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Chicago Public Schools Fri Mar 02 2012

Democracy Disappearing: Is It Time for Local School Councils to Elect Their Own School Board?

The Chicago Board of Education, having proven itself unconcerned with parent concerns that do not match their own person concerns, and unresponsive to popular political pressure, fail the test of participatory democracy that institutions like school systems need to stay vital and innovative. The last vestige of democracy in the school system, local school councils, may need to do something drastic to make the Board of Education as irrelevant as they seem to think parents are.

In 1988, Chicagoans made an impressive step forward in democratic school governance, amending the state's relevant education statute to provide for, among many other things, elected local school councils with authority over hiring, structuring, and budgeting at local schools. These councils, or LSCs, were novel then and continue to be rare. LSCs are composed of members of the public, parents, teachers, the school's principal and student representative with non-voting authority. The LSCs are not merely advisory bodies, but were designed to make schools responsive to the community and give parents a vested interest in the operation of the local schools. When the reforms were first proposed by state Sen. Art Berman (D-Edgewater) in 1988, they were considered radical but necessary--and for a very interesting reason that resonates today:

The new legislation would make some of the most radical changes ever to be undertaken in this country as a way of scrapping the power structure of a failing public school system. It would break up the monolithic control wielded by the central Board of Education and, instead, set up 11-member mini-school boards, comprised chiefly of parents, that would be elected and have the responsibility of governing each of the city`s 595 public schools.

The idea is that control at the school-based level cannot help but be an improvement over decades of unresponsive management by a bureaucratic, heavily politicized, and rigidly centralized Board of Education.

(Bonita Brodt, "School Reform's Achilles Heel: The Parents" Chicago Tribune, 20 November 1988).

The major concern, shared by power-friendly elites like the Tribune, was that unsophisticated parents would be too susceptible to pressure from outside groups. As an example, that same Tribune article pointed out one community organization that was pressuring parents using race-baiting tactics in East Side:

At Bowen High School, 2710 E. 89th St., a community group called the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) has become so heavily entrenched in what began as a parent fight to oust the school principal that the parents have been split bitterly along racial lines and observers now call it UNO`s crusade, instead.

Yet, LSCs have proven remarkably resilient and insulated from this type of pressure. While complaints about principals bullying untrained LSC members are common, the concerns that LSCs would be unsophisticated cats paws or rubber stamps for powerful interests have not born out. Democracy has proven its value as not just a box to check but for its creative power and capacity to ennoble those who feel they have a meaningful role in it, rather than just being a passive consumer.

School privatizers like Mayor Emanuel, his appointed Board of Ed, and his CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, are hostile to LSCs and parent governance. That is to say, whatever their rhetoric, their actions in aggressively pursuing closure of public schools in favor of charters (which do not have LSCs) indicates either outright hostility or indifference amounting to the same thing. This can't be disputed so long as actions are weighted greater than press releases.

The only nod to democratic control of schools the current administration has given is of the "check-the-box" variety, where the Board, before voting unanimously to pursue a Mayoral policy, holds hearings where there are no procedural options for parents to actively and meaningfully participate in decision making. Instead, the Board holds the hearings to say they held them and continue to pursue the precise policy dictated by the Mayor and his CEO.

Sounds like "unresponsive management by a bureaucratic, heavily politicized, and rigidly centralized Board of Education."

The LSCs of course are not a panacea; had they been, Chicago Public Schools would have been doing a lot better before Mayor Daley reasserted Mayoral control of the schools in 1995. But they have proven themselves able to act on behalf of parents at the level closest to schools themselves, without falling prey to outside interests or outrageous radicalism. In other words, LSCs represent the last vestige of parental control over the schools.

Meanwhile, the Board has shown itself to be wholly uninterested in the concerns of the parents who actually send their children to local schools.

This undermines the legitimacy of the Board of Education. It's two pronged effort--closing schools with LSCs and replacing them with schools without them, on the one hand, and demoralizing parents with show-trial style "hearings"--has made it clear they do not act on behalf of parents or students but on behalf of a "vision" articulated by outside groups and effectuated by the Mayor. Lacking legitimacy, the crisis in our schools will only deepen. Local School Councils need to reassert their authority, if only to remind the Mayor, and Chicagoans generally, that they exist and they have formal authority under the law.

So, why not elect their own Board of Education from amongst their membership?

A study by Designs for Change revealed that parent engagement on LSCs is high; that LSC members tend to be educated above the city's median average, and more or less incorruptible. With the admittedly non-irrelevant caveat that they have no statutory authority to do so, there is no reason why LSC members should not take the step to establish control in fact over schools they control in theory.

One of the problems of the school privatization movement is not that it is inherently, morally wrong, but that it is not the result of or open to a democratic process in a meaningful way. Since 1995 but particularly since the Duncan era, the Board of Education has begun to act more like the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, appointed by the President but by design free of political control over policy. The acceleration of technocratic control of nominally democratic institutions means that the countervailing pressure those who experience reform has been screened out of the process. That is a recipe for sclerosis.

An LSC congress to elect a school board to express the policy will of parents, students, and teachers would if nothing else send a message to the Board of Education that they are not legitimate public officials, but seat-filling functionaries. They have no interest what parents, teachers, and students--remarkably dismissed as special interests by school privatizers who are funded by literally a handful of people--want, or to incorporate the experiences of those groups into their decision making.

An LSC-created school board may not be able to exercise statutory authority over the school system, but acting in concert to exercise what power they do have, they may be able to muscle the bureaucracy out. They certainly would command the moral high ground and expose the inherent comedy of unelected functionaries with an express disdain for educators and parents groups "speaking for" students.

And, if nothing else, bringing LSC members together to discuss the idea and work out the kinks could strengthen the resolve of parents and reignite passions that have been suffocated by years of "unresponsive management by a bureaucratic, heavily politicized, and rigidly centralized Board of Education."

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