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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Posted: Jul 5, 1998 4:09 PM
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att1.dat (6.4 K)

From Newsweek, June 22, 1998 pp. 30

Between the Lines: Chicago's Last Hope

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)

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