Chicago’s local school councils generally have enough education, training and experience to govern their schools.
These findings are a preview of a new study of LSCs to be released next month by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. In the final report, the Consortium will address whether LSCs are using their skills and experience effectively.
The study is expected to counter widely held beliefs that councils are not fit to govern and that elected members do not have the skills to make important decisions about schools. The study is based on surveys of 1,900 council members at 325 schools. Councils are composed of six parents, two community representatives, two teachers, the principal and, in high schools, one student.
Susan Ryan, co-author of the study, says news reports about dysfunctional councils have fostered a skewed view. “Myths tend to arise when people pick up the newspaper. The only time LSCs are in the newspaper is when something bad happens [such as] firing a good principal or mis-using funds. People have an image of LSCs as being more trouble than they’re worth.”
Only 14 percent of LSC members report that their councils do not deal constructively with differences of opinion.
In the area of qualifications, the study found that council members have more education than does Chicago’s adult population. Three out of five council members have some college or a bachelor’s degree, compared to two out of five adults citywide. Only 13 percent of LSC members have no high school diploma, compared to 34 percent of Chicago adults. (These findings echo those of a survey Catalyst conducted in 1989, shortly after the first LSCs were elected.)
While LSC elections are held every two years, a large majority of council chairs—nearly 60 percent—have served three years or more. Such stability offsets the higher turnover among other parent members, and maintains a level of policy and budget expertise, says Ryan.
When it comes to fitness to govern, the majority of council members rate themselves as both competent and proactive in improving their school. About a third say that while their council is competent, it tends not to push for change; at these schools, new programs are more likely the result of principal or teacher initiative. Only 9 percent say their council is not prepared to govern.
Ryan says that councils that rate themselves negatively tend to be ones with poor attendance or with unresolved conflicts.
Ryan acknowledges that self-evaluations tend to paint a rosier picture than reality. Noting that parent and community members are serving without pay, she says, “People need to validate what they’re doing on the council.”
However, the Consortium has confidence in their evaluations because principals and LSC teacher reps responded similarly, she says. Also, the LSC results correlate highly with results from a 1994 teacher survey, she says.
The survey also shows that many LSC members tap their professional or civic connections to provide resources for their schools. One council member who is also a librarian set up a partnership with the neighborhood library. A member employed by a corporation near the school helped start a tutoring program that allowed colleagues to help students on company time. At Ray Elementary in Hyde Park, the University of Chicago has supplied Spanish tutors and support in advanced math, says LSC Chair Kenneth Warren, an English professor.
Most council members also say serving on an LSC helped them develop new personal skills and a sense of empowerment. On the flip side, they say, LSC service exacts a personal cost in time and stress, especially over making tough decisions.
Overall, the racial-ethnic mix on the councils is closer to that of the city than of the public school population: About 64 percent of parent and community representatives are African American, Hispanic or another minority; about 62 percent of Chicago adults are minority; but 89 percent of Chicago’s public school students are minority.