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Renaissance Mandate

The city's latest plan could rejuvenate schools or wash away prior achievements.

By MISCHA GAUS

I have an unusual work schedule that permits me to spend a few hours each Friday with 28 sixth-graders in a proud old neighborhood school on Chicago's north side. The children are mostly Latino, with the exception of four African-American, Asian and Middle Eastern boys and an African refugee, who speaks almost no English but takes giant smiling delight in that old schoolyard tradition, pointing out classmates' misdeeds.

Students are sometimes asked to illustrate their assignments, putting a personal mark on them that assists in comprehension. One of the refugee's drawings, presumably of the village he fled, showed a giant sun reigning down on a thatched green-roof hut. It was on fire.

Most of the children carry more typical travails of the impoverished urban youth experience, like sleeping 10 to a one-bedroom apartment, skipping after-school enrichment programs to work or take care of siblings and struggling to negotiate a language not yet their own.

And their schools struggle along with them. Since Reagan Education Secretary William Bennett's famous 1987 jibe that Chicago's schools were the worst in the country*, (*Not entirely accurate. Boston had a higher dropout rate at the time, but as one academic told me, "There were one or two that were arguably worse, but who wanted to try to make that case?") the city has twice shaken up its schools, pushing first for local control and then centralizing authority under Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Now the latest reform, a plan to close 60 to 70 schools and open 100 more, leaves observers heralding a flood that could rejuvenate the soil or wash away the slow growing achievements of Chicago's public schools.

Known as Renaissance 2010, the plan calls for throwing open new schools to contractor and charter-school groups, as well as small, district-run "performance" schools. It's been widely assumed that each of the three categories would get a third of the 100 new schools, but the district's New Schools Development head Greg Richmond says there are no quotas for the type of schools created.

The plan was hatched by the Civic Committee of the Chicago Commercial Club, a business group that makes no secret of its desire to undermine the teachers union. In a memo to city schools chief Arne Duncan, a member of the group said keeping the new schools non-union was "a key element of this strategy." The plan was then introduced at a moment of supreme weakness for the union, weeks after a rancorous election that left it without clear leadership.

Not surprisingly, this rankled the union, which criticizes the district for ramming through its pet project without including the people closest to the actual teaching of children. A multitude of community groups are furious that many of the new schools will not have Local School Councils, the elected community-based governing bodies won in the first wave of school reform that give parents and neighborhoods some measure of control over their schools.

Richmond says the Renaissance plan was discussed long before the union election and has included thousands of teachers and community members in open houses and forums, a process advocacy groups deride as sales pitches for a plan decided on long ago.

"One might ask what form of community involvement was involved in the past when we started new schools," Richmond says. "The answer to that is virtually nothing."

Community involvement has meant little more than the chance to register disapproval, says Julie Woestehoff, president of the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education, driving her group and others to hold protests outside school offices. Why, she wonders, do top brass who admit they can't fix schools get to keep their jobs while launching a giant social engineering experiment on poor children? "If you can't run a school system," Woestehoff says, "you ought to resign and let somebody take over who can."

Of course, the question of who can has long flummoxed Chicago Public Schools. A rare collaboration between the teachers and the union district may offer some hope, but for now it's overshadowed by a tooth-and-nail fight among the district, teachers and community groups that see larger agendas behind the plan.

Critics are positive the Renaissance initiative, backed by pledges of up to $50 million from business groups, is intended to assist creeping gentrification in parts of the city's South Side. Until this year, school closings appeared tied to the Chicago Housing Authority's demolition of public housing, a linkage many saw as preparing the neighborhoods for an influx of wealthier newcomers.

"They're forcing them out because they can't afford to live in those neighborhoods," says Rose Genova, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union. "They want a new population in there."

Seven of the 18 new schools to open this fall will be charters, a concept with a checkered past. Charters vary tremendously, but the trend for urban districts has been to use big for-profit operators, a practice some academics think hurts their effectiveness. A December report by the Department of Education confirmed an earlier analysis that students in charter schools perform worse on tests in reading and math.

California's largest chain of publicly financed charters unexpectedly closed its doors last August, stranding 6,000 children weeks before classes started without a school to attend. The former insurance executive who had taken $100 million in state funds to build the charter fiefdom shuttered his headquarters and stopped taking phone calls.

In Chicago, charters educate students with higher family incomes, greater English proficiency, fewer special needs and more stability than the average public school--all predictors of higher test scores. But only half of the city's charters have performed better on tests than other district schools, although they boast better attendance and graduation rates.

The success Chicago has seen with charter schools has come from home-grown projects, not the kind of wholesale abandonment to private contractors attempted in places like Philadelphia, where 20 schools were turned over to Edison Schools, one of the largest private operators of schools. Faced with a debt crisis the week before school opened three years ago, Edison returned truckloads of textbooks, lab and art supplies and musical instruments to save cash. A neighboring district threatened to break its contract with the company because it failed to provide adequate textbooks and supplies.

Speaking to Philadelphia principals two months later at a Colorado Springs resort, Edison's CEO then suggested students could replace adult staffers for some school office jobs. He "left open whether students would be paid for such work," one local paper reported.

Richmond says it's impossible to create 100 new schools without inviting in large for-profit school operators like Edison and local businesses, such as the law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, which was awarded a charter school to open this fall.

Given painful examples like California's meltdown, critics wonder how committed private firms and distant shareholders can be to communities where they have little at stake.

"You have to wonder how grounded they are in reality," Woestehoff says. "Is this just a passing fancy? What happens if in five years they lose interest and decide they want to do some other project?"

Alfred Hess directs Northwestern University's Center for Urban School Policy and is a professor in its education school. He's written extensively on reform efforts in Chicago schools and has reservations about the direction of Renaissance 2010.

"I thought it made a lot sense to hitch their wagon to the charter star when charters were not an alternative to failing public schools but were selected on the basis of myriad different ways of operating schools. But when we're granting charters to large-scale operators, we've ended up just changing the management and not the structure of the schools. And it's not clear that changing the management by itself creates better performing schools."

Managing contracts has already been something of a problem in the Daley administration. Accusations of patronage float around the school district, which carries a reputation of bureaucratic excess. As banner headlines prove with alarming regularity, no city department is scrubbed too clean to avoid hijinks in its contracting.

But Hess' concerns are other problems that could materialize when scrutiny of the Renaissance program has eased.

"Each of these places represents a different kind of problem," he says. "And it's also one of those things where it's easier to do in fewer schools, and the more schools [that are] involved, the harder it gets. There are no models with a track record of success that can be universally applied. It's not like opening a McDonald's, where everything is controlled from the beginning."Can the new schools find enough talented principals and teachers, especially when many of the schools will not be able to offer them state-funded pensions? The founder of a leading reform model, Hess says, acknowledges it flops when the implementation is botched. New-school proposals may look good on paper, but how will the district maintain oversight as more and more open each year?

The school district's three top architects of Renaissance 2010 all resigned early this year, leaving it without effective leadership. Filling the power vacuum is a business-backed group which is attempting to set policy for the new schools. The scenerio is exactly what critics fear: an unelected, unaccoutable private group running a shadow administration.

The favorite punching bag in public education's relentless demonization over the past 20 years hasn't been administrators, though. The fingers usually point at teachers and their unions. Hess isn't convinced. "The problem in Chicago is not that there is a union contract," he says, pointing instead to the way the document has developed.

Chicago's contract was originally very prescriptive, more so than most suburban contracts. One school's grievance led to new contract provisions imposing the solution to a particular problem on all 600 schools, making the rulebook increasingly thick. Recently, however, the union has both proposed and agreed to more liberalizing provisions that give individual faculties the right to avoid some of the citywide strictures.

Dumping good teachers along with the bad when schools close is intensely demoralizing and no means of guaranteeing improvements, says Deborah Lynch, former teachers union president and Gage Park High School special education teacher. One school in Philadelphia where the superintendent tried to force out three-fourths of staff still ended up fifth worst in the city on tests.

"There's no proof that cleaning out a staff and replacing old staff with new staff makes a difference," Lynch says. "They all started with the premise that it must be those bad teachers. They found that if you replace one set of teachers, and provide them the same lack of resources, the same mismanagement and the same crushing poverty and outside effects, test scores don't magically turn around."

Hidden beneath the fire-breathing rhetoric between the school district and teachers is a small but promising joint venture. When Arne Duncan announced two years ago three schools would close because of poor test scores, the teachers union was caught unaware. Then under Lynch's helm, they pulled out the pickets to protest what looked to them like another unilateral decision.

"We were absolutely livid," Lynch says. "We felt they were stigmatizing the students and the teachers in those schools without really providing for the people who were being fired to make some changes in that school."

The confrontation led to the Partnership Initiative, an agreement between the union and the district not to close any school for academic reasons until they had one year extra support and $200,000 to implement a nationally recognized school-wide reform model. The union assigned staff to help schools choose and implement their model.

The experiment is showing some results, even though academics caution that one year of data isn't enough to draw irrefutable conclusions. Five of the six participating elementary schools made gains in reading scores, although math scores hovered around pre-partnership levels, with a few schools losing ground.

Now on its second year, the program is up for renewal at the school year's end. The district and union are negotiating whether to carry on with the program, and both sides expressed interest in continuing. Genova, the union spokeswoman, says the union would like to see the program expand.

"Look at the models that are producing results now," she says. "Go with what works rather than whatever."

The draw of "whatever" is clear when it means a swath of school openings backed by pledges of $50 million in private money. But Richmond says the public school system would seek private money regardless of the district's financial health because the state only pays operating costs. It cut all funds for school construction this year.

Bright lights in education funding shine elsewhere these days. Advocates delighted in the news in February that New York's State Supreme Court ordered the state to pay $5.6 billion more a year to New York City schools to counter failures to provide basic educational necessities in the state with the most unequal funding between richest and poorest districts.

It was a bittersweet victory for advocates: the lawsuit was first filed in 1993. They have longer to wait, too. New York's Gov. George Pataki plans to appeal.

Courts elsewhere have been receptive to funding inadequacy and inequity arguments, but not here. Illinois courts turned aside similar arguments last decade, repeatedly deferring to the legislature to decide what the state constitution means by an "efficient system of high quality public educational institutions."

The founding mother of that phrase in the state's 1970 constitution, Dawn Hetch, said at the time it meant to redress a common feeling that "there is great inequality among the various school districts in the state and that only a greater degree of state aid is going to cure that inequality."

Thirty-five years later, advocates are still leaning on the legislature to fix the system, which relies on local property taxes so heavily that the state's richest district spends almost $13,000 more per pupil than the poorest. It also produces the nation's largest achievement gap between rich and poor children.

The Children's Defense Fund analyzed the shortfall in President Bush's budget for No Child Left Behind--district by district--and found Chicago's public schools must spend $214 million more than they receive to meet the law.

Some legislators didn't need any arm-wringing this year, as state Senate leaders Miguel del Valle and Emil Jones are pushing to lower schools' reliance on property taxes and boost the per-pupil expenditure. Gov. Rod Blagojevich's veto threat presents a major obstacle to their plans, which would swap property tax abatements for boosted income taxes and raise additional funds for education through sales tax increases on some services.

While Blagojevich touts initiatives that have added to the state's education funding, his increases have barely kept up with inflation--and fall clearly short of his repeated pledge to meet a state board's recommendation to increase funding by $1,000 a pupil.

"School districts have cut the fat from their budget, have cut the muscle, and many are digging into the bone," says Bindu Batchu, the director of A+ Illinois, a coalition of groups campaigning to increase education funding. "It's compromising the quality of education they can deliver."

The vast gulf between rich and poor schools compromises more than that. It fosters the desperation that makes people strike out for any solution.

Richard Guss, a sophomore at Harlan Community Academy High School on the city's far South Side, warns those who will oversee the dramatic expansion of privatized education: Be careful--these are lives at stake.

After all, he says, "We all have to travel together."

Published: April 01, 2005
Issue: Spring 2005