Control over school resources has seesawed between schools and central office since the watershed Reform Act of 1988. CPS now gives “star principals” more freedom while tightening the screws on struggling schools. (Items with a red heading indicate autonomy-related events; those with a blue heading are related to accountability.)

September 1987

For the ninth time since 1970, CPS teachers go on strike over the School Board’s refusal to consider raises. Incensed, parents organize and hold end-the-strike rallies and begin calling for broad reforms to the school system and an overhaul of central office bureaucracy. Grassroots groups—not all of which agreed on how much freedom schools should get—soon begin shaping an agenda to fight for school reform in Springfield in 1988.

July 1989: Local control

The first School Reform Act goes into effect, shifting power from central office and giving schools an unprecedented degree of autonomy through elected local school councils comprised of parents, teachers, community residents and principals. LSCs have the power to hire principals, oversee spending of state poverty money, write school improvement plans and set curricula. Principals can fill vacant teaching jobs with the applicants of their choice, regardless of seniority. Special councils are established as a check on subdistrict superintendents who suggest remediation plans and probation for failing schools.

March 1992: Shift of power?

The School Finance Authority rejects the district’s latest systemwide reform plan, saying it doesn’t shift enough power to LSCs. The plan cuts the amount of money to be shifted to local schools to $243 million from $430 million and encroaches on councils’ power to determine curriculum by prescribing course syllabi and student assessments. Some reform advocates say more decentralization is needed to revitalize schools, while others begin to question that sentiment, saying schools and principals may not have the resources to carry out jobs previously done by central office.

December 1994: Remediation

Though the Reform Act empowers CPS to close or shakeup low-performing schools, not one school in six years has undergone such remediation or even been placed on probation. Supt. Argie Johnson, however, steps up pressure on subdistrict superintendents to intervene at struggling schools. West Pullman Elementary wins the dubious distinction of becoming the first. The following year, Johnson unveils plans to create an independent accountability division to evaluate schools at least once every four years.

May 1995: Mayoral takeover

Sweeping revisions to the Reform Act give Mayor Richard M. Daley power to choose a CEO and handpick members of the school board. The CEO has power to place schools on probation or remediation. Two strategies for overhauling failing schools are added: reconstitution, under which teachers can be transferred out; and intervention, which allows for dismissal of staff following hearings and evaluations.

An amendment later caps the amount of state poverty funds controlled by LSCs at $261 million, but gives the School Board the authority to keep and decide how to spend annual increases in excess of that amount. Due to inflation, the financial freeze deals a blow to local autonomy and school-directed spending.

June 1995: The Vallas era

The mayor appoints his budget director, Paul Vallas, as CEO. Under his leadership, decisions to place schools on probation are based solely on test scores rather than hearings. Seven months later, Vallas announces that 21 schools are being placed in remediation, the least stringent form of intervention provided for by the new Reform Act.

February 1996: Charters

State lawmakers approve the creation of 45 charter schools—15 in Chicago, 15 in the collar county suburbs and 15 downstate. Envisioned as incubators of innovation, charters are exempt from many bureaucratic regulations and from hiring union teachers. In exchange for autonomy, charters face district accountability via five-year contracts that set student performance expectations.

Sept. 1996: Academic probation

The board places 109 schools—71 elementary schools and 38 high schools—on academic probation. The criterion: having fewer than 15 percent of students meeting national norms in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills or (in high schools) the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency.

May 1997: Academic standards

CPS approves standards that spell out what children should know and be able to do in language arts, math, science and social science by the end of 3rd, 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th grades. The standards are more specific than those written several years ago by a joint task force of the board and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Sept. 1997: State watch list

The same year the Illinois State Board of Education creates a set of learning standards, it also creates an “academic early warning list” of poorly performing schools. The list of 125 schools includes 93 in Chicago. Schools with low scores on the state’s standardized test, then called IGAP for Illinois Goals Assessment Program, are placed on the list. If schools do not make progress, they are then placed on the state’s “academic watch list,” and could eventually be shut down.

June 2000: High school intervention

In a direct challenge to school autonomy, CPS officials announce plans to intervene at six failing high schools. Under state law, officials can replace the principal, order new LSC elections and fire any school employee after an evaluation. The six schools are Bowen, Collins, DuSable, Juarez, Orr and South Shore; however, the board later decides not to use intervention at Juarez.

June 2001: Intervention on hold

When test scores generally drop at five high schools placed on intervention, Vallas announces the policy will not be expanded to other schools. By August, new CEO Arne Duncan calls for an end to the punitive policy and eventually closes the district’s Office of Intervention.

January 2002: No Child Left Behind signed

President Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a sweeping reform bill with provisions that include sanctions for schools that continually fail to meet improvement targets. The law also increases federal dollars to public schools, with Chicago receiving an additional $25 million.

March 2002: Failing charters

Citing poor academic performance, the district votes not to renew the charter at Nuestra America Charter in West Humboldt Park, making it the second Chicago charter to be closed. In 1998, Chicago Preparatory High School shut itself down under pressure from the district.

April 2002: School closings

School officials announce the closing of three chronically poor-performing elementary schools—Terrell, Williams and Dodge—along with plans to re-open Williams and Dodge as revamped “Renaissance Schools” in fall 2003. This is the first time that the district has closed schools for poor performance, outraging the teachers union and various grassroots organizations.

September 2002: Restructuring

CPS launches a new effort to help schools carry out initiatives to improve instruction. The district is divided into 24 regional areas, each with its own area instructional officer (AIO). AIOs serve as mentors for principals, and among other responsibilities, lead classroom “walkthroughs” at schools to provide feedback on instruction.

October 2002: Revamped policy

The district revamps its accountability policy, rewarding schools not just for overall achievement, but also for gains on tests and, at the high school level, other factors such as lower dropout rates. The new policy measures progress as well as overall scores on the Iowa and TAP tests.

April 2003: Done deal

In signing into law a measure that restores some bargaining rights to the Chicago Teachers Union, Gov. Rod Blagojevich also doubles the number of charter schools in Chicago to 30.

June 2004: Renaissance 2010

Mayor Daley announces a plan to shut down dozens of schools and create 100 new ones—all with extra autonomy in exchange for increased accountability—by 2010. Activists gear up for battle, citing lack of community and parent input into the sweeping proposal, which was largely based on recommendations published in a 2003 report by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a business group.

September 2004: Probation

A third of schools, 212, are placed on academic probation after provisions of the No Child Left Behind law trigger the district to raise the bar for schools’ overall performance on standardized tests. Schools on probation must spend their discretionary funds on designated programs, such as full-day kindergarten or reading specialists, under the area instructional officer’s direction.

June 2005: Elite schools

The district invites 85 principals from high-performing schools to cast off a layer of oversight and operate more independently. The new decentralization program, called AMPS for Autonomous Management and Performance Schools, allows these “star principals” to do less paperwork and bypass middle management by reporting directly to central office. But a provision designed to increase financial freedom, called per-pupil budgeting, has some principals worried they’ll get less money. The practice replaces centrally determined staffing formulas with what amounts to a school block grant based on student headcounts—much like funding at charter schools. Originally scheduled to go into effect in year two, per-pupil funding has not yet been adopted for AMPS schools.

September 2005: First Renaissance schools

The first wave of Renaissance schools open—12 performance schools and 11 charters. Three performance schools (Pershing West, Tarkington and Uplift) are the first non-charters to use per-pupil budgeting.

April 2006: CPS Reorganization

CPS announces plans to revamp central office to better serve its five “school customers”—early childhood programs, elementary schools, high schools, AMPS schools and Renaissance 2010 schools. The streamlining saves the district $25 million and lays the groundwork for a “cash for services” model in which schools would chose whether to pay for central office services.

September 2006: First contract school

The district adds 15 schools under its Renaissance 2010 initiative, including the first official contract school, Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, 13 charter schools and one performance school. The latter, dubbed Sherman School of Excellence, is the only Renaissance elementary school that remained open through its conversion and did not displace students already enrolled.

November 2006: Ren 2010, round 3

The School Board approves 17 new schools in its third round of Renaissance 2010.

January 2007: AMPS guidelines

CPS is set to change the guidelines for choosing AMPS schools by creating a point-based system that relies more heavily on test scores and other student performance data to select the schools. In the fall, CPS plans to pilot per-pupil budgeting in a handful of AMPS that agree to participate.

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