Chicago school reform is often misrepresented on the national scene where it tends to be described as anti-professional and a hearkening back to community control. Based on our research and involvement with Chicago school reform, we, like Hess, find that neither label adequately captures the subtlety of the political dynamics now at work in Chicago’s schools. The reform created three distinct sites of power—parents and community, teachers, and the principal—each of which has new legitimacy and potential to challenge the status quo. We focus on the complex nature of Chicago’s governance reform, and the politics that it has engendered in local schools during its early implementation. This democratic localism taxes traditional frameworks for studying school micro-politics. We also explore the largely ignored potential embedded in this reform to revitalize urban communities by enhancing their democratic life. This essay offers a commentary on ‘Race and the Liberal Perspective in Chicago School Reform’ by G. Alfred Hess, Jr. It draws on our own research and involvement with Chicago School Reform.
In ‘Race and the Liberal Perspective in Chicago School Reform’, Hess argues that the liberal strategies of the 1960s—centralization of responsibility and bureaucratization of service delivery—failed to produce a quality education for Chicago’s students. Instead of advancing equality of opportunity, these strategies were used by professionals at the central office and school level to promote a variety of interests other than serving children. By the late 1980s, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had lost its agency. Despite a decade of efforts with desegregation, the system had failed to improve the education of minority youth. Low achievement levels, high dropout rates and racial isolation were pervasive. Entitlement funds were misused, and a bloated central office and bureaucratized teachers’ union squelched initiative and resulted in a system where innovative principals had to be ‘creatively insubordinant’. Parents’ voices had been silenced and reform-minded teachers were equally disenfranchised.
According to Hess, Chicago reformers sought in Public Act 85-1418 a pragmatic redress to these abuses. Grounded in the repeated failures of the school bureaucracy to initiate constructive action, the reform movement came to accept the idea that fundamental governance change was a prerequisite to school improvement in Chicago. The existing power structure maintained dysfunctional schools. A strong shock to destabilize this status quo was necessary before meaningful improvements could occur.
We applaud the mobilization effort for Chicago school reform and the important role played by key organizations, such as the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance which Hess directs. During the mobilization stage, the reform movement catalyzed a diverse constituency among business, community-based organizations (CBOS), and advocacy groups. The dialogue among these various individuals and groups was broadly participatory and democratic, and culminated in Chicago’s unique approach to school change (Moore 1990, Rollow 1990, Hess 1991, O’Connell, 1991).
We also agree with Hess that Chicago school reform is often misrepresented on the