Local School Councils Persist, Inject Democracy into Chicago Public Schools

In 1988, after the sudden death of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the Illinois Legislature did something unusual. It created an experiment in truly democratic school governance in Chicago: the idea that parents, teachers, and community members would stand for election to local school councils whose members would have considerable power including the hiring of the school principal. When top-down school governance was instituted in 1995 by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who appointed Paul Vallas and then Arne Duncan to run the school district, the power of the elected local school councils faded. Arne Duncan brought Renaissance 2010, whose goal was to expand school choice, shutter so-called “failing” schools, and open 100 new schools—the very top-down school “reform” that has dominated Duncan’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education since 2009.

But the 25th Anniversary issue of Catalyst-Chicago features a retrospective examination of the elected local school councils that have persevered in many of the city’s schools: “Of all the reforms that have swept through Chicago Public Schools in the past 25 years, the creation of local school councils is one of the few that persists.”

Chicago’s local school councils have faced challenges from the beginning. Catalyst quotes Sokoni Karanja, an activist in the Bronzeville neighborhood who helped lead the movement to support and maintain what Chicago calls its LSCs: “In the first few years they were very effective and we saw major turnarounds at some schools.  And there are still diehard parents that maintain their commitment to the LSCs, although there has been continuous reductions in their power.”

Catalyst interviews Dion Miller Perez who chaired the Chicago office of what was the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform and who was elected over the years to three LSCs: “There was a fickleness of funders supporting parental involvement in a grassroots way.  There used to be more foundation money for LSC training and parent involvement in general.  That doesn’t exist anymore.”

Elaine Allensworth, of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago comments on school improvement in the early 1990s, though she is hesitant to attribute the growth in test scores solely to direct democratic involvement of parents through the LSCs: “In that period just after decentralization, we do see improvements in a lot of schools.  A lot of schools did show improvements in student test scores, though it seemed to be related to the economic conditions in the community…. Then we start to see (scores) flatten out when mayor control came in.”

Catalyst ‘s anniversary issue features two parents who have been deeply involved through their LSCs.  These interviews expose not only the commitment of deeply involved parent leaders but also the challenges to parent involvement for schools in poor and working class communities.  Sabrina Jackson, part of the LSC at Perkins, Bass Elementary School in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, was involved to the degree that she could be as a parent employed full-time and attending community college through the years of her four children’s enrollment.  Jackson comments: “They say churches can be a stabilizing force in a neighborhood, but schools are too, especially if they’ve been in the neighborhood forever.”  At one point Jackson tried school choice but returned her daughter to Perkins, Bass when she wasn’t overly impressed with the receiving school and realized that, “Bass had been in my family for four generations.  It’s part of my heritage.”  Then the family moved to South Bend, Indiana, returning to Chicago and to the Bronzeville neighborhood when Jackson needed to care for her own parents.  In 2007 Jackson successfully ran for a position on the school’s LSC and helped interview more than two dozen candidates and eventually choose a principal.

Margarita Vasquez emigrated from Mexico to Chicago’s west side Belmont Cragin neighborhood.  She and her husband were employed full time as factory workers when her oldest children were enrolled in Hanson Park and Shubert elementary schools, but when her third child was born, she left work and became involved at Hanson Park, where she was elected to the LSC.  Catalyst describes Vasquez’s biggest concern: “‘The kids are crammed into that building,’ says Vasquez. Even so, she says, parents tend to keep their children at Hanson Park because they work and siblings have to walk them home.”  As an engaged parent, Vasquez’s interests have been connecting with parents who are, as she used to be, intimidated by the language barrier.  She has transcended her initial reticence, however, and articulately describes the challenges presented by the demand that the school keep its 96 percent attendance rate, especially as Hanson Park is a ‘cluster school’ for students with disabilities: “That’s a pretty high bar, especially when you add in the 80-some kids who are… medically fragile,who have trach tubes or feeding tubes or ventilators.  They miss a lot of days.”  She describes her own priorities on the LSC—improving the school climate and pressing the principal to improve evaluation of teachers.

The kind of top-down school reform brought to Chicago by Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan is touted by its proponents as efficient and innovative, buzzwords that sound impressive.  Granting parents, teachers, and community members power through the local school council is, by contrast, the essence of democracy. It is about engagement and about addressing the needs of a school from the bottom up, from the point of view of the families it serves.

Thank goodness, as Catalyst points out, many local school councils have hung on. The dogged persistence of so many of Chicago’s LSCs, despite many threats to their viability, is something to celebrate.

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