Balancing power

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At Lozano Bilingual Elementary in West Town, local control has brought an opportunity for students to stay at the school through 9th grade—the year when they are at the highest risk for dropping out. Parents had pressed for the extra year, and the school won an OK from central office. Since the program started in September 1996, none of its participants has dropped out.

At Walsh Elementary in Pilsen, local control has brought two new school buildings—one to relieve overcrowding and a second to replace the decrepit original structure. “Even though the principal has been very supportive, I think it would have been very difficult for him to get it done on his own,” says community representative Patricia Wright. With all the community organizing and struggle for the improvements, she says, “The parents feel like it’s their school, not just the kids’ school.”

At Burnside Scholastic Academy in Chatham, local control brought a dress code with broad appeal. First the council surveyed parents to get a thumbs-up for the idea; then it appointed a parent committee to work out the details. The result was a requirement for clothes that are inexpensive yet appropriate for wear outside school, including to church.

At other schools across the city, council members have proposed well-regarded academic programs like Reading Recovery, blown the whistle on local corruption and formed partnerships with local businesses, banks, churches and community groups.

Although nasty conflicts have bogged down some schools, there is agreement among a wide range of Chicago school watchers that parent-dominated local school councils have been good for the city’s schools.

“I think the vast majority of LSCs work well and perform an important function, which is bringing parental ownership into school buildings,” says Reform Board President Gery Chico.

“I feel positive about the councils in most places,” says Chicago Teachers Union President Thomas Reece. “It’s a cooperative effort in most places, and that’s the way it ought to be. … The union’s a little like the police force, in that you hear from the people with problems. So you hear a lot of things that are negative, but you recognize that if 10 percent of the people are calling you, that means that 90 percent of the people aren’t.”

At the School Board’s Local School Council Appreciation Night, LSC members show their appreciation for a performance by the Beasley Academic Center Dance Group. (Photo by John Booz)

Surveys by the Consortium for Chicago School Research bolster these positive impressions. Fifty to 60 percent of councils are “high functioning,” according to the Consortium’s analysis of the data. Another 25 to 33 percent are “performing well but in need of support,” and 10 to 15 percent of councils suffered from undue conflict or ethical lapses. The surveys were taken before an LSC training mandate took effect.

Paul Vallas, the school system’s chief executive officer, greeted the Consortium’s report with cautious optimism, noting that there are tens of thousands of children in schools with troubled LSCs.

Vallas and the board now have several avenues to intervene at schools where councils aren’t doing the job. (See story on page 4.) In some cases, they’ve pushed the legal limits, acknowledges Ald. Patrick O’Connor, who chairs the City Council Education Committee. But O’Connor doesn’t have a problem with that. “In places where [councils] are dysfunctional or non-functional, I think you need to have the ability to step in. And in part there’s no legally codified ability. Paul and Gery are just kind of making these decisions based on common sense. But you would hope that if they were challenged in court, the judge would view it through common sense.”

Still, O’Connor, who once chaired the LSC at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy in Lake View, wants to preserve councils’ legal powers. “An LSC is a great check and balance to a central bureaucracy. … Vallas won’t be there forever, Chico won’t be there forever, so you can’t throw the whole thing back.”

While Chicago’s system of checks and balances sometimes leads to conflict, it also gives schools effective advocates.

“They can say things that the principal can’t say, and be as obnoxious as they need to be in order to get what the school needs,” says Sokoni Karanja, director of Centers for New Horizons, a Bronzeville-based community organization. Karanja helped write the 1988 state law that created

LSCs and serves as a community representative on the Phillips High School LSC. “The principal calls on us as sort of her junkyard dogs to get what she needs. We know what the school needs, and she doesn’t have to say anything.”

Even conflict within a school can be productive, argues Julie Woestehoff, director of the training and advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). Conflict, she says, “is an extremely important part of what councils do—because they see things not going right. We continue to have a system that goes along, gets along and does not have high standards for compliance with rules. … So councils may act like the inhabitants of the funny farm, but they’re really the sane ones.”

Woestehoff thinks that even in cases where conflict may not be productive, that’s par for the course in a democracy. “You go to a school board out in the suburbs, and they’re having the same kind of conflicts,” she says. “What kind of standards are we talking about? Those of a City Council, where [Ald.] Richard Mell gets up on his desk and shouts at people? I don’t believe that local government is meant to be a beautiful sort of thing, but it’s better than the alternative: totalitarianism.”

Woestehoff and leaders of other LSC advocacy groups have clashed repeatedly with Vallas and Chico over issues of local control. Vallas says he is simply doing what he must to keep children’s schooling from being compromised by local bungling, avarice and personal disputes. He dismisses Woestehoff and her colleagues as a special interest group and accuses them of making school reform a “cottage industry” funded by foundation grants.

Meanwhile, Vallas and Chico have made a point of telling LSCs that they’re appreciated. In February, both spoke at an LSC Appreciation Night party, urging council members to run for re-election this year. “We believe that this is healthy, this is good for democracy,” Chico. “Everybody ought to have a stake in their local school.

“Someone occasionally will say that, ‘Oh, Vallas, Chico, you guys really don’t like the local school councils. You don’t know much about it.’ You know, that’s absolute baloney. That is not the truth. My heart and my words have always been this: That the local school councils were created by law in 1989. We respect them, we work with them, and they add an awful lot of value to the system, and that’s our official position. That’s the way it is.”

Karanja contends that’s the way it is “as long as [councils] don’t act up. As long as we act like we don’t know what we’re doing, they’re comfortable with us. But the minute we start acting like a democracy, calling things into question, that’s when LSCs become targets.”

Karanja views Vallas as a “benign dictator. … If you want to talk to him, you can. He doesn’t blow you off if you are a peon. … You can change [his mind] if you’ve got a logical argument.” Even so, Karanja says that Vallas “renders the councils less powerful by virtue of his paternalistic attitude toward democracy.

“I think every day, unless we are guarded carefully, they are attempting to erode the strength of councils,” he says. “Vallas will say that’s not true, but then he will say, ‘Well, they don’t do this right, so I need more control over the budget.’ Or, ‘They don’t do that right, so I need more control over principal selection.'”

The Rev. Zarina O’Hagin, one of the commanders of the LSC guard, sees great irony in her work. An attorney, O’Hagin directs the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, which advises council members on their legal rights. “I tell councils who are in conflict, ‘You have so much energy here. Couldn’t you direct it towards helping the kids, rather than fighting with each other?’ And I feel the same way about the board and the reform community.”

She reels off a list of School Board initiatives she thinks are terrific, including long-overdue school repairs, after-school programs, remedial help for struggling students and newly expanded kindergarten programs. “I just wish I could spend my time extolling them,” she says. “That is frustrating to me, that we have to fight so much.”

But some fighting is inevitable because, in Karanja’s view, the board and the councils are natural competitors for power. “The board is a powerful, large organization, and it will take all the power it can take,” he says. “LSCs are powerful smaller organizations, and we should take all the power we can, to have a good balance of power.”

In fact, councils may have created their own competition. That’s the view of Dan Lewis, a Northwestern University professor of education and social policy. “Paul Vallas, CEO, is the child of the local school councils,” he says, explaining that councils created expectations and hopes for the system that they couldn’t deliver without a stronger central office.

LSCs were “critical” to improving schools, Lewis says, because they “opened up some policy space in which new things could happen. … But ultimately, it’s the system that needs to be changed, and you can’t do it in 550 uncoordinated steps. … I think a big system like this has got to be able to articulate a vision and a strategy. And Vallas has done a remarkable job of that; he stepped in where somebody had to step in, or else a lot of the good that’s been done in the last 10 years would have been undone by the incapacity of the system to tell a good story about itself.”

Lewis notes a historical subtext to the current tension between local and central authority, one rooted in race and class. In the 1960s, black activists went after a strong superintendent, Benjamin Willis, for keeping black kids in substandard schools in segregated neighborhoods. In the 1970s and early 1980s, whites fled the school system, and blacks assumed control of the bureaucracy and the teachers union. By the late 1980s, local control, which meant more power for black and Latino parents, became viable in the General Assembly because white politicians were happy to undercut the black middle class that ran the bureaucracy and the union, Lewis argues.

Since then, local school councils appear to have won enough local support to secure a firm position in the current balance of power. During this year’s Democratic primary races, for example, state representatives on the West Side positioned themselves as champions of LSC power, says the Rev. Lewis Flowers, who works with schools in Austin.

Union president Reece doubts that the School Board—or anyone else—could get rid of the councils if they wanted to. “I don’t see politicians doing that. They would probably think, ‘I’m gonna make too many people mad,'” he says. “And in fairness, the administration feels they’re going the right way, they’ve made some progress.”

The current administration has done more for LSCs than its predecessors did. It beefed up the staff that works with LSCs, and increased efforts to bring out more candidates and voters. This year, election guides and schedules came out earlier than in the past, and schools were flooded with buttons, posters and other promotional doodads. Each school also got a small stipend for a part-time election coordinator.

But community groups and others who work with councils suggest that more should be done.

*This year’s election blitz didn’t reach far beyond the schoolhouse door, notes Steve DeBretto, an organizer for North River Commission. A week before the deadline for candidate registration, DeBretto said, “If I wasn’t working in this field, I don’t think I would know this was happening.”

In some schools, excellent potential LSC members are stymied by the board’s ethics policy, which bars school employees or their immediate relatives from joining councils, says Mildred Wiley, director of organizing for Bethel New Life, Inc., a West Side community group. In many cases, parents go for a paying job or a stipend from the school system rather than an unpaid stint on the LSC, she says. “If you have dedicated parents who want to work with their schools who also want to provide for their families, they’re torn,” says Wiley. “They come every day to work at the school, but they cannot serve on the council and receive any compensation.”

Since the passage of the 1996 welfare reform law, this dilemma has become more dramatic for parents whose volunteer work had been subsidized by public aid checks. Wiley thinks the ethics policy needs another look. “I understand that there was some abuse, but you’ve got to set up an opportunity,” she says.

Community organizers also report that immigrant parents sometimes need extra coaxing to get involved because they’re afraid there will be political repercussions or their immigration status will be compromised. “Some people come from cultures where you don’t do that; it could be dangerous,” says DeBretto.

*To help problem councils, the board should contract with professional dispute mediators, says Sheila Castillo, director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils. Her organization is giving that a try. “We’ve talked to a professional mediation company. And we’re going to try to bring an LSC to a neutral spot.”

The mayor can do more to acknowledge councils as full partners in improving education, says Rev. Flowers. “They want to kill the community part so that … Mayor Daley can be the big warhorse getting all the credit, when it was everybody working together that made it work,” he contends. “It’s hard enough to get parents’ participation now. Why kill the spirit when you’ve got ’em involved?”

Mayor Daley has gone out of his way to promote community participation in another arena, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, CAPS for short, notes DeBretto.

The mayor talks up the program at every opportunity, even singling out several community participants for praise in his “state of the city” address this year. Advertisements, billboards and public service announcements dot the city’s buses, trains, streets and airwaves. The city employs dozens of organizers to encourage people to participate. And a dozen independent community groups have contracts to promote the program.

The cost of these initiatives, $3 to 4 million per year, doesn’t include the cost of additional training for both police officers and civilians, according to Program Manager Ted O’Keefe.

However, CAPS differs from LSCs in some politically important ways. Unlike LSC members, residents who come to beat meetings have no authority to hire the local boss or approve the local budget.

Given the councils’ potential for developing leadership among low-income blacks and Latinos, it is “politically impossible” for the city’s power structure to fully embrace LSCs, says Lewis of Northwestern. Doing so, he notes, would simply encourage political competitors.