New partners can’t ignore the role of politics in public schools

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Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte

Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte

This year, Chicago stands to gain from a new national initiative meant to jumpstart grassroots organizing on behalf of schools. But instead of political advocacy, the grassroots groups will be expected to focus directly on improving education for poor children and children of color.

The Fund for Education Organizing has raised nearly $5 million for such grassroots projects in Chicago and three other urban areas. The goal is to get parents, students and community leaders more involved in school reform and keep the pressure on districts to follow through once they launch reforms.

No one can argue with the wisdom of getting the public, especially parents, more involved in education as a way to hold school systems accountable for educating youngsters. Such a move would be particularly welcome in Chicago, where longtime school reform groups that served as watchdogs have lost funding even as the district rolls out sweeping reforms such as Renaissance 2010.

But, as with most other initiatives, the devil will be in the details. How solid are the partnerships that apply? Do they have expertise in education? Most importantly, how will the groups gain enough traction to hold the district’s feet to the fire and have the resources to persevere? The Chicago Annenberg Challenge spawned some marvelous partnerships that boosted learning. But the district ignored the effort, and partnerships ran out of money.

To gain that traction, the new grassroots efforts will need more than just educational savvy. They’ll need political savvy as well, given the district’s close ties to Mayor Daley’s administration.

To that end, it’s too bad that some of the veterans of the first school reform movement, which first set the stage to bring parents and community leaders into schools, have shut their doors for lack of money.

Funding reform redux?

Already, policymakers and activists who regularly trek to Springfield are predicting a spring session stretching into the summer as legislators hammer out a state budget. That happened three years ago, when it took the General Assembly until July to come up with a spending plan—one that gave schools a mere $154 increase in per-pupil state funding. Back then, funding reform went nowhere.

It’s hard not to wonder whether something similar will happen this year. Advocates have lobbied year in and year out, to no avail, for an overhaul of school funding. But this year, as Springfield correspondent Aaron Chambers reports (see page 15), advocates are reaching for the brass ring once again with a well-funded legislative campaign and the support of powerful Senate President Emil Jones Jr. Funding reform still faces an uphill battle—Gov. Rod Blagojevich has made health care for the uninsured, not school funding, his top priority, and advocates will have to win over House Speaker Michael Madigan, who remains the x-factor in the equation—but there’s more reason now to hope that lawmakers will feel the pressure and finally address the issue.

Policy series

Two individuals deeply involved in school reform New Orleans style, where charters have become the dominant force in rebuilding the city’s schools, will speak at the second 2007 Chicago Schools Policy Luncheon on March 20. The speakers are Leslie Jacobs, a member of the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and author of the state’s school accountability plan; and Shenita Johnson Garrard, a former CPS administrator now with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

At the third and final luncheon on April 10, Dennis Doyle, an assistant superintendent in Chula Vista, Calif., will talk about how that district used charters to learn how to better support regular schools.

David Vitale, chief administrative officer of CPS and architect of many of Chicago’s autonomy initiatives, will also speak.

Catalyst, along with Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, organized the series. For registration information, go to www.bpichicago.org.