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Given the level of accomplishment of Chicago's LSCs, the key issue is not whether LSCs should exist, but how all LSCs can meet the standards attained by the best ones.

 

Chicago's Local School Councils:
What the Research Says

by Donald R. Moore & Gail Merritt,
Designs for Change

January 2002

 

Original Framework and Rationale for Chicago's Local School Councils

Chicago's Local School Councils were created through the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. This state law rewrote Article 34 of the Illinois School Code, the portion of state law that deals only with Chicago's public schools.

In 1995, the state legislature modified the Reform Act to give Chicago's mayor more control over Chicago's Central Board and central administration as well as the power to intervene in failing schools. National publications like Newsweek have asserted that Chicago's mayor was given "near total power over the schools" by the 1995 legislative changes.7 This assertion is untrue. The basic powers of Chicago's Local School Councils have remained intact to the present, and Chicago remains the most decentralized big city school system in the nation.

Composition and Authority

One of the central changes made by the 1988 law was to establish an elected Local School Council at each Chicago public school (except for a few special schools). Each LSC consists of:

  • Six parent representatives, elected by parents and community residents.
  • Two community representatives, elected by parents and community residents.
  • Two teachers, elected by the school staff.
  • The school's principal.
  • A student elected by students (in the high schools).

Unique among U.S. cities, Chicago's LSCs were given strong powers, including powers in the following areas:

  • Principal Selection and Evaluation. LSCs appoint the school's principal to a four-year contract and rehire or replace the principal at the end of this contract period. And they supervise and evaluate the principal on an ongoing basis.
  • School Improvement Planning. LSCs set priorities for their school's improvement through helping develop and approve an annual school improvement plan. These plans must focus on achieving student learning standards set by the state.
  • School-Based Budget. LSCs help develop and approve a school budget, with major control over an average of $500,000 per year in flexible funds from the state.

It is important to note that the Chicago School Reform Act made numerous other important changes besides establishing Local School Councils -- such as giving principals the authority to appoint teachers to open positions without regard to teacher seniority and eliminating lifetime principal tenure.8

The history of the reform movement that brought about these changes has been described in some detail in two historical accounts.9

Rationale for Local School Councils

There were three key reasons advanced in 1988 for creating Local School Councils as a part of a comprehensive reform effort.

Modeled on Illinois School Boards. Statewide, school districts in Illinois are led by nearly 900 local school boards. More than 550 of these school boards head school districts that enroll fewer students than the average Chicago public high school. As Table 1 below indicates, many of these small school districts are located just a few miles outside the Chicago city limits.


TABLE 1. Illinois School Districts that Enroll Fewer Students Than the Average Chicago Public High School

Source: Illinois State Board of Education


National research indicates that, controlling for student background, students in small school districts achieve better than students in large districts, and this is especially true for low-income students.10

Breaking Up a Rigid Bureaucracy and Creating Local Initiative. Advocates for the Chicago School Reform Act argued that the rigid bureaucracy of the school system had failed to improve student performance and had stifled educational improvement. They argued that shifting real authority to local schools and communities would catalyze improvement.11

They further argued that since the resistance to change was often as strong among many principals and school staff as at the top of the system, LSCs should have a majority of elected parents and community members. (Of course, the 900 school boards across Illinois are composed entirely of elected parents and community members, and educators employed by the school district are legally barred from serving on them.)

Need for Real Power at the School Level. Advocates for Chicago's reform act were aware that other big city school districts (like New York City and Detroit) had been broken down into smaller subdistricts, but that these subdistricts remain among the largest school districts in the nation. (For example, New York City's Community School Districts serve an average of 25,000 students.) Chicago reformers were also aware that the restructuring in New York City and Detroit had had limited impact on the quality of education.12

Chicago reform advocates were also aware that many other urban school districts had created school-site councils but had given them little or no authority. Research evidence indicated that these weak councils accomplished little.13 Chicago reform was unique among big-city reforms in shifting major authority to school-site councils.

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