Veronica Anderson, editor

Local school councils—Chicago’s grand experiment to put the power and authority for changing schools into the hands of parents, teachers and community leaders—took more hits this summer. The Chicago School Development Cooperative quietly shut its doors at the end of August after five years of recruiting and supporting council members, and advocating a grassroots reform agenda.

In June, Mayor Richard M. Daley announced a plan to create 100 new schools—a mix of charter, contract and small schools that are not required to seat elected councils. Under the Chicago School Reform Act, councils have legal authority to hire principals, and set priorities for spending discretionary funds and for their schools’ improvement plan.

But the real erosion of local power began long before this summer. It’s been a steady slide that began 10 years ago when Daley took control of the district.

Of course, Daley, Schools CEO Arne Duncan and others who view councils as obstacles to improving schools are too smart to challenge them directly. The last public official who committed that political blunder was soundly defeated. Instead, they are using the 1995 amendments to the reform act and district policies to sidestep councils or replace them with weaker substitutes that would gather the community’s input for schools slated to close and reopen under Renaissance 2010, the 100-school plan.

Unlike LSCs, so-called transition advisory councils seat members who apply to and are chosen by the School Board, which in turn may adopt the councils’ recommendations, but is not obliged to do so. The first time these councils were convened was two years ago, when CPS first tried its close-and-reopen strategy to jumpstart reform at two elementary schools.

Grand Boulevard Federation Director Greg Washington, who was on one of those councils, notes the process is “much more inclusive” now than it was then. The advisory council he sits on to help convert DuSable High School into small schools has reviewed proposals and interviewed applicants. Yet he is skeptical about what role the advisory councils will play after the school is reopened. “It’s not clear to me what the scope of authority would be for advisory boards,” he says.

Also affecting LSCs’ power is a recent change in the CPS accountability policy, which raised the bar schools have to meet to escape being deemed failures. A side effect of that change will render many local school councils lame ducks. LSCs at schools on probation lose all of their decision making authority to the School Board. Last year, councils at 83 schools held that status; more are likely to join their ranks when this year’s probation list is released later this month.

“I’m agnostic on LSCs,” Duncan says. “I just want great schools. I want kids to learn to read. I want some competition.”

However, you’re not likely to get great neighborhood schools if you pay only lip service to the neighborhood. What happens when a transition advisory council recommends something that the board does not want to do? What recourse does a community have to replace a weak principal at a neighborhood school that is on probation? If schools are to be centers of their communities, shouldn’t they grow out of that community?

There are still hundreds of local school councils that are a positive force at their respective schools. They stand as examples of what shared responsibility for public education can produce. But that’s of little solace when the district’s latest stab at school improvement ignores such contributions and continues to chip away at councils’ influence instead of welcoming them as partners.

ABOUT US Kudos to Charles Whitaker, the assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism who copyedits Catalyst Chicago in his spare time, for winning the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence Award, which recognizes Northwestern University faculty for outstanding performance.

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