Tenuous peace reigns in Chicago schools, but problems linger

The Chicago school system, which lurched into crisis two weeks ago, has lurched out of it again. Teachers and other school employees halted their two-week strike over the weekend, after winning a modest wage hike in their contract settlement. On Monday, Chicago classrooms reopened for the city's 430,000 schoolchildren.

But the relative peace that now reigns may be temporary.

The system's long-run problems need to be addressed, many observers say. Their frequency has dramatized a lack of confidence in city schools - especially among the teachers themselves. An estimated 46 percent of their school-age children living in Chicago attend private school, based on US census data.

''I don't think it's a matter of bad faith and hypocrisy on the part of the teachers,'' says Denis P. Doyle, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. ''It's a commentary'' on the schools themselves.

Some of these problems are not the fault of the schools, but reflections of larger trends within the city, educators say.

As in many large cities, Chicago's population is increasingly poor and less well educated, says Herbert J. Walberg, an education professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Upper- and middle-class families are moving to the suburbs. Young professionals moving to the city are quite often childless.

This concentration of the poor - and the challenges facing many disadvantaged families - hurt Chicago education, Professor Walberg says. Its quality depends in part on the quality of the family and community, since students spend only a small fraction of their waking hours in the classroom.

The loss of upper and middle classes has also hurt community leadership in city schools, says Edward A. Wynne, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. For example, recent members of the Chicago Board of Education have not had much experience running large organizations, a quality needed to run the 596-school system.

In fact, the school board has ''a pattern of 15 years of abdication of management prerogatives in the face of union demands,'' says Kenneth Henderson, executive director of Chicago United, a multiracial group of business executives. ''What we have to chip away at is the mind-set that bargaining is a one-way process.''

Over the years, nonfinancial contract provisions were bargained away by the board, making it increasingly difficult to administer the schools, Professor Wynne says. For example, adjustments in the contract have made it much more difficult for incompetent teachers to be fired, he says.

The most visible problems, however, remain financial.

Many of these financial problems stem from Chicago politics, Mr. Henderson says.

Under former Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Chicago Teachers Union used to win much of what it demanded. Mayor Daley pressured the school board to give in. But his promises of more money were increasingly difficult to keep. Former Mayor Jane Byrne also tried this. By 1979, the schools were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and the state had to step in to provide a bailout.

Since its bailout in 1980, the board has been required to submit balanced annual budgets. It has done this, critics say, but only with a patchwork of one-time grants which has endangered the system's long-range financial health.

The new contract - which includes a 4.5 percent pay hike, effective immediately, and a 2.5 percent bonus - is an example. It is financed in part with a one-time $22.1 million grant from Illinois's successful tax-amnesty program. That means this year's budget is balanced. But it is estimated that with added payroll costs, next year's deficit, already projected at $65 million, will rise to about $78 million, according to school officials.

The school board and the union do agree that the schools need more money from the state. Many observers agree.

''The ultimate solution has got to be more public funds,'' says Mr. Henderson of Chicago United.

But increased state support for education in Chicago, and in Illinois generally, has not been readily forthcoming. One reason is that 78 percent of the state's adult population do not have children in public schools, according to a recent survey. This is slightly higher than the nation's average of 75 percent.

''The state has been substantially underfunding education in Illinois,'' says Lee Milner, a spokesman for the state superintendent of education. While states generally are shouldering an increasing share of the total costs of education, Illinois has moved the other direction.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average state contribution increased from 38.3 percent in the 1971-72 school year to 48. 3 percent in 1982-83. Illinois's share has fallen in recent years from 48 percent in 1975-76 to an estimated 39 percent this year, Mr. Milner says.

Despite this mix of social, economic, and political problems, many observers of Chicago schools are heartened. They note that changes in three key positions - the new school board president, George Munoz; the new Chicago Teachers Union president, Jacqueline Vaughn; and Manford Byrd Jr., who is slated to replace School Superintendent Ruth Love - may spur reforms. Furthermore, they say, demands for reform are beginning to percolate to the surface.

''There's a climate of parental and taxpayer concern,'' Henderson says. ''I think there are manageable elements of the situation that we can address.'' He notes that there are areas where teachers and school board can make acceptable trade-offs, such as changing requirements for licensing new teachers in return for a pay raise.

At the state level, there is a push for school reform. The state superintendent of education is proposing a new financing plan that will substantially increase state aid to schools.

''I am fully optimistic that . . . the 1985-86 year will be a year of financial and educational reform,'' says Gwendolyn Laroche, director of the education department of the Chicago Urban League.

Chicago, with 23 percent of the state's 1.8 million public school students, could benefit from increased state aid. Because of its relatively high proportion of disadvantaged students, the city currently receives about a third of general state aid.

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