. "The new Vallas recruits carried their Starbucks cups and lids like badges of honor. The cups became symbolic, the shorthand some in the old guard used to dismissively describe the Vallas people and the totem the new team used to mark membership in their tribe. The new recruits carried their Starbucks coffee, walked fast, met only behind closed doors, and scared the hell out of everyone else. The feeling among those on Vallas' team was, we can do no wrong, because we can't possibly screw things up any worse than they already are. We could just look around the building and get a sense of how badly decayed and rotted the system was."

According to Brandhorst, there was rivalry between Vallas and Chico almost from the start, though both men denied it. "The truth was that most of the managers under them remained loyal to whichever one had recruited them," he writes. "You were either with Paul or you were with Gery. It was that simple. Every action was calibrated by how it might be received from the head of the opposing camp."

Brandhorst credits Vallas with initiating most of the important changes in the system. He writes that Vallas was always at work early and always left late, always in the Pershing Road building or out in the schools. Chico, whose position as president was part-time and unpaid, had a full-time job as a corporate lawyer. He was at Pershing Road just three days each month--for the board meeting, for a press conference, and for his "president's briefing," held one week before the board meeting. At those briefings "Chico grilled the senior managers from every corner of the organization over every point of policy to come before the Board. It made Chico a constant, looming psychological presence in the minds of the system's managers."

Most of the essays offer insights on why the revolution failed, and most of those insights reflect the writer's perspective. Brandhorst writes that the beginning of the end came when the energetic new staffers began getting used to their place in the bureaucracy. Madeline Talbott, head organizer for ACORN, a network of community groups, points to Vallas and Chico losing the support of community groups and parents when the board ran out of money. "[Vallas] liked to make promises," she writes. "When money ran low and groups got tired of promises that were rarely kept, Vallas' stock fell."

John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education, a civic group of business leaders, writes that Vallas and Chico fell from power when the civic community turned against them in 1999. That year Vallas tried to stretch his power too far, unsuccessfully pressing for a state law that would have given him complete control over hiring and firing principals. Ayers also contends that the rivalry between Chico and Vallas got out of control. "By 1999 [Chico] had grown tired of Vallas' grandstanding style," he writes. "The two men began to jealously seek the public's and the mayor's attention on school policy, and bad policy began to result."

In Russo's view, Vallas's tenacity and personality simply became too much for everyone. "Vallas is a very compelling character," he says. "He inspired fear. And because he inspired fear, he got things done. Social promotion ended--you know, the trains running on time. But you can't just use the stick. Unfortunately that was his main tool. After a while you just can't pummel people."

Russo says that in some ways he misses Vallas's and Chico's vitality. "It was a difficult and tumultuous time, and people didn't like being beaten up by Vallas--I understand that," he says. "I don't see a lot of people saying we should go back to the system. But a lot of people feel we needed a kinder, gentler Vallas."

Whatever his achievements, Vallas couldn't translate them into an election victory when he ran for governor in 2002. He'd hoped Chicago voters would be grateful for his work on behalf of the school system, but in the primary he ran behind Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris in most of the city's wards, picking up more votes in districts outside Chicago. Afterward one aldermanic aide cracked, "The farther your kids are from Vallas the better he seems." After his defeat Vallas moved to Philadelphia to become superintendent of its public schools.

Chico is now running in the March 16 Democratic primary for senator, but his campaign is sagging. Looking to bolster it, he recently started distributing a flyer reminding voters of his glory days on the school board. The headline on the flyer reads, "Join Paul Vallas in Supporting Gery Chico for Senate!" Beneath the headline is a photograph of Vallas and Chico standing side by side. Vallas is quoted as saying, "There is no more qualified individual to be your next United States Senator than Gery Chico."

The flyer makes no mention of the rift between the two or the fact that both were pushed out by Daley. Or the fact that the benefits of the new revolution they oversaw are still being debated.

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

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