Watchdog group ‘ran its course’

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The Chicago Panel on School Policy, a school reform group known at its peak as a budget and finance watchdog, has closed its doors after 20 years.

Tough economic times and foundation belt tightening are forcing non-profits to cut their already-lean budgets, notes Executive Director Barbara Buell.

While current funders had vowed to continue supporting the Panel, Buell says she and the board of directors weren’t confident it would be enough. “The funders agree with me that it was appropriate for me to be very fiscally responsible right now.”

“The Panel has no outstanding debts,” Buell adds. “It was a time to say, ‘Alright, do I start some projects not sure if I’ll have enough money to complete them? Or, do I go on the conservative side and not start them if I can’t finish them?'”

For those who have worked with the Panel, stepping off the school reform bandwagon seemed the next logical step for an organization that had taken a backseat in recent years.

Five years ago, the Panel shifted its mission away from CPS budget analysis and policy research to focus instead on tracking school programs. The move followed the 1996 departure of Executive Director G. Alfred Hess Jr., who had led the Panel for more than a decade.

“I’m not sure it’s bad for nonprofits to go out of existence,” says Hess, now a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. “Non-profits have a cycle of getting support and then losing support as the issue that they’re involved with changes, and the funders change their priorities.”

According to Hess, the Panel’s recent work—school policy evaluations that come out up to six times a year and a parent involvement initiative—is “not focused on contentious areas,” which are more appealing to funders.

Buell agrees that the Panel had a reputation for being hard-hitting and more actively involved in promoting change under Hess’s leadership. When she took the helm, the organization assumed a non-confrontational personality similar to her own, she says.

New report format

The Panel’s Initiative Status Reports—some previous issues have covered principal training, national certification for teachers and year-round schools—provided interim feedback to show whether programs were working, Buell explains. In six years, the Panel published 20 such reports. Since 2000, it has distributed 500,000 pamphlets that condensed the report research into more usable formats for parents, Buell says.

Still, the Panel’s lower profile limited the influence of its fact-finding, says Julie Woestehoff, director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). “You have to show that you have an impact,” she says.

Historically, making an impact was routine for the Panel, which was originally called the Chicago Panel on Public School Finance when it was created in 1982 in the wake of a district financial crisis. The organization comprised representatives from as many as 20 non-profit agencies and reform groups that were looking to dissect the School Board budget to expose flaws in the system.

“When we started the Panel, we were unique,” says Tee Gallay, a founding member. “It was imperative that a neutral agency and community group undertake the task of [examining] the way the board was handling its money.”

In 1985, the Panel teamed with another reform group, Designs for Change, to issue a report on school dropouts that changed the way school districts across the country looked at dropout rates, Gallay says. More significantly, the report sparked a grassroots movement that eventually led to major education reform in Illinois, she adds.

After passage of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act, the Panel reinvented itself as an objective watchdog of district revenue and spending.

Says Hess: “One of the reasons we did budget analysis was to reveal what the actual priorities of the schools were as opposed to what people said they were. Today the policies are much more articulated so the need doesn’t seem as urgent.”

But Hess and other reform leaders believe there is still a void that needs to be filled.

“Budget analysis desperately needs to come back,” says Andrew Wade, executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Development Cooperative. Wade, who spent two years with the Panel, says his group does some budget work, but not enough “to fill that policy research gap.”

Though the Panel will maintain its web site, and Buell will continue doing research independently, the organization, in Gallay’s words, “ran its course.”