By Jonathan Alter _____________________________________________________________________
Sidebar: For urban public schools, this is it: if Mayor Daley's reforms fail, get ready for vouchers. _____________________________________________________________________
Paul Vallas, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (yep, that's his title), is starting to make some people mad, and it's about time. You could argue that the future of "education reform"--a phrase he cordially loathes--rests on his stooped shoulders. Vallas is making so many changes, so fast, that the onetime student of Russian history knows that certain Chicagoans "think I'm a Stalinist."
If only other school superintendents were so lucky. In 1995 the Illinois State Assembly gave Mayor Richard Daley near-total power over the schools, and he hired Vallas and board chairman Gary Chico. The three of them are running things like the old Mayor Daley at his best, with vision, smarts and a willingness to kick some butt. Oh, and with as little democracy as possible. It's a benevolent dictatorship. Remember when Chicago was known as "the city that works"? If Vallas can get the once pathetic schools to really work again--and he's making some progress--he might help salvage urban public education everywhere. If not, get ready for vouchers.
Vallas is a whirlwind, constantly pushing his twin goals of accountability and standards. In his first year, he fixed the budget and labor problems, slashed the central office staff by a third and brought back flunking. In 1994, 22,000 failing students went to summer school. This summer, 175,000 will. Then he closed bad schools, opened "transition" schools for kids who weren't meeting academic or behavioral standards, fired 10 times more bad teachers than before (though some of them made it back into the system), launched the biggest early-childhood-education program in the country, capped class size at 28 in elementary school, expanded after-school programs and sharply raised attendance and graduation rates. The result? Test scores are up, but not by enough.
So now Act III is about to begin. Because the dropout rate is driven largely by teen pregnancy (at one Chicago high school, 70 percent of the girls get pregnant), Vallas is putting in day-care centers. Controversial, yes, but they keep the girls in school. Otherwise, he says, "you lose two generations." More important, Vallas will impose a centralized curriculum all students will have to learn. This helps protect kids from subpar teachers. ("Despite having some weak instructors," Vallas says, "the U.S. military was able to institutionalize quality instruction through the quality of their materials. We will do the same.") And all Chicago high schools will soon be divided into "junior" and "senior" academies, with strict requirements to advance. That avoids educating 19-year-olds next to 13-year-olds, always a recipe for trouble.
And if none of this works? Daley, like Rudy Giuliani in New York and Richard Riordan in Los Angeles, is a Roman Catholic, and he seems to be inching toward some new hybrid voucher model. "You must have competition," Daley told me. "Why is our university system the envy of the world? Because public and private institutions are both strong." Chicago is already voucherizing by giving some high-school students public money for private vocational and college courses. And more ties to parochial schools could come soon. Just last week, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Milwaukee voucher program. That sets up a potentially historic U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Vouchers have the moral high ground, at least as they apply to the inner city. How can rich liberals say that their own kids should have a choice of schools, but not poor kids? Teachers unions and educrats are still trying to demonize vouchers as a threat to public education, but that argument hasn't worked over time. The number of parents who believe in public schools as a matter of unshakable principle is relatively small; most just want the best education they can find.
But Vallas explains that the simple idea of giving all parents vouchers is impractical. In Chicago, 18 percent of students already go to private and parochial schools. Their parents would presumably demand vouchers, too, which means an 18 percent increase in the school budget. Where's that going to come from? Unlike almost all other public-school officials, Vallas thinks private scholarship programs like the $200 million grant announced last week by John Walton and Ted Forstmann are welcome. "And if Congress wants to provide money to give poor kids scholarships for private schools, that's no skin off my back either," he says. "But so far, they're just playing games."
He's referring to the Coverdell bill, which is the GOP's basic education plan. It talks big about the needs of the poor, but "is really designed to give more affluent people compensation [in the form of an IRA-style tax break] for decisions they made to go private," Vallas says. While insisting he's not "knee-jerk anti-voucher," Vallas raises some other practical concerns. "Would vouchers mean that private and parochial schools are going to have to take special-ed kids? Are you going to be guaranteed access, or will private schools be allowed to be selective and still reap the benefits of vouchers?" Note to Republicans: These are not quibbles. If you want political credit fore your pro-voucher positions, don't skimp on the details.
Charter schools represent a sensible middle course. In states where they get some autonomy from school districts, they offer competition. Access is usually determined by lottery, which is fairer. And they're a good place for public-private cooperation. Speaking of which, Daley's got the right get-tough attitude toward local businesses. He's carefully noting which have adopted schools. Those CEOs who haven't shown enough interest in education get what Daley aides describe as "The Look" the next time they see Hizzoner. It's as chilly as the wind whipping off the lake.
**************************************************************** Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: JBECKER@SIU.EDU