Crib Death for School Reforms? Lawsuits Block Parents' Power in Chicago, Choices in Milwaukee

December 17, 1990|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON — Washington. THEY'RE TWO of America's most adventuresome school reforms. Each aims to increase parent power in dysfunctional inner-city school systems. Each was challenged by education establishments -- adults who make their living off the schools. Each has just been struck down by courts, ruling on what seem narrow, technical grounds.

The Chicago and Milwaukee school experiments are vastly different in approach: Chicago's rips control from a top-heavy central bureaucracy and places it in popularly elected, local school committees for each of the city's 589 grammar and high schools. Milwaukee's allows up to 1,000 children from the city's poorest families to enroll in private, non-sectarian schools with $2,500 each in state aid.

But no reform in America gets made these days without special interests rushing to throw a monkey wrench into the gears.

In Chicago, school principals were enraged because the reform had stripped them of lifetime job security -- the right to keep their jobs no matter how good or bad their performance, to the day of retirement.

So claiming a loss of their ''property rights,'' the principals filed suit. For good measure, they threw in a charge that the school reform, as the Illinois Legislature passed it, violated the Supreme Court's ''one-person, one-vote rule'' because only parents could vote for the six parent slots on each local school committee.

The Illinois Supreme Court rebuffed the tenure argument, to the principals' dismay. But the court picked up the equal-voting-rights charge and used it to invalidate the entire reform plan. Unreversed, the decision would mean crib death for plan painstakingly written and pushed through the legislature by an alliance of neighborhood organizations and Chicago business leaders concerned about the schools' abysmal performance.

The alliance had structured the councils for dominant parent control -- six seats elected exclusively by parents to two for teachers, two for community representatives -- in order to protect the fledgling reform from invasion by Chicago's political system. Bloc voting ordered by ward bosses could fill school committees with political hacks, not concerned parents.

No, said the court, parents have no special interest; voters in general are being deprived of their rights. It might seem a curious conclusion, after decades of public indifference that led to non-performing, non-accountable schools. More curious still: One-man, one-vote, designed to break the hold of

malapportioned and thus undemocratic legislatures, becomes a straitjacket preventing true grass-roots democratic reform.

However erroneous and harmful their conclusion, the Illinois justices were at least treating a serious constitutional issue. Not so the Wisconsin circuit appeals court, which seized on an obscure, routinely ignored technicality -- that ''local'' legislation can't be written into statewide bills.

That was enough to overturn one of the country's leading experiments in school choice for families who normally have no choice at all -- the poorest inner-city residents. Ignored were such legitimate issues of school choice as quality assurance and public funds going into private schools.

The Wisconsin suit happened because the education establishment, from teacher unions to state school superintendent and principal associations, decided to circle its wagons to stop anyone else from getting government education dollars. But the reform backers -- state Rep. Polly Williams, a black Milwaukee Democrat, and Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson -- say that unless the decision is overturned, they will re-enact the bill in less vulnerable form.

Chicago's reform camp believes it, too, can recover from the legal blow. A possible appeal would force the Supreme Court to deal with complexities and inherent contradictions of ''one-person, one-vote.''

More immediately, the reform alliance will go back to the Illinois legislature for a ''quick fix'' allowing all local residents to vote for all slots on local school committees. But Illinois politics, a briar patch of conflicting special interests, may make that difficult. Principals and central-office bureaucrats who fought the reform see a golden opportunity to scuttle it now.

''A Pandora's box has been opened,'' says Mike Smith of Chicago's Institute for Community Empowerment. ''We have a program that has potential for great good. We've given power to constituencies like parents and teachers. We're holding the system accountable in a way that's not been done before in an urban system. But it may be struck down so early in its life if its substance is gutted.''

Supporters think a gutting can be averted. Business allies of reform ''will absolutely go to the mat,'' says Joe Reed, head of Leadership for Quality Education. The original reform alliance is ''well intact'' and will fight to strengthen, not weaken, the school councils. The councils' own 6,300 elected members should provide added political clout.

Finally, a new Republican governor, James Edgar, and a Democratic mayor, Richard Daley, will play a significant role in preserving -- or emasculating -- Chicago's infant school reform. In the new ''empowerment'' politics of the '90s, this issue will be an acid test for each.

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