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Chicago Schools Offer L.A. a Cautionary Tale

Mayor Daley has made gains in 10 years, but reforms are uneven and test scores remain low.

March 20, 2006|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — On a gritty stretch of Washington Boulevard west of this city's skyline, Dodge Elementary School for years had been a prototypical failing inner-city campus, with dismal test scores and poor teaching.

In 2002, Mayor Richard M. Daley lost patience. He closed the school, alienating the teachers union and parents. But by the time the school reopened the next year, scrubbed and painted, with top-notch teachers and a partnership with a local university, he had won some converts.

Today, the school is cited by many as an example of the advantages of mayoral control of schools.

But less than a mile away is Cather Elementary School. Its declining enrollment has led to a skeletal, mostly inexperienced staff. No money is available for badly needed teaching coaches.

"It's wonderful that they have received so much," said Cather Principal Hattie Smith, referring to Dodge. "But it is frustrating that we don't have what we need."

Together, the schools demonstrate that although mayoral control can allow for dramatic action that would be impossible for a superintendent beholden to a school board, teachers unions and other constituents, it is not a panacea.

As he contemplates taking control of Los Angeles public schools, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is looking for ideas from Chicago and the few other American cities in which the mayor is the top school administrator.

Today, Villaraigosa is expected to meet with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York to discuss his experience taking charge of schools there. And at a conference earlier this year, Villaraigosa spoke with Daley about mayoral control. He has said he would like to visit Chicago as well.

But Chicago, the nation's third-largest school system, can hardly be seen as an advertisement for mayoral control of schools. After a decade with Daley in charge, the Chicago district has failed to distinguish itself from other major urban school districts. Many of its schools remain subpar and, overall, Chicago's students continue to score poorly on reading and math exams used to compare big-city districts.

"It is hard to argue that we're worse off than we were a decade ago, but we're not dramatically better off either," said education consultant Alexander Russo, who has written extensively about school reform in Chicago. "If mayoral control was the best thing since sliced bread, after 10 years you would expect Chicago to have risen to the top. It is far from a magic bullet."

"Having the mayor in charge of schools is a way to get things done. But the problem is in figuring out the right things to do," said John Easton, executive director of the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research. "I'm not sure Mayor Daley has been able to crack that better than anyone else."

Unlike Villaraigosa, who has repeatedly called for control of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Daley didn't seek a takeover in Chicago. Illinois lawmakers foisted the school system on him in 1995, handing Daley broad powers to intervene in low-performing schools, hire the chief executive and appoint the school board.

"It had become a crisis," Daley said in a recent interview. "[Legislators] were saying, 'If Daley's foolish enough to take this, let's give him this political hot potato.... People told me not to do this. They said it was a political risk, because nothing would change."

Nevertheless, he jumped right in. After years of fiscal mismanagement that had pushed the district to the brink of collapse, Daley's team eliminated red ink in the schools' $4-billion annual budget. It also built new campuses and pacified a contentious teachers union that had struck nine times between 1970 and 1987.

Several teachers and principals who have worked in the district before and since Daley took over said his early efforts had immediate results. Supplies were distributed more equally and efficiently, teachers were paid on time, bureaucrats in central offices responded to requests more quickly.

"It's become very corporate; service is everything," said Michael Biela, a principal and former teacher. "They want us to look at our students and parents as our clients."

Daley was able to make such changes because Chicago's weak City Council holds little sway, said Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University. Free to make sweeping changes, Daley put his budget director in charge of the schools and made his chief of staff board president. About 100 City Hall staff members were reassigned to the school district.

That kind of authority would be more difficult in Los Angeles, where the mayor shares power with the City Council, experts said.

Villaraigosa probably would need to win voter approval to amend the City Charter in order to give him the power to control the school district, Kirst said. State law would also probably have to change.

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