A BOLD experiment in people power is getting underway this fall in Chicago. The city is inverting its school system's administrative structure. Local school councils, dominated by parents, will decide what is spent and taught. The councils will be able to hire principals for four-year terms, and fire them. This experiment should be supported. Chicago's 410,000 public school students fare about the same as other receivers of that city's services - which is to say, they have one of the worst school environments anywhere. Especially on the city's South Side, the schools reflect an ethos of abandonment.
Not every school, and not every classroom, is a disaster. Exceptional principals and teachers do make stands in Chicago, as in other educational Beiruts, and establish enclaves of order, progress, and success. But Chicago has so many young people who start off at a disadvantage - blacks and Hispanics are the city's majority - that a heroic attempt to reverse the hopelessness about education there should be tried.
The pitfalls are no less commanding.
In one sense, turning over Chicago's schools to the community is like turning poverty over to the poor. Education is the responsibility of the states. State boards of education set the standards - and indeed, in the new Chicago system, superintendents will be able to close down schools whose councils run them amok. But what will be the Illinois legislature's accountability for the experiment?
The mayor, Richard Daley fils, will have a new political issue. As will the entire city's political colony. Many Hispanics, hitherto not legal voters, will be brought into the political system during the next month's voting for the 6,000 council slots. This is good. But will the schools be made the bush leagues of Chicago empire-building? Politics can exploit the vulnerable even as it claims to rescue them.
A school council will be made up of six parents, two residents without children in school, and two teachers, all serving two-year terms. The principal will sit on the committee but not vote on his tenure, which will be determined by at least a seven-vote majority. The workings of such councils could be fascinating. The principal and teachers will have to educate the parents as to the legal and professional requirements of education. Parent and resident councilors will have to keep the professionals' focus on the needs of children and the community.
What about politicking to replace a principal by a board member's in-law? This goes on already where school boards are responsible for an entire community's schools.
What about censorship efforts by local parents, or attempts by religious and special interest groups to control the curriculum? Last year, some 172 attempts to censor books in the schools were recorded by People for the American Way. Since Socrates, citizens have tried to control instruction under the guise of protecting the young. Compromising state responsibility for curriculum could put enormous pressures on teachers and department heads from vigilante outsiders.
I once faced such a challenge as a young high school teacher. A voluntary reading assignment included James Agee's ``A Death in the Family.'' The book made one derogatory reference to a member of the clergy. School officials asked that the book be withdrawn. I said I'd think about it overnight. The next day I told the department head and principal that if the book had to go, I had to go with it: It represented the voice and values that underlay sound writing. The administration stuck with me. Years later I learned it was a local church official, put onto the issue by a parent, who had tried to ban the book.
Where individual schools are successful, parents, administrators, and teachers are usually found working hard together. But on its scale, Chicago is attempting no less than a cultural revolution.
May wisdom, courage, and the utmost of good will be with the city.