NCREL's Policy Briefs

Why, How, and Toward What Ends?

Report 1, 1993

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Rationale and History of Chicago School Reform

Excerpted and summarized with permission from "Chicago School Reform: What It Is and How It Came to Be," by G. Alfred Hess, Jr., Executive Director, Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, and published November 1990.

The primary theoretical basis of the Chicago School Reform Act lies in the research from the "effective schools" literature, which traces its roots to Ron Edmonds' (1979) characteristics of effective schools. Chief among these characteristics is the school faculty's conviction that all students can learn. Another important characteristic is the principal's leadership and ability to establish a philosophical consensus about the school's educational program. Effective schools also administer frequent student assessments and provide educational programs designed to meet student needs.

The Chicago School Reform Act was designed to foster the development of these characteristics in every city school. Reformers believed that principals would be empowered to exercise the leadership necessary to improve student outcomes if bureaucratic sanctions were removed and the locus of accountability transferred to parents and community. If principals could shape the composition of their faculty over time and had the flexibility to allocate resources for school improvement planning, reformers felt they could raise expectation levels and achievement for students.

Theories of participatory management in the business community also supported development of the Reform Act. In business, the movement toward decentralization and site-based management is rooted in the belief that employees are more productive when they participate in decisions that affect them. In public education, that theory is embedded in the notion of school-based management or decision-making.

The impetus for school reform in Chicago began with the fiscal crisis in 1979-1980, when the system failed to meet its payroll and required a financial bailout. As a result, many of its financial decisions are now subject to the review and approval of an oversight board, the Chicago School Finance Authority.

In 1985, Designs for Change and Chicago Panel research reports fueled an effort to adopt statewide school reform in response to A Nation at Risk (National Commission, 1983). Bothreports indicated a desperate state of public education in Chicago. They showed that fewer than three in five ninth graders would graduate from high school and that only one of those students would read at the national average.

Early school reform legislation - built on proposals from a legislative commission, the governor's office, the Illinois State Board of Education, a citizen-business alliance, and the Chicago Teachers' Union - contained programmatic initiatives in only three arenas: early childhood education, dropout alternatives, and enhanced elementary reading programs. An amendment established Local School Improvement Councils at each Chicago school with the power to disapprove discretionary spending at the school and conduct hearings on yearly budgets. If the local council objected to the budget, the school system was supposed to alter the budget to meet those objections, as far as possible.

In 1986, an effort was mounted through Mayor Harold Washington's office to compel the school system and its employees to adopt a set of agreements patterned after the Boston Compact. In October of that year, Mayor Washington convened an educational summit that focused on what he called the "Earn-Learn Connection." Approximately 40 representatives from the business community, school system, teachers' union, area universities, and civic groups participated.

In the second year of the summit, after a disastrous 19-day school strike, disgruntled administrators and union representatives refused to participate in agreements, leaving the reform effort to parents, community members, and business representatives. When Mayor Washington died later that year, he was replaced by an acting mayor who did little to adopt significant educational reform. In the context of this history, it became apparent that mandating legislation would be required to implement any major restructuring effort for school improvement.

In March 1988, the summit adopted a tentative agreement to expand early childhood programs, establish school-based management councils at every school, and pursue ways to enhance teacher professionalism. A month later, amendments were adopted to strengthen the powers of local councils, reduce the size of bureaucracy, and reallocate funds to schools with the heaviest concentrations of disadvantaged students. All of these amendments passed over the objections of the administration and principals' association. Meanwhile, separate pieces of legislation were introduced by three civic groups. In the Senate Education Committee, the three bills were merged into one, which eventually passed the Senate - on a partisan division - by one vote. In the House, political stalling prolonged passage until a final 123-page bill was crafted and submitted to the Governor, who solicited input from reform activists, the teachers' union, and the Board of Education and used his amendatory veto to correct technical problems. A compromise resulted in the passage of a slightly rewritten bill with nearly unanimous, bi-partisan support on December 2, 1988. In October 1989, 313,000 people voted to elect 5,420 members of Local School Councils to begin school-based management at 542 Chicago public schools.


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Posted on April 26, 1995

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