As the state legislative committee investigating state Chapter 1 spending at Clemente High School prepares its final report, the committee’s chair says additional “guidelines” are needed on how schools may spend this discretionary money. The School Reform Board and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas seem to agree.
“We heard from local school councils [LSCs] that we shouldn’t punish them for what one school did,” says Rep. Edgar Lopez (D-Chicago). “But if one school did it, it means there’s loopholes for other schools to do it. We’re trying to prevent this from ever happening again.”
In the early 1990s, the Clemente LSC used Chapter 1 money for a number of activities that, critics charge, served to support the Puerto Rican independence movement and efforts to win the release of jailed Puerto Rican terrorists. For example, a famed Puerto Rican writer and a ballet troupe that were brought to the school allegedly participated in political fundraising while they were in town.
“I don’t think we should take the power away from [LSCs] on how to spend their money,” Lopez adds. “But I think there needs to be some guidelines.”
“I consider Clemente to be an aberration,” says Vallas. “I’m not saying that you need blanket changes. But I think you need some tightening of how Chapter 1 money can be spent.”
Jean Franczyk, chief of staff for the Reform Board, expects any additional oversight will be limited to low-performing schools. “For the most part, schools have been extremely responsible in how they’ve used Chapter 1 funds,” she says. “However, the board has always wanted there to be accountability attached to those funds. I don’t see accountability as a restriction.”
Such talk makes some LSC advocates nervous. For others, it’s a battle cry.
“They’re sort of saying two things: We don’t want to restrict how LSCs spend this money. But we want to make sure the money is spent properly,'” observes Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change. “The devil is in the details of what they might mean by that.”
Moore maintains that the state already has sufficient monitoring in place and that LSCs’ overall track record has been excellent. During the Clemente hearings, Moore cited results from a state-funded study of Chapter 1 spending in the 1996-97 school year. The study, conducted by the PRC Inc. research firm, found that 75 percent of state Chapter 1 dollars went toward improved student instruction, including class size reductions, core subjects, remedial programs and enrichment programs such as computer education and foreign language. “Almost all of the rest of the state Chapter 1 funds were spent on security, community services and administrative support,” Moore testified.
Even if Clemente’s spending violated the law, says Fred Hess, a research professor at Northwestern University, “It doesn’t mean the law was wrong because somebody broke it.” As the executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, Hess helped write the section of the Chicago School Reform Act that put Chapter 1 funds under the control of LSCs. Hess adds that while the Clemente hearings had legitimate beginnings as a part of the Vallas administration’s overall efforts to clean up corruption, “That doesn’t mean people didn’t have desires to get that discretionary money back into the general system’s control.”
Diana Lauber, assistant director of the Cross City Campaign on Urban School Reform, sees the Clemente hearings as a stalking horse for putting control of the money back into the hands of central office. “It’s hard not to draw that conclusion. … Almost every year in the Legislature, somebody from the central office has been working with someone in the Legislature to get the money back.”
“There are fewer people who have been misusing this money than governors who have been indicted and aldermen who have gone to jail,” Lauber adds. “This has been probably the cleanest use of a big pot of money.”
Bernie Noven, a founding member of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) and a former CPS social worker, notes the board already approves LSC expenditures. “If the [Clemente] money was really misspent, they should prosecute the Board of Education people who approved it. Who the hell are they? Why haven’t these people been indicted?”
Lopez says the board’s approval process is “very superficial. They pretty much approve anything. As long as it fits in the six categories, it’s OK.” One of the six acceptable categories for state Chapter 1 spending is “other educationally beneficial expenditures.” Lopez adds, “People could claim anything can be educational.”
“The board, when it comes to Chapter 1 spending, is a potted plant,” agrees Vallas.
Noven believes Vallas wants all Chapter 1 money to revert to central control. “And the way to get all of it is to discredit the local school councils,” he contends.
“Nobody’s trying to discredit local school councils,” Vallas counters. “The people who are being discredited are PURE and these self-professed reform groups. Most local school councils find that these self-professed reform groups are nothing but special interest groups.”
Central office has spent lots of money at the local level, Vallas notes, citing early childhood programs, summer school and school construction and repair. “These groups want to focus on the discretionary spending,” he says. “It’s almost like a one-note song. … It’s local control for local control’s sake. It’s like an annoying humming in your ear.”
Lopez speaks approvingly of a proposal floated by an Illinois State Board of Education official that would require schools on probation to use 25 percent of their state Chapter 1 money for core subjects. “I’m not going to say that they have to hire DePaul University to help them with their math problems,” he comments. “We’re not going to tell them how to do it.”
Hess also sees merit in closer scrutiny at low-performing schools. “I’m not real enamored of the central board trying to figure out how the money should be spent at each of these schools,” he says. “But it is reasonable for the board to not allow low-performing schools to spend the money any way they want.”
Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones (D-Chicago), a longtime Chapter 1 defender, says there likely are only “a few bad apples” on the spending front. But he, too, believes that schools with lower graduation rates and test scores could use a closer look. “I have grave concerns when we continue to pour the dollars in there, whether or not dollars are being used wisely,” he says.
Nonetheless, he adds, “I don’t want to take away the power of the local school councils, because this is a way to keep parents involved.” He even allows that increasing the state Chapter 1 allocation at the school level—for years, it has held at $261 million—”is something we can look at. Their purchasing power is declining. I understand that.”
Vallas is not ready for that. “We can raise it when we have guarantees that the money that is being allocated is being spent right.”