Three decades after his brother oversaw the first elections for leadership teams at each Chicago school, Bill Daley is proposing to do away with them.
If he becomes mayor, Daley says he would seek to consolidate more than 500 Local School Councils into 50 neighborhood councils that would each oversee eight to 12 schools. The new councils would continue to hire and fire principals and approve school budgets.
Daley would also replace individual schools’ enrollment boundaries with “neighborhood zones.” Students would get priority in admissions to all district and charter schools in their zone.
Daley said the proposal, the second major education idea he has floated this week, is meant to strengthen communities and encourage more students to attend schools near their homes. Currently, families are guaranteed admission to at least one school near their homes, but many students choose to attend other schools and travel long distances to do so.
“It gets us out of so many people just focusing on their one school,” Daley said of his plan. “If a neighborhood school council focuses on that neighborhood … then over time maybe more people will focus on staying in neighborhoods.”
The candidate announced the proposal Thursday morning outside Jenner Academy, where two councils worked together to merge their schools rather than risk having the city shut one of them down. That kind of coordinated effort would be more likely under neighborhood councils, said Daley, who counts among his advisors Peter Cunningham, who previously worked as a top aide to former local and federal schools chief Arne Duncan. Under Duncan’s leadership, the city closed several schools, ushering in an era of closures that has drawn sustained criticism for destabilizing communities and ignoring their input.
The proposal could address one major challenge facing the elected councils: that many seats go unfilled, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
That hasn’t always been the case. In 1989, the year Bill Daley’s brother Richard M. Daley became mayor, nearly 17,000 people ran in the first elections for the councils, enough to fill them more than three times over, and hundreds of thousands of Chicago voters cast ballots.
In contrast, more than half of schools did not have enough candidates to fill their councils last year.
But the proposal would also undercut a main goal of the councils: to give parents a seat at the table for major decisions about their children’s school.
“The idea is that all communities have resources to put behind their local schools, and that the way to have strong local schools is to have input from the school community, because they are the people most invested in the school, that most understand the unique situation of their school,” said Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has monitored the school councils since their creation under state law in 1988.
Under Daley’s proposal, not all schools would be guaranteed representation on the neighborhood councils. But Daley said he isn’t worried about the possibility that some schools would benefit from advocacy and others would not.
“You can’t guarantee that every school has somebody on the council,” Daley said. “But I think the people who will run for this will not be that narrow focused. I don’t think we should assume that would be the motivation of the people who go through the trouble to do this.”
Daley isn’t the first mayoral candidate this year to address the school councils in campaign promises, but his proposal would be the most far-reaching.
Amara Enyia has pledged to “increase support for LSC infrastructure,” while John Kozlar’s campaign says he would work with the councils to improve education in the city. Garry McCarthy says he would establish a program to recruit and train council members.
And Paul Vallas, the former schools chief in Chicago and New Orleans, would allow local school council members to vote on three appointments to the school board — a proposal similar to Daley’s own, which would retain mayoral control over the board.
That control — which Richard Daley fought for and won in 1995 — is seen as a major contributor to waning enthusiasm for participation on local school councils.
Any changes to the councils’ powers or how they are constituted would have to come from lawmakers in Springfield. Daley said he’d start making the case for his plan with Chicago-area state legislators.