Chicago School Days

Obama’s lackluster record on education.

Barack Obama

School reform advocates in Chicago have of late been heralding Barack Obama as a champion of local school councils, Chicago’s hyperlocal system of school governance. Unique among big-city school districts in the United States, these independent, elected bodies at each school are made up of parents, teachers, and community members, 10 in all, plus the principal. Think of them as mini school boards, parent-teacher organizations on steroids, or condo boards for schools.

Created 20 years ago, these councils each hire and fire their own principals. Though firings aren’t common, they turn out to be a very big deal. Dismissing a principal is the education equivalent of capital punishment. It’s often career-ending. It disrupts a school to the core. And it sends shock waves out through the rest of the system. The councils—each dominated by six parents—are not all-powerful, however. Since 1995, Chicago has also had a central Board of Education overseen by the mayor that, among other things, has the power to close schools and open new ones.

Not surprisingly, the relationship has been extremely uneasy between the central board office (dominated by college-educated professionals) and individual school councils (dominated by minority parents, not all of them college-educated). Put simply, some advocates think LSCs are the best and only real way to improve Chicago schools—by emphasizing local control, curriculum flexibility, and parent involvement. Others think that making each school independent is an indulgent holdover from another era that mostly gets in the way of improving accountability in a massive, 600-school system.

In reality, Obama never really championed the local councils. He supported them behind the scenes and only eventually came out publicly on their behalf. When he did weigh in, he came down on the wrong side of the debate—against protecting principals from unwarranted dismissals and in favor of keeping councils independent, no matter what. In the end, the resolution of the conflict between the two sides didn’t alleviate anyone’s concerns. Instead, it prolonged a turf battle that seems to have dragged down academic progress in the years since.

The story of Obama’s involvement suggests that on similarly contentious fronts involving national education policy, like the No Child Left Behind Act, he might respond the same way—holding back when powerful interest groups collide, only to support the status quo of local control in the end. The candidate’s Chicago record on education also raises questions about his much-vaunted ability to bring different sides together to find lasting solutions.

Obama’s links to local school councils began more than 20 years ago, when they were first being created. His South Side community organizing group, the Developing Communities Project, supported the 1988 reform act that created the councils. A decade later, when Obama was a second-year state senator, he served on the board of several local education foundations that had supported the councils and chaired the board for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a $50 million philanthropic effort that supported local control.

In 1999, hard-charging schools chief Paul Vallas went to the Illinois Legislature to win more control over principal hiring and firing. Vallas headed the Chicago schools between 1995 and 2001. His get-tough initiatives—mandating summer school for students who failed end-of-year exams, for example—got glowing press coverage and earned him not one but two mentions in President Clinton’s State of the Union speeches.

Vallas wanted to make sure in 1999 that his precious cadre of experienced principals wouldn’t continue to get bounced out of their schools for no good reason. In particular, he wanted to limit the LSCs’ power to dismiss principals at the end of their four-year contracts. Each year, a small number of councils (maybe 15 percent of the roughly 150 principals who are up for renewal in any given year) would opt not to renew their principals’ contracts. Most of the time, the decisions weren’t controversial. But occasional surprises—and concerns about the lack of any real oversight or appeal provisions—dogged the process from the start.

Vallas felt that some effective principals were being let go because they were white or because of personal conflicts. He proposed giving himself the authority to review and approve most decisions to let principals go, styling the change as an “accountability” measure. Local-control advocates called it an attempt to “gut” local control.

Both were right. Taking away the LSCs’ power to fire principals would have hamstrung the councils’ independence. But independent LSCs had done a good job at opening up the school system to parents without transforming student achievement. Vallas was trying to complete the centralization that had begun in 1995, when the state gave the mayor a say over the schools. In that context, leaving the LSCs in place just made no sense, particularly given the need to make greater academic strides.

Obama was uniquely well-placed to take the lead in mediating this battle. He had a relatively strong background in community and education issues. He was friends and pickup-basketball buddies with Arne Duncan, who was then in charge of magnet schools (and has since taken over Vallas’ job). Obama also knew Vallas, who liked him. Then, as now, he was considered a politician who could unify people and resolve challenging conflicts. And in a racially charged debate like this one—Vallas was a tall white guy who sent his kids to parochial school—it didn’t hurt that Obama was black.

To be sure, it would have been no easy feat to bring Vallas and local-school advocates to the table, and there’s no guarantee that the effort would have worked. New and unknown to many other Democratic lawmakers, Obama wasn’t even on the education committee.

Still. For several months, Obama didn’t indicate clearly where his sympathies lay. He didn’t join with protesters and other legislators who swarmed public events denouncing the Vallas proposal. He didn’t talk to the press about the importance of community engagement for schools or the unfairness of diminishing the influence of the 5,500 elected LSC members. Obama kept tabs on the negotiations through his staff, met occasionally with local-control advocates, and, according to those who were involved, sometimes provided ideas and advice in private. But that was about it. Some local advocates weren’t even sure whether he would ultimately be on their side or not. And many worried that without someone like Obama to stop it, the Vallas juggernaut would overrun any opposition.

In the end, support for Vallas’ proposal suddenly collapsed, the victim of political infighting within the district. A face-saving provision was added to the existing LSC law that allowed principals to appeal their dismissals to an outside arbitration board, but it was written so narrowly that it was all but unusable. “We put it in there as a fig leaf for Vallas,” recalls a legislative staffer who was involved in the negotiations. “It wasn’t something that was supposed to be used.”

Only after the fig leaf was in place did Obama come out publicly in support of local school councils, making a brief speech (PDF) on the Senate floor to codify the final agreement preserving local councils’ authority. To his credit, Obama didn’t augment racial division. Vallas was in essence trying to take control away from poor and minority parents. He credits Obama with never having played the race card. “Barack could have taken the bait but he didn’t,” says Vallas, now head of the New Orleans schools. “He never demagogued the issue.”

In being so late to the debate, however, Obama didn’t really have to stand up to anyone—not the groups he was affiliated with, not Vallas, not Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. He was just approving the final result. He remained loyal to his roots, but only when it was easy to do so. To some critics, this is exactly the problem. “Obama has no history of standing up to school interests or anyone else,” says Dan Cronin, the Republican state senator who handled the 1999 legislation (and recalls little if any involvement from Obama). “If you look at his past record, there’s nothing that’s particularly bold or creative.”

Partisan judgments aside, Obama missed the opportunity to address long-standing questions about unwarranted dismissals of principals or to resolve the conflicted relationship between LSCs and the central Chicago school board. There is still no meaningful way for principals to appeal their dismissals; few have tried, and not one has been reinstated. And the structural conflicts remain between what are essentially two different systems of governance. (New York City avoided this problem by doing away with its community school districts at roughly the same time it gave control of the school board to the mayor.)

Tension between local control and centralized accountability isn’t just a problem in Chicago, of course. It’s also at the core of the debate over No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that requires annual testing by states in reading and math and mandates publication of test score results for poor and minority students. For more than six years, state and local educators have complained that such mandates get in the way of local control and flexibility.

Based on Obama’s actions in Chicago in 1999, it’s hard to imagine him taking charge of the continuing debate over whether and how No Child Left Behind should be renewed. Forced to take a side, Obama’s record suggests that, ultimately, he would be sympathetic to local autonomy. But there’s not much evidence to show that he would be able to help mend deep and abiding schisms between testing hawks and local-control advocates. And without strong and unifying national leadership, our troubled public-education system stands little chance of making the dramatic improvements that it needs.