Big-city school systems under siege


WASHINGTON -- Wrenching crises and a push for radical change have become the norm in America's big-city school systems.

Accusing the District of Columbia's school system of bloated bureaucracy, waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars and "educational child abuse," the congressionally created financial-control board last month threw out the school superintendent and elected school board.

Retired Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, the control board's designated -- school chief, will get what every school chief dreams of -- freedom from existing contracting and personnel rules, and power to create new rules for hiring and firing employees.

General Becton, who steered a major cleanup of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is determined to end violence a system in which a quarter of all teachers say they've been physically threatened or attacked.

And there'll be stem-to-stern management reform, he promises. Teachers will get the textbooks, computers and learning materials they need. The system, he vows, will (for a change) provide uniformly clean classrooms, fix faulty water fountains, broken toilets and missing lights, repair decrepit buildings and provide adequate, nourishing meals.

Washington is not unique in bureaucratic ineptitude that victimizes the children who depend on their schools to educate them and prepare them for life.

Last year the Illinois legislature, reacting to years of mismanagement and abysmal student performance in the Chicago schools, did away with the old school board and superintendent system and handed sweeping managerial control to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Chicago had the lowest student achievement and some of the worst attendance and graduation rates among the country's 47 largest school districts. In some high schools, more than 65 percent of students dropped out. Management controls seemed almost nonexistent. There was no plan for repair or replacement of the 553 schools, some more than 100 years old.

Now, the Chicago system is operated by a chief executive officer and management team picked by Mayor Daley. More than 1,700 central office staff slots have been abolished. The 17 unions doing school repairs were dismissed, their work contracted out. There's a five-year capital plan for renovation at all schools.

Cleveland schools, plagued by years of gaping deficits, entrenched bureaucracy, revolving-door superintendents and abysmal student performance, were put under state control by a 1995 court order. A reform superintendent was brought in and a business-backed committee has been pushing reforms. McKinsey & Co., the professional accounting firm, has been analyzing the problems.

Cleveland's plight was relieved a little by a school levy adopted in November. But many people believe Mayor Michael White, like Mr. Daley in Chicago, has to be given broad control of the system -- at least for several years. Legislation giving him that power will be considered by the Ohio legislature this winter.

Check out the Cleveland schools' union contract and you get an idea of what's wrong. Sample provisions: Teachers can't be required to attend more than one meeting a month, limited to an hour -- 10 minutes of which is reserved for union business. In evaluating teachers, principals may only use a form the union approves in advance.

Habitual system failures

Increasingly, the big-city school boards are being held accountable for habitual system failures. To deal with Baltimore's deeply troubled school system, a legislative deal will replace the current school board with one jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor. That's the price of an extra $254 million from the state for improvements.

In Boston, voters last month had a real school-governance choice. Did they want to continue a mayoral-appointed school board, the system they've had since 1991? Or did they want to return to the popularly elected school board?

Usually voters opt for popular vote. But Mayor Thomas Menino, taking full responsibility for performance in today's Boston schools, reminded voters of the "bad old days" of low expectations, lackluster teaching and petty politics under an elected school board. His appointed school-board system won in a three-to-one landslide.

What do all these trends mean? Are we moving to a system of mayoral control of schools? Or to special control boards? And what happens if these reform mechanisms improve management and physical conditions, but don't improve what matters most -- student performance?

No one knows. But it is clear that the days of the traditional big-city school board are numbered. In city after city the boards have shown they can't manage, can't deal effectively with unions, and shortchange the kids. They seem to end up serving chiefly the adults who work in the school systems instead of the children supposed to be learning there.

So we need a new system. The trouble is we don't yet know what it is.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 12/02/96

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