Can Democracy Save Chicago's Schools?

The breaking point for parents of Chicago's schoolchildren finally came in the fall of 1987: For the ninth time in less than two decades public school teachers were out on strike. The years of financial game-playing, continued crisis, and, most of all, educational decline had taken their toll.

Reformers had for several years chronicled the failures of the city's schools and the follies of the system's central bureaucracy, which had grown dramatically even as school enrollment, teaching staff, and real teaching time declined. Business leaders had long grumbled that the graduates of the public schools were grossly unqualified. Blacks had long denounced both the system's deliberate segregation and white politicians' attempt to retain control of the system, even though only 12 percent of students were white. But many black parents discovered in the 1980s that the system was still rotten, even with black superintendents and a predominantly black staff.

The public anger and frustration, as well as scholarly research, all pointed toward the central bureaucracy as the heart of the problem. During the year following the strike, an unusual coalition of educational reformers, the business establishment, and white, black, and Hispanic community organizations successfully pushed for state legislation. The new law radically decentralized power to the local school level, giving parents and community representatives primary responsibility to hire and fire principals, set budgets, and approve school plans. Coming at the close of a decade of reports on the failings of American education, Chicago's school reform was one of the most dramatic and ambitious responses.


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The stakes are high for the nation's third-largest public school system and for national education policy. President Bush has focused on a free-market model of parental school "choice," an ambiguously defined option with increasing political appeal. By contrast, Chicago's reform emphasizes democratic "voice" as the route to effective schools. It hypothesizes that local control will create more effective, responsive, and innovative schools.

The Chicago plan, however, does not preclude parental choice. The city continues to offer its pre-reform array of magnet schools and optional enrollment programs, which, according to critics, help only a privileged few. The new state law mandates the eventual creation of more programs involving parental choice, but Chicago education reformers reject the free-market model and hope to place new options for choice within a framework of popular democratic institutions.

There are strong political and educational reasons for favoring the popular democracy framework over the marketplace, but if Chicago's bold experiment fails for lack of support, the drumbeat for the free-market model will surely grow louder. Unfortunately, these new laboratories of local educational democracy have been hobbled by inadequate external political and financial support from the outset.

Starting Small
For two years, Chicago's local school councils have been grappling with their new responsibilities, overseeing the education of roughly 400,000 students in 610 schools. They have created programs to restore discipline, fight gangs, and generate school spirit -- ranging from enforcing tough ultimatums on gang members and drop-outs to requiring school uniforms. They have fixed up school buildings, improved libraries, added computers, beefed up arts programs, and initiated new curricula from environmental studies to African-American history.

Many schools added teacher aides or teachers, and a few have either decided to expand their facilities, start a new school, or relieve overcrowding by shifting to a year-round schedule. In some instances, there are new channels of communication and cooperation among neighborhood schools or among teachers and sub-units within schools that had been isolated before, reporting only to superiors. New principals were hired in 38 percent of the schools, and a few dozen of the system's schools have contracted with distinguished outside experts to develop curricula or to revamp the entire school.

Despite an auspicious start, however, Chicago's school reform is far from a clear-cut success. The roles of parents, principals, teachers, and bureaucrats are still unclear. Many factions with disparate agendas are waiting for reform to fail, and no strong leadership figures in politics or the schools are pushing for its success. State and local politicians have been unwilling to commit the money needed to put flesh on the bones of reform. The central bureaucracy continues to fight to retain control and to waste scarce dollars; by design or inertia, its actions sabotage reform.

Few local school councils (LSCs) have so far initiated any far-reaching educational reforms. There has been little effort to involve teachers or give them the necessary retraining, and the teachers union remains an ambivalent participant in reform. If these obstacles persist, the tentative blossoming of hope and enthusiasm among parents and the reform-minded minority within the system may soon wither into cynicism and withdrawal.


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Yet the new law has begun to effect change. Chicago reform is predicated on the idea that there is no one best system for all schools. And the responses so far are diverse:

  • At Dumas Elementary School in a poor black neighborhood, the LSC has supported principal Sylvia Peters' ambition to begin offering high school courses for students who want to continue with the Dumas program's focus on the arts, African-American culture, and development of character and moral values. But Dumas parents remain divided over the LSC decision to encourage school uniforms, and teachers remain divided over the best educational strategy for teaching reading.
  • At Amundsen High School, a United Nations of ethnicities with a big gang problem, the LSC picked a new principal, banned all gang symbols, and set new standards: roughly one-fourth of the students who had been failing were told that they could return only if they earned summer school credit, then came with their parents in the fall and signed a performance contract. The school also cracked down on truancy.
  • At Whitney Young High School, a respected magnet school, the LSC decided to focus attention on black and Hispanic males in danger of "dropping out spiritually," providing special counselors who would link the kids with individual mentors.
  • In the Mexican-American Little Village neighborhood, seven of the ten local schools have begun working as a "cluster" to provide special programs and educate parents on weekends. There were some divisive battles, including the charge that a white principal was replaced by a Hispanic for ethnic reasons. Also, neighborhood residents hailed one school's decision to relieve overcrowding by physically expanding but the decision also reflected the unwillingness of Hispanics to send their children to underused, largely black schools not far away.
  • At the Michele Clark Middle School in a west-side African-American neighborhood the LSC bought computers for a new writing program it initiated (at the suggestion of a teacher), established a new program for teaching Algebra, encouraged more African-American emphasis in the curriculum, and tried to bring in Whittle Communications' controversial school-oriented television Channel One (but the superintendent vetoed it). Yet parental participation has largely dwindled to those on the LSC since the excitement of choosing a principal passed.

There also are signs that more substantial educational innovation may be underway soon. For example, a group of high schools has joined Brown University Professor Theodore Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools, which encourages teacher collegiality and an individualized approach to students. James Comer, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University's School of Medicine and a faculty member of Yale's Child Study Center, will work with a half-dozen schools to create the supportive atmosphere and cooperative relations among teachers and parents that have transformed other schools. Former civil rights leader Bob Moses has already brought to several schools his Algebra Project, which teaches algebraic concepts through experiences of daily life.

This diversity of advice on innovation is new. There had been limited experiments in school autonomy and decision-making prior to the 1988 reform law, but central administrators nevertheless had dominated technical support.

The One Worst System?
Chicago's school crisis had been brewing for decades before then-Secretary of Education William Bennett, in an overstatement made in the aftermath of the 1987 school strike, declared the city's schools the "worst in America." Under the two-decade rule of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, Chicago had deliberately maintained a highly segregated system. As whites fled to the suburbs and many remaining white families sent children to the large Catholic school system, citizen support for the public schools diminished. Daley tried to buy labor peace with the school system's unions through financial sleight-of-hand that, after his death, resulted in full-scale crisis in 1979.

Over the years, blacks fought for more control of a system that by 1990 had a student population that was 58 percent black (plus 27 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian and other nonwhites). For the past decade the superintendents, board chairs, and a slim majority of the staff have been black.

Yet, as several reform groups documented throughout the 1980s, the school system's performance was bad and getting worse. The central bureaucracy was not just a terrible drain on resources; perhaps even worse, to justify their existence, administrators attempted to regulate more closely nearly every aspect of teaching and school life. Principals and teachers alike were oriented more toward demands of their superiors, less to the needs of students, the wishes of the parents and community, or their own professional judgment. The bureaucracy imposed a disastrous reading skills program that subverted the joy of reading through mind-numbing regimentation designed to be "teacher-proof."

The system especially failed its poor, black, and Hispanic students. The central bureaucracy diverted more than one-third of state compensatory aid for schools with poor children to support its own operations. In a vicious circle of incompetence, Chicago schools overwhelmingly drew their teachers from two of the worst state universities, which enrolled mainly ill-prepared Chicago students.

The result was not surprising. From 43 to 57 percent of entering high school students failed to graduate, according to studies by the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finances and by Designs for Change, another advocacy group. But a few schools performed fairly well. Those schools were mainly in white neighborhoods or were magnet schools designed to provide a modicum of integration and refuge for middle-class families.

Overwhelmingly, the best minority students were siphoned off to magnet schools, and white middle-class parents connived and lobbied to get these better schools to accept their children. The vast majority of the system was allowed -- perhaps even expected -- to fail. But as Designs for Change researchers Donald Moore and Suzanne Davenport argued, this "new, improved sorting machine" gave the appearance of greater fairness while perpetuating or worsening the traditional inequities.

At present, more than half of Chicago's high school students and a quarter of the elementary students attend schools outside their residential districts, under a wide variety of pre-reform programs including magnet schools. But when it comes to admission to the better magnet schools, the real choices are made by the principals, from a huge pool of applicants. For the remainder, choice is a grim illusion: one bad school or another. As a result, less than one-third of those students who do not drop out read at twelfth-grade level when they graduate.


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In response to the crescendo of discontent, Mayor Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, convened an "education summit" in 1986 to persuade businesses to guarantee jobs to public school graduates if they met performance standards.

According to Mary O'Connell's School Reform Chicago Style: How Citizens Organized to Change Public Policy, school Superintendent Manford Byrd rejected the proposal from the education summit, saying, "We've got an excellent system; if you give us New Trier [a wealthy suburban school district] students, we'll have good outcomes." Byrd's "blame the victim" mentality pervaded the system, legitimized by research such as the 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity by James Coleman and colleagues, which showed the primary determinant of school success was family socioeconomic status.

Yet in the wake of the Coleman report, educational researchers across the country had found or created schools that made a difference in poor communities. For example, Comer has helped create such effective schools in New Haven and other cities. These schools share certain distinguishing features: Principals are educational leaders; parents are involved; staff believe that students can learn; time is primarily spent on "interactive" learning, especially reading; and there are consistent efforts to maintain an orderly, attractive atmosphere and to discourage drop-outs and truancy. Comer, in particular, stresses development of a nurturing, supportive atmosphere that integrates the parents into school life.

Black Doubts
But Mayor Washington, bogged down in battles with his old Democratic machine enemies, was reluctant to devote much effort to a school system that he at best indirectly influenced. He was also reticent to disturb the status quo since the public school system provided the economic base of a large proportion of the city's black middle class, who had been his political supporters.

The major black community and civil rights groups were often actively hostile to what they called educational "deform." Many blacks also saw the reform effort as a threat to black control of a major urban institution. And middle-class black educators had doubts that poor parents of any sort were capable of running the schools.

Even black advocates of reform were suspicious about some of their allies such as white bankers and executives or Hispanic and white community groups that had clashed with blacks on other issues. And some blacks were wary of reformers who criticized the local teachers union, led by a black woman, for the union's resistance to parental involvement in running the schools.

Jesse Jackson lobbied forcefully against reform and continued afterwards to fight its implementation, battling, for example, to save the job of his old protégé, Manford Byrd. The black middle class, many of whom were school employees, was the political and financial base for Jackson's Operation PUSH, despite his vocal advocacy of the disenfranchised poor. When PUSH came to the shove of disgruntled black parents, Jackson's organization sided with the black administrators, above all, and the teachers.

The nineteen-day teachers strike in 1987 provoked such a grass-roots outpouring of anger and dissatisfaction that the mayor reactivated the education summit and brought in a new group of community and parent organizations. Few of the existing parent-teacher associations or local school improvement councils, weak bodies devised under previous reform legislation, were involved in the reform debate.

Washington had been strong enough politically to risk confronting an important group of supporters. His successor in the mayor's office, Eugene Sawyer, who took office upon Washington's death in 1987, was politically weak, more attuned to machine-style patronage politics, and more dependent on the black middle class. Sawyer saw the battle over reform as about "contracts and jobs," which he feared blacks would lose.

State Action
After cliffhanger votes and veto battles, the school reform law passed the state legislature in 1988, effective in the fall of 1989. The final bill vested power to hire and fire the principal, make local budgets, and design school improvement plans in the ten elected members of the local school council, including six parents elected by parents, two community residents elected by the community, and two teachers elected by the staff.

The principal received new authority to hire staff without regard to union seniority and to remove unqualified teachers more speedily. The principal in theory also gained power over administration of the local school (although both school engineers and lunchroom personnel continued to assert their independence). Teachers were expected to form a Professional Personnel Advisory Committee to advise the principal and LSC.

The reform plan decentralized responsibility much more drastically than had New York City's earlier, troubled experiment with district school boards, and it gave more power to parents, less to professionals, than school reform had done in other cities such as Rochester, New York. (Although a few school systems, such as those in Miami, Florida, and Hammond, Indiana, adopted "school based management" before Chicago, their reforms were too new to provide much conclusive evidence on what worked.)

The law also placed a cap on administrative expenditures by the central board and mandated that the so-called state Chapter I funds for low-income students be distributed to the schools, not appropriated by the central office. Thus the reform reallocated about $40 million of a $2.3 billion budget to local schools to spend as they saw fit in the first year of reform, with about $53 million additional in each of the four succeeding years. In the first year of reform the average elementary school had about $90,000 to budget as it wished. The School Finance Authority, which had been established in the 1979 fiscal crisis, assumed oversight authority, and the system was mandated to prepare improved school choice options.

When the state legislature passed the Chicago school reform law, it provided no new money to implement the reforms or any innovations that might flow from local school council initiatives. Despite its constitutional responsibility to finance the majority of school costs, the state share of education expenditures has actually dropped from 48 percent in 1976 to 40 percent today. Legislators temporarily raised income taxes in 1989 (then made the hike permanent in 1991), but that simply slowed the steady relative decline in state funding. From the outset, reform was a financial orphan.

The Limits of Change
While it provided for considerable decentralization of power in the Chicago school system, the 1988 reform law by no means overturned the status quo. Almost from the start it was apparent that the local school councils could exercise their new powers only within a very circumscribed universe. The central board and administration retained the power to negotiate contracts with the unions and to make many fundamental overall budgetary decisions. The mayor, with approval of the city council, retained the power to appoint the school board, which in turn hired the superintendent. The state legislature controlled nearly half the purse strings.

And the councils faced other impediments; the mechanics of implementing the reform plan itself were daunting. The decentralization meant conducting more than 600 local school council elections and providing a crash course in the intricacies of budgeting and evaluating the school's principal to the newly elected council members -- many of whom were poor and ill-educated, some of whom could not speak English (one successful council mixed poor blacks and non-English speaking Chinese). Many newly elected councils soon faced the difficult task of evaluating the school's principal, often seeking out and evaluating candidates for the job.

Nevertheless, at the most basic level, the system worked: Nearly all the schools met their deadlines for local budgets and school plans, which were often delivered with little notice and less help. There were bitter fights in a few schools and councils, especially over replacement of principals. Charges of racial discrimination in a few councils stirred waves of paranoia, but such problems were not widespread.

In a study of a dozen local school councils, the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finances found neither a model of dynamic grass-roots revolution nor a disaster. Only three out of fourteen school councils queried in another Chicago Panel survey have made important changes that might affect education, such as team teaching or encouraging cooperative learning among students. Three others did very little, and the remainder made modest first steps.

But the overall conclusion from central administrators, local reformers, and outside observers is, according to Chicago Panel Director G. Alfred Hess, Jr., "that the new ideas aren't very creative in a lot of places." Joan Jeter Slay, a former school board member and a leader of Designs for Change, concluded that at best twenty-five schools -- less than 5 percent of the total -- have undertaken significant restructuring.

While Chicago's school reform law focused on school governance, there is a large leap from either citizen control or decentralization to making schools work better. "By itself local school management does not generate better schools," argues John Kotsakis, assistant to the president of the local teachers union. "Are we doing something that changes the way kids are engaged in the learning process? Clearly in most cases, we're not." Beyond restructuring governance, Kotsakis argues, the schools must now restructure school time and space, breaking down the traditional isolation of teachers and fragmentation of the day.

Yet parents often know more about what they want out of schools than how to get it. "Nobody looked at [reform] in terms of the vehicle that we need to increase student achievement," Slay said. "We knew councils were critical, but I don't think we understood how big an adult education program we were undertaking."

Teachers as well as parents needed training to carry out the reform's objectives, although no training programs were mandated by the reform legislation. Teachers now appear less fearful of reform and more involved than at the outset, but neither the Professional Personnel Advisory Committees nor the union have yet played an important role. The teachers union has argued for an outside academy that generates educational ideas, but reformers suspicious of the union blocked earlier teacher-training proposals under union control. Yet many reformers would agree with Kotzakis's argument that school reform can succeed only if teachers are better trained and work more collegially with principals who do not insist on being authoritarian.

"One of the key holes in reform is: What's the incentive for teachers to change what they're doing in the classroom?" argues Anthony Bryk, a professor of education at the University of Chicago. Many teachers, veterans of decades in the schools, have grown cynical with the twists and turns of policies and suspect that the central bureaucracy will ultimately regain control.

At its most successful, reform has given local school councils a chance to get rid of incompetent or unresponsive principals and to make all principals accountable to local school government, not the bureaucracy. At times councils initiate ideas, but more often they express concerns and offer support to principals who are trying to make changes. Some councils, however, have been bogged down in conflict, unable to forge a consensus.

Some reformers now think that the central office, apart from a few functions like administering the payroll, should become a service center, offering program support or even maintenance services in competition with independent suppliers. They are not likely to receive support toward that goal from the central administration, however.

Reform has diminished the size of the bureaucracy -- at least 550 positions have been cut out of a central bureaucracy of about 4,100 -- but top administrators have done everything they could to save themselves. Although district offices were cut heavily, the central office remained protected; cuts disproportionately targeted clerical and lunchroom workers rather than upper-level bureaucrats, whose jobs were often simply shuffled around.

The central bureaucracy has not only failed to encourage reform but frequently obstructed it. 'Pershing Road" -- the site of the huge central office -- has imposed arbitrary and abrupt deadlines, shifted paperwork burdens to the local school councils, and provided inadequate and confusing information.

"One of the tragedies of school reform is the utter lack of leadership at the center," Hess argues. Richard M. Daley (son of the late Richard J. Daley) made support for the new school reform a central plank in his successful 1989 mayoral campaign, but his record has been mixed since he took office. His interim school board picked a superintendent, Ted Kimbrough, who demonstrated no enthusiasm for reform and has tried to recentralize power. The board also negotiated teacher contracts that were far beyond projected school revenues, but did guarantee labor peace for Daley's 1991 reelection. Shortly after the election, the board announced a deficit of $315 million out of a $2.3 billion budget for the next fiscal year.

Another Crisis
The latest budget crisis in the summer and fall of 1991 has had both economic and political dimensions. In comparison with other big cities as well as many suburban districts, Chicago's school funding is below average; the state contributes less than it should, and local property-tax rates for schools are the third-lowest in the metropolitan area, according to Hess.

The school system's financial problem is only partly waste and misallocation of money; the schools are also simply and seriously underfunded. Although many studies show no statistical connection between spending more on education and getting improved results, that does not mean spending is never justified. Paying teachers more may be necessary just to maintain the teacher corps. Also, group merit bonuses for teachers in schools that make significant progress or dramatic reductions in class size could bring significant improvement.

Reformers, for their part, hoped to use the 1991 fiscal crisis as a lever to increase the amount of time teachers actually spend with students each day and to reduce the bureaucracy further. For example, the school board had the option of saving $40 million if it cut another 800 positions from the central office, Hess argued. But, while some of the board's initiatives were blocked or deflected, the reformers were unable to mount a sufficiently forceful campaign to shape the budget.

The future of the reform effort has already been threatened by the budget crisis. Daley used the fiscal squeeze as the occasion to raise the threat of education vouchers, which would be appealing to his loyal constituents with children in parochial schools. The mayor resisted finding new local property or state tax money for the schools. And the state legislature, in its 1991 budget, effectively left Chicago schools in a slowly tightening fiscal noose. In his Fiscal Year 1992 budget, Superintendent of Schools Kimbrough trimmed back the central office by only slightly more than 200. But more than 1,200 teachers were cut, school supplies and equipment were slashed by 90 percent, and many special programs for children who are poor or at risk of dropping out were eliminated. The superintendent closed thirteen schools, including several that were deemed successful, even though the move saved less than $2 million.

Although schools opened in the fall of 1991, many were in chaos for weeks. In November, a teachers contract was finally ratified. The final deal gives teachers a small pay increase this year and will result in immediate school closings. Reformers, who wanted cuts in the bureacracy rather than school closings, warned that the financial crisis will return with greater force next fall.

The fiscal crisis and cuts have undermined both the spirit and substance of reform. "We've had a couple of years to create a sense of efficacy [on the councils]," Bryk argued. "Now there's tremendous centralization of decision-making that has pervasive effects. You're trying to convince people they have power and then telling them they have no power. That could be terribly destructive to reform."


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During the second round of local school council elections in the fall of 1991, both the number of candidates and the voter turnout dropped by nearly half from the initial elections, but there were reasonably full and contested slates nearly everywhere. The fall-off may reflect reduced local controversy and the early routinization of local school politics as much as any disillusionment with reform, but the failure of Kimbrough or Daley to push participation also hurt.

The success of reform will depend as much on the creation of a constructive local political culture as on the mechanics established in reform legislation. Historically, locally controlled schools have ranged from models of democracy to models of parochialism and patronage. To succeed, Chicago will have to buck its own traditions of patronage politics.

There are some checks against abuse. The School Finance Authority has oversight powers, but more important, school reform and community groups have helped keep reform on course. Not only have most councils remained independent of their aldermen and other political forces, but some school council leaders have become new political challengers. Education has become a more openly debated political issue and a much larger constituency is learning about the issues at stake.

Paradoxes of Decentralization
In a still limited way, school reform is a social movement. While reform now has far greater black popular support than when it was proposed, the movement still relies most heavily on the groups and individuals that fought for it initially. No one has organized the members of the local school councils into a coherent, potent voice in defense of their own interests.

The centralized bureaucracy dearly contributed mightily to the deterioration of Chicago schools. But decentralization alone will not be the answer. Local control would work best, ironically, if there were central leaders who were strong champions of local school councils and guarantors of both financial and technical support. Decentralized institutions need nurturing and protection by such leaders, but few leaders are willing to help without gaining influence or control. Yet without outside support -- money, encouragement, professional assistance, and more -- the local school councils by themselves seem unlikely to lead to the dramatic educational innovation the schools need.

The formal governmental mechanisms of school reform may be necessary but not sufficient. To flourish, the schools require creation of a degree of consensus among teachers, parents, students, and principal. If the teachers union must become more flexible and as concerned about the quality of education as the contracts of its members, it is also true that reformers and councils must respect the union rights, professional responsibilities, and need for reasonable job security of the teachers. Chicago has reached temporary accommodation but no profound resolution of these issues.

In some cases, members of local school councils may bring ideas that improve their schools. But in most instances, school reform will work -- if it does at all -- because the councils hire strong, innovative principals who are accountable to the parents, community, and teachers. Under the old system, principals thrived or survived by pleasing their superiors in the central administration, which had little interest in giving them autonomy. But effective principals will also share power and responsibility with teachers and parents, just as an effective superintendent in this new system will encourage the autonomy of individual schools.

If all goes well in the next five to ten years, differences in quality among the schools may decline as the overall performance rises, while the differences among individual school's educational programs and philosophies may grow. At that point, introducing more choice will be logical and necessary. Most Chicago reformers do not want a system where the principals exercise more control over school placement than do the parents. One alternative might be the use of a lottery to select among a pool of applicants for limited space in a popular school. "We will not get to choice as a vehicle for change," Hess argues. "We will get change, and that will result in greater choice." But politicians may opt for a voucher or free-market choice system if improvements do not come quickly.

Choice Possibilities
In response to failing institutions, social scientist Albert O. Hirschman has argued, people may choose to exit or to use their voices to bring change. Advocates of laissez-faire choice, such as Brookings Institution researchers John Chubb and Terry Moe, argue that the market offers the only alternative to stultifying bureaucracy. If parents do not like public schools, they say, they should be able to exit and go to private schools at public expense.

Providing education, however, is not like marketing pizza or laundry soap. Schooling is a central element in determining the character of society; consciously or not, it inculcates values in succeeding generations of citizens. If the failures of the schools lead to such a politics of distrust that government is abandoned, yet another mechanism for creating a sense of community and common social goals will be lost.

Ironically, despite our society's inequitable and inadequate support for education, education carries an especially heavy burden in American culture: It is the key to "equality of opportunity," the surrogate for social equality. It is also the glib solution offered for all social ills -- unemployment, drug abuse, crime, trade deficits, and so on -- many of which are at least exacerbated by the workings of the free market. It is asking too much of education to expect it to redress all these inequities and social woes, but education is an important potential counterweight to the market. Even marketplace choice advocates acknowledge that education is different: The public still foots all or much of the bill under their proposals.

The marketplace model is no more likely to produce effective innovation than the democratic reform strategy, and it is more likely to produce inequalities. Indeed, the limited marketplace choice in education through the housing market that differentiates suburban and big city schools already contributes heavily to existing inequalities. And there is no assurance that the free market will produce high-quality education: Does the performance of the market in producing children's toys or television programming (or the swindles in private trade and technical schools) justify turning education over to private enterprise?

Privatized, free-market education would not necessarily remain the domain of small educational entrepreneurs. Many corporations have central bureaucracies that are as stifling to innovation and worker initiative as any big school board. Would a General Education, Inc. assuredly be any different from General Motors?

The accountability offered through local school councils has some effects similar to a voucher system, signaling the principal and teachers what the parents want out of the school. Also, the variation that inevitably will develop with local control can lead to more meaningful choice as that option is expanded. In many cases, where the local community school proves to be satisfactory and responsive, it will also mean that such choice is unnecessary.


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The most compelling argument for education choice is not the economic market analogy but rather the observation made by Deborah Meier, a pioneer advocate of alternative schools and choice in New York's East Harlem school district. Because children are very different in how they learn, even if they all can learn, and because there is no one correct way to become educated, Meier argues, choice of different types of schooling can and should be part of any public system.

If the system is sufficiently democratic, the public's voice can help shape the system as well as each school. There is a value, if we want a democratic society, in having educational institutions that recognize broader responsibilities than their own profit and loss. There is also value, both educationally and politically, in involving parents and communities as much as possible in the schooling of society's next generation.

In small communities with adequate resources, community school boards already often work well. They are rarely models of active participatory democracy, but they do provide for local accountability. With the centralization of power in large bureaucracies in the big cities, that accountability was lost.

Chicago school reformers are still betting that the new wave of democracy can topple the bureaucratic castle on Pershing Road and provide some of that lost accountability for local schools. As progress is made, politicians may be more willing to provide the schools the money they need, but such prospects now look bleak. Without political and financial support, including a champion of decentralized power at the helm of the school system, the local school councils will never get a fair test.

If a cooperative political and educational culture emerges around the schools, there should be more innovation and meaningful educational alternatives. The decentralized democratic strategy provides only a framework for change, an alternative to both the current bureaucracy and the free market. It offers many of the virtues claimed for the market plus the advantages of a more equitable, participatory, and responsive educational system and political culture. The system's final exam, however, will be based on the quality of educational institutions parents, citizens, teachers, principals, and students create within that framework. For now, the grade remains "incomplete."

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