Chicago Has a Nonunion Plan for Poor Schools
Last fall, R. Eden Martin, a lawyer from a powerful business group here, wrote a blunt memorandum to Arne Duncan, the chief executive of the Chicago public schools, warning that dozens of failing schools that had resisted improvement after years on an academic watch list would soon face a takeover under federal law.
But there was an alternative -- the city could shut them down on its own and create small, new, privately managed schools to replace them. And that, Mr. Martin wrote, would bring a crucial advantage: the new schools could operate outside the Chicago Teachers Union contract.
It seemed a fire-breathing proposal, since in its entire history Chicago had closed just three schools for academic failure, and the union is a powerful force in the school system here, the nation's third largest. But Mr. Duncan was already convinced of the need for direct intervention in many failing schools, and the business group's proposal helped shape a sweeping new plan, which Mayor Richard M. Daley announced in June. By 2010, the city will replace 60 failing schools with 100 new ones, and in the process turn one in 10 of its schools over to private managers, mostly operating without unions. It is one of the nation's most radical school restructuring plans.
''It's time to start over with the schools that are nonperforming,'' Mr. Daley said in an interview July 19. ''We need to shake up the system.''
The schools slated for closing include 40 elementary schools and 20 high schools. In all of them, most students perform far below grade level.
Chicago's plan is as much about cunning tactics as visionary strategy. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires districts to restructure schools that fail to make adequate progress for several years running, a challenge that Chicago could soon face with 200 of its 600 schools, officials said.
Mr. Martin and the executives on the Civic Committee of the Chicago Commercial Club, who blame the teachers union for contributing to academic failure by imposing restrictions on teachers and administrators alike, used the threat of federal sanctions to pressure the city to put many schools into private hands, outside union jurisdiction.
''The school unions will not like creation of a significant number of new schools that operate outside the union agreement,'' Mr. Martin wrote in his memorandum to Mr. Duncan. ''But operating outside the agreement is a key element of this strategy.''
Since pioneering educators raised student achievement by creating small schools in Spanish Harlem in the 1980's, smaller-is-better has become a national mantra of reform, with New York and other cities, like Baltimore, Boston, Sacramento and San Diego, dividing large schools into smaller, more personal learning communities. But Chicago's plan breaks ground not only because it is huge but also because no other city has proposed to replace large numbers of failing, unionized schools by allowing the private sector to create new schools operating outside of the teachers union contract.
Philadelphia contracted with Edison Schools in 2002 to manage 20 public schools there. But Edison was required to work under the terms of the existing teacher contract, which limited the company's educational options, said Paul T. Hill, a University of Washington professor who wrote a 1997 book, ''Reinventing Public Education.''
''Chicago intends to give the private groups creating these schools full freedom of action and control over hiring and firing,'' Dr. Hill said. ''That hasn't been done anywhere on this scale.''
The Chicago Teachers Union is a local of the American Federation of Teachers, which also represents teachers in New York, where it has cooperated in the creation of small schools and thereby retained contractual jurisdiction over them.
But about 60 of Chicago's 100 new schools will operate outside the union contract, Mr. Duncan said in an interview July 21, thereby introducing new variety into the system.
''I'm not an ideological person,'' Mr. Duncan said, ''but I like the competition and choice this will provide. I want Chicago to be a mecca where entrepreneurship can flourish.''
A few teachers have began protesting the city's plan, but it has caught the union at a moment of weakness. On June 11, a union election ended in accusations of fraud, and in the weeks since, the incumbent president, Deborah Lynch, and her challenger, Marilyn Stewart, have bitterly disputed control of the 36,000-member local. Both leaders have appeared to be more focused on their internal struggle than on the new-school plan, although Ms. Lynch called it a ''huge challenge to our union.''
''We'll certainly dispute their ability to outsource the management of the Chicago Public Schools, in court if necessary,'' Ms. Lynch said in an interview. Crowded classrooms and chaotic school management are to blame for the city's failing schools, not the teachers or their contract, she said.
Larry Poltrock, a lawyer for Ms. Stewart, said she was studying the plan. ''There are priorities, and mainly President Stewart is working to gain what is rightfully hers, which is the presidency of this union,'' he said.
Chicago has long struggled to raise achievement at schools that are among the country's most troubled. In 1995, the Illinois legislature gave Mayor Daley control over the system, and in the years since, he has sought improvement through balancing budgets, reducing waste, firing bad principals and founding charter schools. But the worst schools have resisted change.
''Chicago has a long history of tinkering with failed schools,'' said Tom Vander Ark, executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed some $25 million since 2001 to school reform efforts in Chicago. ''They've called it re-engineering, reconstitution, restructuring. They would change a few things, but not surprisingly, its never worked very well. What this new plan offers schools is a complete break with the past.''
Until now, the closest Chicago has come to such a break was the 2002 closing of three elementary schools for academic failure. One was Williams Elementary, adjacent to the Dearborn Homes housing project on the South Side. Cassie Sweeney taught there in the four years before its shutdown.
''It had a failed culture,'' Ms. Sweeney said. ''There was always yelling, hostility from parents, students assaulting staff.''
During its last year before closing, less than one in five students at Williams performed at grade level, she said, yet many teachers appeared complacent.
''Teachers get burned out, but with the union contract they felt well-protected, and they just weren't putting everything into their jobs,'' she said.
When Mr. Duncan ordered the school closed, Ms. Sweeney was required, like other teachers at the school, to apply for work elsewhere. After the school was closed for one year, during which it was redecorated and new administrators and consultants developed a new curriculum, Ms. Sweeney and a physical education teacher were the only teachers from the old school rehired for the new Williams Elementary, which opened in fall 2003.
Since the building now encompasses kindergarten through 12th grade, it is shared by the elementary school and fledgling middle and high schools, all of which have hired a mix of experienced educators and young, high-energy rookies.
''The new teachers have a save-the-world attitude, and we needed that,'' Ms. Sweeney said. The proportion of students performing at grade level rose to 36 percent from 16 percent in its first year, she said.
Success at Williams and at other new small schools that Mr. Duncan has started or strengthened, which include some 20 charter schools, emboldened him to draft Chicago's sweeping new plans for the 100 new schools, which are to open by 2010 and include 30 additional charters and another 30 new contract schools, created by private groups that sign five-year, renewable contracts with the district.
''I want a real break with the past,'' Mr. Duncan said, driving in July to a meeting with parents and the staff at a charter school. ''We're looking for dramatic change, not to tinker around the edges.''
"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972
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