Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Chicago's Top-Down School Plan City Offers Test of More Business-Like Approach to Education Series: URBAN EDUCATION New Schools of Thought. First in a Series

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Chicago's Top-Down School Plan City Offers Test of More Business-Like Approach to Education Series: URBAN EDUCATION New Schools of Thought. First in a Series

Article excerpt

AFTER years of budgetary chaos and disruptive teacher strikes, Chicago's 410,000 school children return to class today with notebooks, lunch boxes, and a rare promise of stability. "Kids and parents can now be confident the schools are going to open on time and run for the next four years," says G. Alfred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on School Policy. This fall's smooth opening of Chicago schools translates into high marks for Mayor Richard Daley. Last spring, Illinois enacted a law that for four years grants Mr. Daley sweeping powers over the schools and teachers' union, including full control over school board appointments and a nearly $3 billion budget. Daley's self-proclaimed school "revolution" advances a national trend toward mayors taking more control of big city schools. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Washington Mayor Marion Barry are lobbying for similar authority. Boston eliminated its elected school board four years ago in favor of one appointed by the mayor. In Chicago and elsewhere, the school board takeovers by City Hall are popular among businesspeople and other taxpayers who have demanded more political accountability for poor students and failing urban schools. Many students are also delighted. Hugging each other and slapping high fives, upperclassmen celebrated the reopening of Lindblom High this week after Daley's new school managers overturned a decision by the outgoing board to close the city's most prestigious inner-city school. "It's a great academic school," said sophomore Tiffany Cook, an aspiring lawyer who joined hundreds of students who protested to save Lindblom from the old board's budget axe. Daley's team, by rethinking the budget, can afford the $2 million to $4 million needed to keep Lindblom and five other underutilized schools open. "What you have seen is a revolution," proclaims Paul Vallas, chief executive of the seven-member school management team. "We have taken aggressive action to downsize the central office, deal with the trade unions, and make the tough budget decisions. But there has been no fallout, no phone calls. All we're getting are overwhelming pledges of support." In a short two months, Mr. Vallas has led Daley's corporate-style management team in imposing financial order and market discipline on the nation's third-largest school system. The team, operating under a streamlined, five-member school board, has impressed observers with tough-minded actions that include: *Adopting a balanced budget designed to guarantee schools "four years of financial and labor peace." This year's $2.6 billion budget includes $240 million in cuts. *Laying off 1,700 people, including 1,000 maintenance workers whose jobs will be contracted to private companies and about 200 bureaucrats, or 13 percent of the central-office staff. *Increasing the staff of budget officers and inspectors to help combat waste. *Concluding a four-year teachers' union contract that provides a 3 percent annual pay raise. *Announcing a $600 million program to construct about five schools a year and repair dozens of dilapidated buildings between 1996 and '99. If necessary, officials say they will seize people's homes to obtain optimal sites for new schools. …
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