Outsourcing hits a high in CPS

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Gery Chico and Paul Vallas go for the superlative: Nation’s biggest capital development program! Most schools on probation! Most kids in summer school! 10,000 tutors! Well, the administration cooked the books a bit on the number of tutors, taking credit for programs that have been around a while. Nevertheless, it has increased the supply. And it’s done it in a way that suggests another superlative: Nation’s biggest education outsourcer. Instead of running a tutor recruitment effort out of School Board headquarters, the administration has given grants to other non-profit organizations to help them expand or create tutoring programs.

Outsourcing has been a hallmark of the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley, who turned to private contractors for maintenance and security at City Hall and for the operation of many park facilities. Daley, the school system’s ultimate boss, paved the way for similar arrangements at Pershing Road. Working behind the scenes with Republican lawmakers, he won legislative permission in 1995 for the School Reform Board to replace board employees with private contractors. Soon, school custodians were scrambling to get on private payrolls, and a whole facilities department was looking for new employment. Whether this is a good arrangement remains to be seen.

More remarkable, though, the Reform Board has turned to outsiders for significant parts of its educational program, including probation partners, alternative schools and tutoring. It also has given the OK—and sometimes money—to organizations that have come up with their own ideas for serving the schools. Most notable is the teacher recruitment and principal selection work initiated by the Financial Research and Advisory Committee, a business-backed group that helps local governments streamline their operations.

This kind of public-private partnership makes a lot of sense: Better to go with an organization that has a track record than to add a node to the bureaucracy. Indeed, for the better part of school reform in Chicago, the bureaucracy was the biggest bungler. Education outsourcing has an accountability edge as well, particularly for services delivered at the school level. As Alfred Williams, the system’s reconstitution manager, told Catalyst contributor Susan DeGrane: “We tell principals in these schools, ‘If your external partners are not doing the job, divorce them.'”

Education outsourcing can be a political plus for the school system and, not coincidentally, for its leaders. The more organizations and citizens who are involved with the public schools, the more support they’ll get. The more contracts Chico and Vallas distribute, the fewer open critics they’ll have, for it’s a rare bird that bites the hand that feeds it.

ABOUT US I am pleased to announce that Ericka Moore has become assistant to the publisher; her main responsibilities are circulation fulfillment and office support. She’s a perfect match for Catalyst. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Columbia College and is working on a master’s in education at Columbia. She plans to become a high school English teacher. Ericka succeeds Jason Grotto, who is launching a new position at Catalyst, Web site editor. However, he won’t have that job for long; in June, he will leave us to get a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri.

CATALYST ON THE AIR Small schools, the topic this month of our “What Matters Most” series, will be the topic of the May 10 edition of “City Voices,” which is broadcast from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. on WNUA-FM 95.5.