Chicago's Radical School Reform

``WE'VE won. Now what do we do?'' That's the question being asked by 3,200 Chicago parents who last week were elected to govern the city's 540 schools in what has to be the most radical school reform in years. A total of 17,000 parents from urban Chicago campaigned to sit on brand- new local school councils that, it is hoped, will improve schools by giving them more grass-roots, on-site attention.

Not entirely tongue-in-cheek, maybe the best advice to these parents is - pray.

Chicago's schools are generally regarded as the absolute worst in the nation. While kids share textbooks with no covers, Chicago's patronage-laden bureaucracy bloats. Meanwhile, the violence and drugs, the dropout and pregnancy rates in schools, are so bad that in 1985 William Bennett actually mused that Chicago children should be sent away at age three.

That's a bit lurid. But reforming Chicago schools (60 percent black, 12 percent white) has been seen as a root-and-branch operation. And that's what the change is. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley this week hired a new school superintendent, Ted Kimbrough, who says he doesn't mind seeing central power shift to the local level. That's refreshing - let's see if he can follow through.

Chicago is conducting an experiment in urban democracy. Voter turnout last week was only 15 percent - but there's still a new excitement in town about schools.

A lot of lessons are going to be learned as parents step in. Single-issue politics need to be avoided. Parents interested only in black nationalist curriculum, or vegetarian cafeteria menus, will jam up the works. Personal vendettas against principals should be avoided. (Unlike teachers, principals have lost their tenure and may be fired by parents.)

There's a lot of understandable skepticism about Chicago's reform: chiefly, that parents aren't experts. Yet with enough effort and genuine parental care, maybe the skeptics can become believers.

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