Don Moore: reform leader, LSC champion

September 4, 2012

In reporting for her insightful and engaging account of the birth of local school councils, Mary O’Connell asked her interviewees whom they thought was most responsible for the historic legislation that created them. Don Moore and Designs for Change, the research and advocacy organization he founded in 1977, easily took first place.

Local school councils and their power to select principals and approve budgets and curriculum were the hallmark of a comprehensive set of reforms that decentralized the school system, shifting funds from central office to schools, giving principals authority to fill teacher vacancies themselves, and ending the iron grip that school engineers had on the hours schools could be open.

 “Don was the most persistent, thoughtful, smart advocate I know,” said Anne Hallett, director of the Grow Your Own teacher preparation program. “He would get his teeth into something and not let go.”

Donald R. Moore, 70, died last week of a heart attack.

While there were many streams flowing into the decentralization agenda, including the business community and community-based organizations, Moore, along with the late Fred Hess of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, set the direction with their research – first on the failings of the school system and then on the factors of successful school improvement. (Moore, who held a doctorate from Harvard University, conducted research at the national level before zeroing in on Chicago.)

“He produced really good data over the years,” said Hallett. “His crowning accomplishment was the [1988] Chicago school reform legislation. It was a good example of how Don would have a powerful idea and then include a lot of people in the fray.”

“He was behind the whole business of getting the plan written into law,” recalled Peter Martinez of the educational leadership program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  “He organized the network, raised the money and hired the lobbyists. … He was an unusual mix.”

While Moore was not a classical community organizer, he did form broad-based coalitions. The runners-up in Mary O’Connell’s “most responsible” list are a reflection of that. They included, in order, Chicago United (or business community), the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Fred Hess or the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, the People’s Coalition for Educational Reform (a social service coalition), PURE, the late Mayor Harold Washington and the Parent/Community Council (a group Washington formed).

Once the legislation was passed, Moore researched its impact, identifying 150 neighborhood schools with effective councils and a path of student achievement that was significant.

“He demonstrated that site-based democracy is a powerful way to run a public school,” said Ray Boyer, former associate vice president for public affairs at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which had made a 10-year, $40 million commitment to reform.

Moore also fought repeated efforts to return authority to central office, tracking unfriendly bills and sending busloads of supporters to Springfield. Eventually, opponents decided local school councils “were the third rail of politics” and they would try to work around them, said Martinez.

In another arena, his findings that CPS was not providing special needs students with services they were entitled to set the stage for the Corey H. lawsuit and ruling that forced reforms at the city and state levels. Less well known, he played an important role in identifying the “five essential supports” for school improvement, Martinez said, recalling a meeting in the mid-1990s in the office of former Schools Supt. Argie Johnson.

The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research subsequently conducted extensive research on the factors, confirming their role, and school systems are adopting them as a guide for improvement.

Don Moore is survived by two sons, Peter and Adam, and a sister, Susan Moore Johnson. The board of Designs for Change is planning a memorial service. Details are not yet available.