Chicago Opts For MBA-Run School System
SHOUTING in Polish, Lucy Niewiadomski tries to stave off chaos. Forty first-graders are sloshing dirty water around a packed bilingual class at the Frank W. Reilly Elementary School. Ostensibly, they are cleaning desks.Skip to next paragraph
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Frazzled teachers and overtaxed facilities are emblematic of Chicago's public schools - branded the "worst in America."
"It's very frustrating. I wish I could spend more time with them," Ms. Niewiadomski says as pupils wave crayon drawings and wet rags.
Acknowledging the disarray, the nation's third-largest urban school system is implementing a radical, top-down plan with two elements: using state block grants with few strings attached, and gutting the big bureaucracy, replacing it with a corporate-style management team.
The four-year restructuring plan essentially overhauls the troubled system now charged with more than 400,000 students at 553 public schools.
More than 40 percent of students drop out, and about 70 percent score below the national norm on math and reading tests. Exacerbating the challenge, 80 percent of students come from low-income homes, and 14 percent speak only limited English.
Signed into law two weeks ago by Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, the plan sweeps away the school system's governing bodies, abolishing the Chicago Board of Education and School Finance Authority. It replaces them with a five-member board of trustees appointed by Mayor Richard Daley and headed by a chief executive officer.
The controversial law, crafted by the GOP-dominated state legislature, makes Illinois the first state to use "block grants" in education, eliminating many restrictions on the use of state funds.
Meanwhile, it encourages privatization of some school services, while quashing union opposition by banning strikes by the Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU) for 18 months and sharply limiting collective bargaining.
This latest reform, by concentrating power in the hands of Mayor Daley, is an attempt to bring financial solvency and political accountability to a system that Republican lawmakers in Springfield have attacked as a "sewer" of waste and corruption.
Experts agree that greater financial order is essential.
An investigation by Chicago's Better Government Association (BGA) alleged conflicts of interest involving the private business dealings of top school board officials, including president Sharon Grant. It also highlighted the system's tendency to pay exorbitant prices for supplies, such as an 80 cent electrical plate bought for $75.
The mismanagement and fraud have caused "a deep-seated contempt and distrust for the system" among honest employees, the Office of Inspector General concluded in 1994.
Backers of the new law say a team of professional managers focused on the bottom line will help alleviate the school system's budget crises, such as one in 1993 that nearly stopped schools from opening. With an annual budget of nearly $3 billion, the system faces an estimated budget shortfall of $150 million next school year and $300 million for 1997-98.
Critics, however, fault the latest reforms on financial as well as educational grounds.