Down but not out, councils see bright spots in battle for future

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South Side United Federation meeting

photo by John Booz

South Side United Federation meeting

Hopes were high that Chicago’s local school councils would get a fresh start when Arne Duncan replaced Paul Vallas as the school system’s chief executive officer nearly three years ago. However, few of these hopes have been borne out—leaving LSCs with many of the same problems they faced before.

“It’s hard to say whether things are worse, but they’re definitely not better,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE (Parents United to Reform Education). “The players are essentially the same, and they’re playing the same games.”

Fifteen years after LSCs were created, some are asleep at the switch, but many continue to struggle to establish the full role that the Chicago School Reform Act intended for them, according to their supporters. And yet, LSCs have proven themselves resilient, and some recent events point toward at least modest improvements in their situation in the future.

The mid-April LSC elections are the most immediate challenge. A late-starting campaign season is typical, but this year there is little money to recruit new council members. LSC advocates could not persuade private funders to renew their support—up to $430,000 in recent years—for citywide, community-based recruitment. The School Board has made a contribution to the cause, but it is just $50,000.

“There’s always a new group of parents coming up,” says Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a research and advocacy group. “They don’t learn about LSCs by osmosis.”

As of mid-February, just 885 candidates had signed up to run, compared to over 1,800 at the same time two years ago.

Encroachment on authority

LSC advocates see more fundamental, long-running challenges, including encroachment on their authority over principal selection, budget approval and school improvement plans.

“There was sort of a turning point in the late 1990s when LSCs started to be told that if they didn’t approve [the budget] by a certain time, then the budget would be ‘loaded’ without their approval,” says Woestehoff. “It happens all the time.” As a result, she says, LSCs’ budget authority is increasingly “more on paper than anything else.”

There are lots of ways that principals can bypass LSCs or limit their opportunities to influence the budget and school improvement plan, LSC members say. They can neglect to give LSC members monthly budget reports. They can hide what they are doing by splitting funds into a variety of places. They can delay showing the next year’s budget to the LSC until the last minute, thereby running out the clock until budgets are due in central office.

Roughly two-thirds of LSCs aren’t participating meaningfully in the budget and school improvement process, says Valencia Rias, a policy advocate with Designs for Change. She calls the situation a “quiet epidemic.”

More generally, council advocates say that CPS has largely left LSCs out of its core education initiatives.

“How are LSCs being included in the conversation about instructional improvement?” asks Andy Wade, executive director of the Cooperative for Chicago School Leadership. There are “two different school reforms going on,” he says, one by CPS and the other by individual LSCs. Wade cites the board’s decision to place reading and math specialists in many schools without preparing or integrating the new specialists with school-based approaches.

Larger trends in education reform also have tended to push LSCs out of the picture, according to Don Moore. “Everything is about instruction,” he says—even though research that he and others have done finds that parent involvement and collaboration among adults are just as important. “A ‘laser-like focus on instruction’ is just not going to do it,” he contends.

LSC federations are forming

But LSC advocates take heart from several recent developments.

New alliances of neighboring LSCs are popping up in several areas of the city. (See article on page 26.) And LSC advocates lined up citywide leaders, including Duncan and Chicago Teachers Union President Deborah Lynch, to participate in a citywide summit and 15th anniversary celebration. Forming a new collaboration, Lynch worked with LSC advocates last year on the law that revamped the Professional Personnel Leadership Committees at each school.

The LSC Roundtable, an advisory group of CPS officials and community groups, has recently reconvened after several months’ hiatus. Previously, it scored a few small accomplishments. LSC members now can have ID badges to ensure that they can gain entry to their schools. And CPS accepted a recommendation of the roundtable that an external, conflict resolution program be piloted at roughly 12 schools this spring.

What little research has been conducted on LSCs suggests that most of them fulfill their basic responsibilities and are viewed positively by their school communities. Surveys conducted in the mid-1990s by the Consortium on Chicago School Research indicated that only a handful of councils suffered from serious dysfunction. However, a 1997 Consortium report said that a quarter to a third fell short of being “proactive agents for improvements.”

“Some LSCs are dormant,” says John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education, which has supported LSC elections in the past.

A 2003 teacher survey conducted by the Consortium found that more teachers had no knowledge of their councils. One out of three teachers said they were “not at all” knowledgeable about the LSC, up from one out of five teachers in 1994. However, teachers who did know about their councils thought more highly of them than before. Seventy percent of those familiar with their LSCs said they were “really helping to make this school better,” up from 63 percent nine years ago.

Historically, LSCs have shown themselves to be remarkably persistent, having faced down a series of direct attacks from 1995 through 2001, when Paul Vallas left the school system’s helm. More than 7,500 candidates ran for some 5,600 LSC seats in 2002.

“Under all of this pressure, it’s a real tribute that LSCs haven’t gone away,” says Woestehoff. “In spite of all odds, LSCs are as strong as ever, maybe even stronger.”

And many are tireless. Roughly half of LSC members run for re-election, advocates estimate.

Veronica Butler, council chair at Brennemann Elementary in Edgewater, is one of them. Despite a running battle between the LSC and the principal, Butler says, “I will run again. As long as my son is in that school, I want to be a part of what is going on.”

To contact Alexander Russo, call (312) 673-3837 or send an e-mail to russo@catalyst-chicago.org.