The campaign to reform Chicago Public Schools that gained traction under Mayor Harold Washington gave Chicago a truly unique form of school governance. While the mayor appoints a School Board that sets district policy, elected Local School Councils continue to choose principals and make budget and management decisions at individual schools.
In 1983, Washington made history in two ways. He became the city’s first African-American and its first who was dedicated to grass-roots empowerment. For most of his first term, a group of white alderman blocked virtually his every move in the City Council. But by 1987, when he won re-election, court-ordered reapportionment of wards had brought allied Hispanic aldermen to the council, and his room to move had expanded.
The same year, nearly a decade of efforts to promote education reform in Chicago came to a head, thanks to a record 19-day teachers strike. Washington harnessed the public energy released by the strike and revitalized his call for an education summit that would gather diverse stakeholders to transform the city’s moribund school district. Upwards of 800 to 900 people gathered on October 11 for a raucous public meeting in which Washington pledged “a thorough and complete overhaul of the system” and promised to appoint a parents advisory council to make it happen.
Less than six weeks later, on November 25, Washington died of a heart attack. Prior to his death he had named 54 people to a new Parent/Community Council (PCC) that would join the business, civic and other leaders who already were part of his Education Summit. Though Washington’s death hit hard among education reformers, PCC chair James Deanes spoke for many at a memorial service when he said, “We want our work to be a legacy of the mayor.”
Ironically, it was not the PCC but a breakaway group of activists and business leaders who pushed for a radical decentralization plan that ultimately became the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. While attention focused on the school-level powers of LSCs, the new law also created a structure through which they could have input on the selection of School Board members .
The School Reform Act left the mayor’s power to appoint the entire School Board intact — as it had throughout city history — but provided that local school councils would elect a nominating committee to develop a pool of candidates.
The fire for democratic school governance in Chicago has dimmed somewhat since 1988.
By 1990, Richard M. Daley had become mayor and installed an interim Board of his own appointees, led by James Compton, then president of the Chicago Urban League. Daley then repeatedly rejected candidates sent to him by the nominating committee, leaving some board vacancies unfilled for more than a year.
Then, in 1995, Daley cut a deal with a Republican-controlled Springfield to take full control of the city’s public schools, and the nominating committee was scrapped. Over the subsequent two decades, central office leaders moved to curtail LSC powers, perhaps most notably by taking back central control of low-performing schools.
Meanwhile, after an initial surge of voter interest, turnout for LSC elections has generally followed a downward trajectory over the last 25 years. The low point came in 2011, when fewer than 20,000 voters turned out. By 2014 turnout had rebounded to 83,503, but that number was less than a third of the vote that came to the polls for the first election in 1989. The decline in voter turnout correlates with declines in the numbers of candidates running and with declining funds for campaigns and training.
See “Reform sparks solid gains but it’s time to turn up heat,” Catalyst February 1995 and Education Week, “Chicago’s Local School Councils ‘Experiment’ Endures 25 Years of Change,” October 2014
Assessments of the impact of LSCs on how schools are governed, like assessments of their educational impact, have been mixed. In his book Deepening Democracy, Harvard University scholar Archon Fung analyzed both LSCs and Chicago’s community policing strategy as examples of “accountable autonomy” in which ordinary citizens and front-line public servants can exercise greater voice and contribute ground-level information and innovative ideas to decision-making. However, Fung acknowledged that both the school district and the police department failed to leverage those local innovations into systemic improvements.
Current efforts to inject greater democratic participation into Chicago education have focused on switching to an elected School Board. Two rounds of advisory referenda on the issue passed by large margins, though it would take action from Springfield to make such a change reality. Mayor Rahm Emanuel opposes the idea; the Chicago Teachers Union is a champion of it.
At the same time, another idea from the Washington era may be gaining steam. Back in 1988, Chicagoans United to Reform Education, a coalition that included Designs for Change, Centers for New Horizons and the United Neighborhood Organization, among others, advocated a hybrid Board that would include both mayoral appointees and representatives elected by districts. Today’s backers of a hybrid board include the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board and Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.
See “Elected school board to be litmus test for aldermanic candidates: grassroots groups,” Catalyst October 2014 and “Who’s in, who’s out on Board of Ed,” Catalyst June 2015