Dodge Elementary Credit: photo by John Booz

In 1988, the General Assemby stepped over Chicago’s ineffective school bureaucracy by giving unprecedented power to thousands of ordinary citizens. Each school would elect a council of parents, teachers and community members with the power, among other things, to select its own principal. That shift to locally controlled schools made Chicago unique in the country.

In 1995, frustration over slow academic progress and continuing labor unrest brought amendments that put the mayor in charge of the school system. Since then, local control of principal selection has eroded, primarily in low-income communities. Today, the School Board holds the authority either to select or to remove and replace the principal in about 115 of 602 schools.

Advocates of local school councils (LSCs) observe that number rising and fear that councils as a whole will see their status in the system slip from step child to orphan. Availing itself of a loophole in the law, the School Board is creating more small schools and alternative schools that are not required to have local school councils.

“It’s important for parents and community to have the strong voice and decision-making capacity,” insists Sarah Vanderwicken of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “If you don’t agree with that, change the law but don’t carve out exceptions as you go along.”

An announcement in December that the district intended to “revitalize” two dozen schools on the mid-South Side also has raised questions about how those schools will be governed.

In late February, the School Board passed a tougher accountability policy that likely will land many more schools on academic probation, which gives the board the right to replace principals at those schools. About half the schools in the system are in jeopardy.

These local developments coincide with the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, which potentially expands the board’s authority to remove principals beyond those at schools on probation. “We’ve discussed that [NCLB] will give us more leeway, but we haven’t discussed how we will make use of that leeway,” says Daniel Bugler, the CPS accountability chief.

Shift began with Vallas

The same law that put Chicago’s mayor in control of the school system expanded the authority of central office. In 1996, the mayor’s first school chief, Paul Vallas, took advantage of that authority to place 109 schools on academic probation. Within a year, he removed principals from some of those schools and replaced them with interim principals who served at the CEO’s pleasure. The LSC would not be allowed to select their own principal until the school worked its way off probation.

Even some champions of local control found probation justified. But Vallas went further, extending his jurisdiction to other schools. Previously, an LSC temporarily without a contract principal could select its own interim. But Vallas’ administration reinterpreted an ambiguous area in the law to grant itself that authority.

In 1999, Vallas attempted to gain control over principal selection at all CPS schools. He requested legislation that would allow him to overrule an LSC that failed to renew a principal’s contract. School reform groups rallied, and that provision failed.

While Vallas made stronger accountability a centerpiece of his administration, his successor, Arne Duncan, has pursued two new strategies. He would create new schools, sometimes within existing underperforming schools. And he would attempt to strengthen classroom instruction with sweeping initiatives in math and reading. Both strategies would run into conflict with local control, particularly around principal selection.

For the district’s math and reading initiatives to succeed, the system needs principals who understand instruction, explains one CPS insider who asked not to be identified “It’s hard when you can’t pick the principal to ensure that the principal is going to be an instructional leader. And it’s hard for the local school councils to understand good instructional leadership because they aren’t educators.”

In creating new schools, Duncan took advantage of two exceptions to the 1988 law that mandated LSCs for all Chicago public schools. The first exception was part of the original law and applied to alternative schools such as those serving pregnant or incarcerated youth. At those schools, elected councils seemed impractical, so the board was given leeway to design its own governance system. The board decided to create advisory councils and retained the ultimate authority on principal selection and budget approval.

The second exception, passed in 1996, extended the rules governing alternative schools to any school the board designated as a “small school.” Creators of six new small schools, including Arne Duncan, who then headed an education non-profit, wanted more flexibility on school governance than was permitted by the standard LSC structure of six parents, two teachers and two community representatives.

Teacher-lead schools, for instance, wanted more than two teachers on a council. And some small schools were partnered with outside institutions, such as a museum or university, that wanted representatives on the council. In exchange for the flexibility, CPS retained the authority to approve all the small school councils’ decisions.

Small schools become flash point

The governance structure of small schools was never an issue while their numbers were few. But new school creation is now a major goal in the Duncan administration’s education plan, LSC advocates note.

In August 2001, Mayor Richard Daley announced that five troubled Chicago high schools would be subdivided into small schools with help from a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. High Schools were asked to submit proposals for new small schools, each of which eventually would have its own principal. The first five schools opened at Bowen, Orr and South Shore high schools in 2002.

With the Gates money, the district intends to open a total of 30 new independently run small schools, according to CPS small schools Director Jeanne Nowaczewski.

In September 2001, the School Board used the small school/alternative school provision to open its first contract school, the Chicago Academy, an elementary school that would also serve as a training ground for new teachers. Although still part of the public school system, the school would be run by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership.

Over the next two years, five more contract schools followed.

Seven months later, Duncan announced the closing of three low-performing elementary schools, Dodge, Williams and Terrell, saying that two of them would reopen as “renaissance schools.” Last September, Dodge became a contract school run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, and Williams reopened as a trio of contract schools, each run by or in cooperation with a prominent educational non-profit.

Also in September, the School Board put military schools into the alternative schools category. Two already had been operating as alternative schools with appointed advisory councils that include some military personnel, and the third is considering a switch to that setup.

In December, Duncan and CPS Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins unveiled the beginning of a community planning process to revitalize several dozen schools in the mid-south region, bounded by 31st and 47th streets, the lake and the Dan Ryan Expressway. Once a public-housing ghetto, the area is slated for mixed-income housing. “Just as we did with the renaissance schools, we want a wide-open process, the very best ideas, and the most cutting-edge programs,” Eason-Watkins said.

Andrew Wade, executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Cooperative, says many community groups wonder what the CPS strategy is for governing these schools. “Will there be elected councils?”

“We haven’t even discussed governance,” Duncan says.

Compromise in limbo

With the winds shifting away from local governance, the School Leadership Cooperative organized a subgroup of the LSC Roundtable to craft a proposal for governing small schools. The roundtable was created by Duncan to get community input on board policy. The subgroup included nine non-profits, two foundations, and principal and teacher union representatives.

The subgroup first met in November 2002. A long and agonizing debate ensued. Few participants favored the current policy on small schools, which allows them to choose between an elected LSC and an advisory council. But it took months to forge an alternative.

Only one member, a foundation, voted no.

The subgroup submitted the compromise to Duncan in May: Small schools would operate with an advisory council for at least two full school years, which would allow the founding teachers or organizations more representation during the start-up period. Then they would participate in regular local school council elections but keep the option of electing one community representative from outside the school’s attendance boundary. The original six small schools would be exempt from the policy.

As Catalyst goes to press, Duncan still has not decided whether to accept the compromise. But he made clear that he favors exceptions to the rule. “To say that the current format is in every instance the Holy Grail and can’t be improved on, I don’t agree with that,” he told Catalyst.

“Why even bother having people come together and come to an agreement if you’re not going to use it?” says Dion Miller Perez of the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform. “It ends up making the district look very manipulative.”

Nowaczewski says that central office may propose a new policy on small schools to the School Board in March, but she declined to provide details. Another option on the table is to keep the current policy, she reports. She declined to comment on the roundtable’s proposal.

In the meantime, her office has asked that the five small schools that opened in September 2002 choose between an elected and alternative council, consistent with the current policy. “I have asked each school to survey their staff, their parents, their involved community, their students,” she says. “It’s a group decision.”

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) fears that community input will be limited to a chosen few. “The word doesn’t get out, and you have people who are already part of the process calling themselves a community and making decisions for everybody.”

Don Moore, executive director of the research and advocacy group Designs for Change, questions whether those who opt for alternative councils fully understand the consequences of that decision.

Before 1988, schools operated with advisory councils, he notes. “In a few schools, [their] advice was taken seriously, but in most schools it was ignored. That’s why the movement to start councils that had real power started up in the 1980s.”

Advocates looking to Legislature

Two lawyers who co-chaired the LSC Roundtable committee suggest that CPS is forcing an unnecessary choice between a flexible council structure and full governing authority. Nothing in the law clearly prohibits CPS from allowing small schools to have both, say Vanderwicken of the Lawyers Committee and Pamela Clarke of Leadership for Quality Education.

If CPS rejects the compromise in March, some LSC advocates plan to lobby the state Legislature to close the loophole. “Some of our legislators do listen,” says Wade of the Leadership Cooperative, a network of 31 community groups.

Duncan finds the opposition ironic. “Here we are pushing for innovation, and [they are] saying the status quo is perfect.” Nowaczewski adds that regardless of the governance decisions at small schools, the growing number of them multiplies the opportunities for parental and community involvement.

But involvement is not power, observes G. Alfred Hess Jr. of Northwestern University, a leading author of Chicago School Reform Act. “Even input that is generally recognized and accepted can be taken away at any moment by someone downtown saying, ‘Well, I don’t like that decision.'”

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or send an e-mail to

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