In fall 1987, then-Mayor Harold Washington’s bid to reform the city’s schools was blessed with the city’s longest teacher strike. The 19-day walkout triggered the community outcry that resulted some 15 months later in the Chicago School Reform Act.

In the fall of 1994, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s bid to control the city’s schools was blessed with a Republican take-over of state government. With the GOP in charge of the Senate, House and governor’s mansion, Daley not only got control of the school system some seven months later, but also got its finances untangled and its unions hobbled.

As most observers saw it, Republicans gave Daley what he wanted but couldn’t get from fellow Democrats. Chicago legislators, Democrats all, “couldn’t agree among themselves to hit at the unions and to make the other necessary moves because of the existing political culture,” James Nowlan of the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs told CATALYST at the time.

The 1995 legislation, applicable only to the Chicago Public Schools, stripped non-teaching employees of civil service and union protections and permitted the board to privatize operations upon 14 days notice. Those provisions paved the way for the layoff of 1,700 employees, some of whom were hired by private contractors.

The act also consolidated the board’s property tax funds, allowing it to tap some $90 million in previously earmarked money for general operations. The biggest chunk was $62.2 million that had been going into the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. Similarly, the act consolidated a number of distinct state revenue streams into an educational services block grant, which afforded more flexibility.

In the governance arena, the Legislature abolished the complex nominating process for School Board members, giving the mayor unfettered authority to name a pared-down board as well as a chief executive officer. Mayor Daley chose a former chief of staff, Gery Chico, for board president and his budget director, Paul Vallas, for CEO.

With their new financial freedoms, the dynamic duo burst on the scene with a four-year teachers union contract, the system’s first, and a host of new programs.

Legislators clipped the wings of the Chicago Teachers Union; it barred bargaining on class size, layoffs, staffing and teacher assignments, among other issues. Even so, the union welcomed the core of the legislative package. “We’ve been seeking accountability, and now maybe we’ll get it,” said CTU spokesperson Jackie Gallagher. “What we had before was a board with no constituency. …”

The union filed suit against offending parts of the package but was unsuccessful. However, the School Board has declined to take full advantage of the openings Republicans gave it. Since taking office, it has clashed publicly only twice with the CTU. Despite union opposition, it cut back on physical education in high schools, and it laid off 40 teachers who had been forced out of schools for various reasons and could not get other principals to hire them.

Local school council advocates also got much of what they wanted from legislators, including principal control of the school maintenance staff.

However, they were wary about Daley’s team. “We still depend on the good will of those people who are wielding the power,” said Sheila Castillo, then coordinator of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils.

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