Obama's lackluster record on education.

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April 2 2008 3:05 PM

Chicago School Days

Obama's lackluster record on education.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

School reform advocates in Chicago have of late been heralding Barack Obama as a champion of local school councils, Chicago's hyperlocal system of school governance. Unique among big-city school districts in the United States, these independent, elected bodies at each school are made up of parents, teachers, and community members, 10 in all, plus the principal. Think of them as mini school boards, parent-teacher organizations on steroids, or condo boards for schools.

Created 20 years ago, these councils each hire and fire their own principals. Though firings aren't common, they turn out to be a very big deal. Dismissing a principal is the education equivalent of capital punishment. It's often career-ending. It disrupts a school to the core. And it sends shock waves out through the rest of the system. The councils—each dominated by six parents—are not all-powerful, however. Since 1995, Chicago has also had a central Board of Education overseen by the mayor that, among other things, has the power to close schools and open new ones.

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Not surprisingly, the relationship has been extremely uneasy between the central board office (dominated by college-educated professionals) and individual school councils (dominated by minority parents, not all of them college-educated). Put simply, some advocates think LSCs are the best and only real way to improve Chicago schools—by emphasizing local control, curriculum flexibility, and parent involvement. Others think that making each school independent is an indulgent holdover from another era that mostly gets in the way of improving accountability in a massive, 600-school system.

In reality, Obama never really championed the local councils. He supported them behind the scenes and only eventually came out publicly on their behalf. When he did weigh in, he came down on the wrong side of the debate—against protecting principals from unwarranted dismissals and in favor of keeping councils independent, no matter what. In the end, the resolution of the conflict between the two sides didn't alleviate anyone's concerns. Instead, it prolonged a turf battle that seems to have dragged down academic progress in the years since.

The story of Obama's involvement suggests that on similarly contentious fronts involving national education policy, like the No Child Left Behind Act, he might respond the same way—holding back when powerful interest groups collide, only to support the status quo of local control in the end. The candidate's Chicago record on education also raises questions about his much-vaunted ability to bring different sides together to find lasting solutions.

Obama's links to local school councils began more than 20 years ago, when they were first being created. His South Side community organizing group, the Developing Communities Project, supported the 1988 reform act that created the councils. A decade later, when Obama was a second-year state senator, he served on the board of several local education foundations that had supported the councils and chaired the board for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a $50 million philanthropic effort that supported local control.

In 1999, hard-charging schools chief Paul Vallas went to the Illinois Legislature to win more control over principal hiring and firing. Vallas headed the Chicago schools between 1995 and 2001. His get-tough initiatives—mandating summer school for students who failed end-of-year exams, for example—got glowing press coverage and earned him not one but two mentions in President Clinton's State of the Union speeches.

Vallas wanted to make sure in 1999 that his precious cadre of experienced principals wouldn't continue to get bounced out of their schools for no good reason. In particular, he wanted to limit the LSCs' power to dismiss principals at the end of their four-year contracts. Each year, a small number of councils (maybe 15 percent of the roughly 150 principals who are up for renewal in any given year) would opt not to renew their principals' contracts. Most of the time, the decisions weren't controversial. But occasional surprises—and concerns about the lack of any real oversight or appeal provisions—dogged the process from the start.

Vallas felt that some effective principals were being let go because they were white or because of personal conflicts. He proposed giving himself the authority to review and approve most decisions to let principals go, styling the change as an "accountability" measure. Local-control advocates called it an attempt to "gut" local control.

Both were right. Taking away the LSCs' power to fire principals would have hamstrung the councils' independence. But independent LSCs had done a good job at opening up the school system to parents without transforming student achievement. Vallas was trying to complete the centralization that had begun in 1995, when the state gave the mayor a say over the schools. In that context, leaving the LSCs in place just made no sense, particularly given the need to make greater academic strides.

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