The Realities of Chicago School Reform

— Edith Organizer

IN CHICAGO, THE current round of school reform efforts began in the late 1980s.  They were ostensibly sparked by the November 1987 public pronouncement of William Bennett, then-Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, calling Chicago schools "the worst in the nation."

A disparate set of seemingly unlikely characters became involved in the reform debate.  They included Republican legislators from downstate and the suburbs who sought to "punish" Chicago, middle-class and inner-city parents who sought to improve education for their children, and a small number of teachers who wanted to see power stripped from a inept behemoth bureaucracy.

In order to examine the issue of school reform in Chicago we must first briefly examine the role of schools in our society.  Simplistically put, schools are the institutions that train and prepare the next generation of workers to meet the needs of global capitalism.  Obviously there is more. Schools train various strata of youth to perform a myriad of different roles in society.

But the increasing income differentiation and stratification of American society leads us to several key questions:

  • What choices are offered to whom?
  • Who is prepared for what?
  • On what basis and by whom are these decisions made?
  • How much money is spent and where does this money come from?

School reform means many different things to different people but, in its essence, it is an attempt to modify or change the answers to one or more of these essential underlying questions.

Massive Funding Disparities

After a series of compromises in the Illinois state legislature, a rather broad reform law was passed giving parent-dominated Local School Councils (LSCs) at each Chicago school significant power in the areas of principal selection and certain budgetary decisions.

Most teachers were very disturbed by the composition of the LSCs: six parents, two teachers, two community members and the principal.  In high schools, there is a non-voting student representative as well. Teachers felt, quite rightly, that they were the experts and that too much decision-making power was being given to the parents.

One of the oft-voiced concerns that has become a reality in many schools is that the principal would handpick the parent members of the LSC, particularly in schools where the relationship between school and community is most strained and parent participation in LSC elections is lowest.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) too expressed concern about the number of teachers on the LSCs but generally took an abstentionist approach towards the reform dialogue and process.

In saying that LSCs had control over budgets, it must be made clear that each school was given a certain quantity of Chapter 1 (poverty funds) money.  These funds represent only a small proportion of the education dollar.

This per school amount was ostensibly based on the number and proportion of students at a given school who were designated as officially poor. In fact, vast inequities were uncovered.  The realities of tradition, cronyism and favoritism of various types played a major role in the amount allocated to each school.

Not only was money grossly insufficient, but even the meager funds available were being inequitably distributed.  A formula that utilized AFDC participation was found to be grossly unfair in the Mexican communities, where many undocumented persons could not qualify for these benefits.

By 1995, the basis of the distribution had been modified and monies were allocated according to the number of students at a school who were qualified for "free" or reduced price lunch, based on federal guidelines.  Although some more decisions were being made locally, particularly about principal selection and renewal, very little had changed in terms of educational quality.

As a parent-member of a north side elementary LSC interviewed for this article said, "Giving control over the purse strings to a local body is a good first step but as long as the purse arrives half-empty it is nothing but a first step. To even begin to address adequately the problems our schools face, we need much more money."

She cites a comparison between the amount per child being spent at her school, a fairly typical multiethnic neighborhood school, to the amount spent in nearby suburbs.  Based on 1996-7 school year statistics, the Chicago schools spend $4,563 per pupil, schools in the nearby Cook County suburbs spend an average of $6,957 and the schools in the state's most affluent district spend $15,368.

In other words, the state's wealthiest districts spend more than three times the amount available for each student in Chicago.

Although the state constitution affirms that the state has the primary responsibility to provide a public education, the percentage of state funds in the Chicago budget has dropped dramatically over the past several decades.

Rich City, Impoverished Schools

Only 3.3% of the total taxable resources in Illinois are allocated to education.  Funding for schools comes primarily from local property taxes.  The irony of Chicago's poor showing in the area of per-pupil expenditures is that the property tax base in Chicago has increased dramatically in recent years.

According to a June 1998 report by Cook County Assessor James M. Houlihan, the increase in assessed value for the City of Chicago in 1997 was 10.3% over the previous year. Total assessed valuation rose from $15.9 billion to $17 billion in 1997.  Collection rates were up as well.

Could additional monies be allocated to schools?  Of course.  Chicago's increased revenues, however, have not brought a concomitant rise in the amount used to educate our children.

Huge giveaways to business in the form of Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIFS), which freeze assessed value for as much as twenty years for already wealthy businesses); enormous expenditures for "beautification" in the downtown, near north and lakefront (read affluent, primarily white) areas-these are but a few examples of where large quantities of money has gone.

Even so, there is somewhat more money available in the budget although very little of it is reaching the classroom.

The Coming of Vallas

In 1995 the state gave Mayor Daley sweeping new powers, including the right to name a Chief Executive Officer to head the Chicago Schools and to appoint, with no City Council approval necessary, an interim school board to serve for a four- year term.

Paul Vallas, a former key bureaucrat in Daley's administration, was appointed CEO. He came to office amidst great media fanfare, announcing that he had a plan to dramatically improve education.

What is the Vallas plan?  How has this additional revenue been spent?  How should it be spent?

Vallas' stated goal is to improve education by raising standards, ending social promotion and improving test scores.  The rhetoric of standard raising is an interesting one that we can examine only briefly in this context.  What does it appear to mean?  What are its real implications?

Ostensibly, everyone agrees that raising standards is a good thing-implying that each student should be expected to fulfill his or her maximum potential.  It is often offered as a remedy for the many very real injustices perpetrated against African-American and Latino students who were (and sometimes still are) assigned to special education classes in vastly disproportionate numbers and who have been greatly under-represented in honors and other high-track classes.

Under Vallas, the real meaning is quite different.  Virtually all remedial courses offered at the high school level have been eliminated.  Students who are native speakers of languages other than English are expected to learn enough to exit from bilingual classes after only three years.

All students, including most categorized as learning disabled, are expected to take higher math courses (such as trigonometry) and science classes (such as physics and chemistry).  In other words, with a pen stroke, one-size-fits-all education has been mandated for Chicago.

Despite these increased expectations, no additional resources have been allocated to bring down class size. At this point, school board policy mandates class sizes ranging from twenty-eight in the primary grades and high school academic classes to thirty-one in the intermediate and upper grades of elementary school.

Larger Classes, Downsized Teacher Rights

Every teacher that I have talked to says that the single most important change that money could buy would be significantly smaller class size. Despite this and the voluminous research available demonstrating the benefits of smaller class size, classes in Chicago schools have not gotten smaller.  In fact, the 1995 state Amendatory Act removed class size as a negotiable point between the school board and the CTU.

This Amendatory Act, passed under a Republican administration but with the wholehearted participation of many downstate and suburban Democrats (and the tacit approval of Mayor Daley, who received substantial new powers under the act), imposes many restrictions on Chicago teachers that do not apply to other teachers in Illinois.

The Amendatory Act guts both teacher seniority and job security provisions.  It also disallows negotiations regarding privatization, hours of work and the annual school calendar.  The CTU's response: a paid lobbyist and a postcard campaign.  No mobilization.

Under the Vallas reforms, enormous sums have been spent to line the pockets of highly paid educational consultants.  For the most part, these consultants are from local universities, others are from the ranks of retired principals and administrators.

These "experts" (many of whom have been out of the classroom for twenty years if they ever were classroom teachers) are paid exorbitant fees to work as external partners to those schools that have been placed on academic probation by the Vallas team. Their charge is to direct the efforts to raise test scores and "teach" the recalcitrant Chicago teachers in probationary schools how to teach.

Teacher reaction to such "help" has been understandably unenthusiastic.  As Debbie Lynch Walsh, opposition candidate for president in the most recent CTU elections, put it:

It [reform] has to be done with teachers and so far it's been a rule by fear and I think we've gone about as far on the rule by fear as we're going to get. If I were Paul Vallas I would tap into the reserve of knowledge and expertise that is in the schools.  What Vallas did was give all the principals 16% pay raises and in effect bought them off to do his bidding.  It comes from a mindset that the staff is the problem and if you just crack the whip and make these people work harder, you'll get better results.

Additionally, the Vallas administration's spending priorities are not those most classroom teachers would endorse as most important.  Millions have been spent on test preparation workbooks and more millions have gone for after school and "summer bridge" programs with "scripted by the experts" daily lessons designed to teach for the tests.

Is the purpose of these "bridge" classes to help students who have not adequately mastered reading?  No, they are designed to get the students up to the Board-mandated cutoff point for promotion to either third or sixth grade or to high school.

This summer approximately 40% of the system's third graders have been assigned to mandatory summer school.  As a bilingual reading specialist in one of the city's magnet schools said of Vallas:

He's putting a lot of money into programs that are not going to have long-lasting benefits.  The "summer bridge" program, for example.  It's impossible to expect to do a lot in such a short time. He spends a lot on consultants to help schools that are not doing well. By the time the team that comes to a school figures out the problems, you've already spent so much money when you could have asked the teachers and students and parents.

Teachers know best and students can tell you why they're not learning.  See now, that would be real reform to ask them.

Exam Scams

Other large sums are being spent on "transition schools," new pseudo-high school holding tanks set up to warehouse the eighth graders who don't achieve the score deemed minimally necessary for promotion based on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), a nationally normed achievement test the Chicago School Board is misusing.

Students who score below the cutoff are either assigned to repeat eighth grade or, if they are already fifteen, to attend these schools where the sole and over-riding educational goal is to pass the test and go on to high school.

A high proportion never make it, spending as much as two years in the transition schools before "disappearing" from the Board's computers as phantoms rather than dropouts.  Overall, attendance in the general neighborhood high schools is down significantly, an indication of both the numbers at transition centers and the numbers dropping out.

At one local high school, four times as many students left during the most recent school year compared to the previous year. In more than three-quarters of such schools, the rate increased significantly.

Other millions have been spent on a new series of exams for high school students called the Chicago Academic Standards Exams (CASE).  These are citywide exams given each semester in the core courses during the first two years of high school.  Until now, the exams have been pilots but, beginning next year, they are to be utilized as a significant factor in determining whether a student passes.

Many of the questions on the pilot exams were extremely problematic; erroneous wording, missing graphs and requests for arcane trivia were par for the course on a number of exams.

Apparently the Vallas forces felt themselves to be on the defensive about these exams.  When the editor of Substance, an independent teacher-published monthly newspaper, published the exam questions after the fact, the Board sued him for a million dollars and suspended him pending an effort to fire him. The paper countersued and court proceedings continue as of this date.

Overall, most educators believe that the Vallas team is relying way too much on standardized testing.  As the reading specialist cited above points out, "A standardized test will give you a nice round number but I don't value these tests because I think evaluation should give me some information about the student's learning and guide me in planning the best lessons possible to help him succeed."

All those interviewed feel that standardized tests are being used to placate politicians and the reassure the public that their tax dollars are being spent wisely, not to improve educational quality.

Major Change Needed

Substantive improvement in education will not come about without a major shift in society's priorities to allocate qualitatively more money to education, especially in the inner city.

Such a shift will not come about in a vacuum.  Only massive pressure from teacher, parents and students organized singly and together can possibly lead to a substantial increase in corporate taxes and the elimination of the discriminatory property tax formulas that thwart attempts at real equality of opportunity for poor children.

Such a change is essential if we are to have the real school reform that can give all children the quality education that should be every child's birthright in the world's richest country.


Edit Organizer is the pen name of a Chicago secondary school teacher, a union delegate and activist in the ProActive Teachers Caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union.

ATC 82, September-October 1999