The death knell is ringing for Chicago’s local school councils, and it has been for years. But as it turns out, LSCs just won’t die. It’s not for lack of trying on the part of those who have the power and means to kill them.
Mayor Richard M. Daley took his best shot a year ago, when Curie High School’s local school council handed him a smoking gun in the form of a questionable decision not to renew the contract of a popular and competent principal.
Mainstream media weighed in, portraying parents and community residents who served on school councils as undeserving and incapable of handling the weighty responsibility of hiring and firing principals.
District officials followed up by going to Springfield to schmooze legislators and persuade them to bite on a plan to sharply curtail LSC’s authority to select principals for their schools.
One of them bit. Rep. Daniel Burke, whose South Side district is home to Curie, agreed to sponsor the bill, and then later changed his stance under intense lobbying from LSC supporters.
Since then, Board President Rufus Williams has been on a mission to zap councils’ authority over principals. He reasons that they run counter to sound management practice. As Chicago Public Schools embraces the performance culture—a concept where success is measured by quantifiable results—lines of accountability and responsibility are blurred by school councils’ involvement in principal hiring.
Meanwhile, the biannual local school council elections loom in April, and the district has committed less than $50,000 to candidate recruitment, an effort that in years past has garnered as much as $400,000 from public and private sources. Obviously, the private funds have dried up. They must have heard that bell, too.
The constant onslaught of negative buzz regarding LSCs has created the widespread impression that LSCs are hapless, ineffective and, at times, as the case of Curie High School seemingly illustrates, dangerous to school improvement.
Yet consider this: At a recent workshop at the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association conference, a group of principals, assistant principals and area instructional officers I spoke with talked about working with parents and communities. Not one of them expressed reservations, much less disdain, about working with councils at their schools. Many, in fact, reported positive interactions and experiences with the people to whom they were accountable.
These are credible voices, not partisan advocates who can be dismissed. But without critical mass, they are drowned out in a sea of rhetoric and isolated examples of errors and mistakes made by a few bad LSCs.
It’s been more than 10 years since researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research surveyed nearly 2,000 LSC members at 325 schools. It’s the only in-depth study of local school councils that exists. It found that LSC members were better educated, on average, than the city’s population at large, and that 60 percent had at least three years of council experience.
But despite the study’s myth-busting findings, co-author Susan Ryan conceded that the media had a more lasting impact on public perception. “The only time LSCs are in the newspaper is when something bad happens,” she said at the time. “People have an image of LSCs as being more trouble than they’re worth.”
Those words certainly ring true today. And it’s too bad because countless stories about the positive influence councils and communities are having on public schools are not being told.
It’s time to find out the truth. It’s also time for new research that authoritatively answers everyone’s questions about how local school councils are doing and what impact they’re having.
It’s going to take cold hard facts about LSCs that speak to bottom-line results at schools to capture the attention of the performance culture gurus at CPS and City Hall.