Chicago Schools Offer L.A. a Cautionary Tale

Share via
Times Staff Writer

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.

In addition, unlike Daley, the mayor would have to convince more than two dozen other cities and unincorporated county areas served by Los Angeles Unified that schools would be better off in his hands.

That could be a hard sell in Los Angeles. Although it is often criticized by teachers union officials and others for being inefficient and slow to reform, L.A. Unified is considered to be in better shape than Chicago schools were when Daley took over.


Still plagued by high dropout rates and many troubled high schools, the district has made some significant gains in the six years Roy Romer has been superintendent. Student performance in elementary schools has improved and, overall, the district has made gains on the state’s accountability scale. And the school system, considered to be on stable financial footing, has embarked on a $19-billion construction project, building or modernizing hundreds of schools.

Daley’s early victories in Chicago gave way to a much murkier, and less clearly successful, effort to make widespread improvements in teaching and student performance.

His team has unleashed dozens of initiatives, including a literacy campaign that placed reading specialists in schools. More important, Daley has overseen an aggressive campaign to intervene in poorly performing schools.

He ended the district’s social promotion policy, which had allowed failing students to be sent to the next grade, a move that has proved untenable in Los Angeles Unified. And hundreds of Chicago campuses have been placed on probation for poor test scores, allowing the mayor’s team to remove principals and teachers.

Most dramatic is what Daley started when he closed Dodge. In 2004, he announced the dramatic Renaissance 2010 plan, which aims to close dozens of the districts’ persistently low-achieving campuses and replace them with 100 smaller, innovative schools within six years.

Like Dodge, many of the new schools will be given a new level of autonomy, run by outside companies and nonprofit groups under charters or contracts with the district.


Daley and Arne Duncan, whom the mayor appointed as his second schools chief executive in 2001, say improving instruction hinges on having the power to make such changes.

“We’ve been able to do things -- for example, close schools for academic failure. It is hugely difficult, it’s hugely controversial and it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Duncan said. “That simply does not happen in other cities, because of a lack of political will.”

That attitude highlights the potential dangers of mayoral control, not the benefits, said Dorothy Shipps, a Columbia University political scientist who has closely examined the Chicago system under Daley.

Mayors, Shipps said, can help schools if they use their bully pulpits to increase attention on schools and leverage their political power to align city services and funding behind schools.

Daley, she said, has succeeded on that front. But she criticized him for focusing too much attention on high-profile changes, such as the Renaissance plan, that are popular with voters but may not be good policy.

Mayoral control “guarantees an impatience and radical changes,” Shipps said. “He’ll do something and he’ll do it fast, but there is no guarantee that it will work. Decisive people can make bad decisions.”


Whether the mayor has made bad decisions is a matter of debate.

Cather and Dodge schools in Chicago are cases in point.

Since she became principal at Cather three years ago, Smith said, the campus’ persistent reputation as a failing school has made it difficult to attract high-caliber teachers. And far from receiving the special attention Dodge gets, Smith has had to scramble, hiring a substitute, for example, to help teach a math class of 39 students.

But at Dodge, student-teachers from a local university assist a highly qualified faculty, frequently providing special instruction for struggling students and freeing classroom teachers to develop lesson plans.

Dodge Principal Jarvis Sanford said that although they have been slow to rise, test scores will soon reflect the improvements at the school.

“The mayor said he’s not going to stand for mediocrity anymore. He’s put a lot of heat on us to change things -- as a politician might -- but it’s done some good for the kids at this school,” Sanford said. “The alternative is just to keep kids in failing schools.”

Daley and his team point to increases in graduation rates and test scores as evidence that their reforms are working.

But critics of mayoral control claim the Chicago schools that are improving are doing so despite Daley, not because of him.


When they gave Daley control, lawmakers largely left in place elected councils made up of parents and community members at each of the district’s nearly 600 schools. At struggling schools on probation, Daley has stripped councils of power, but at others the councils hire principals and oversee a significant portion of each school’s budget.

A recent study by Designs for Change, a research and advocacy group, concluded that schools with well-run councils made gains before Daley took control of the district.

The success of those schools “runs against the story that the mayor’s team wants to tell: that nothing good happened before they came on the scene and every improvement has been because of their initiatives,” said Donald Moore, the group’s executive director.

Moreover, the mayor and his team have lost some ground with the teachers union and some community members in neighborhoods where they have closed schools.

“They couldn’t possibly know what is needed to move these kids forward,” said Derotha Rogers-Clay, an assistant principal at Collins High School, slated to close. “It takes people like us out here who know.”

Those criticisms, Duncan said, were heard at Dodge when he announced its closure. Today, he says, “I walk down those streets and have moms coming up and kissing me on the cheek.”




Comparing school districts

How L.A. Unified compares to two other large public school districts:

Los Angeles Unified

Schools -- 698

Enrollment - 727,000

Racial breakdown of students - Latino 73%, Black 12%, White 9%, Other 6%

Operating budget - $6.8 billion

Teachers - 37,000


Chicago Public Schools

Schools -- 613

Enrollment - 427,000

Racial breakdown of students - Black 50%, Latino 38%, White 9%, Other 3%

Operating budget - $4 billion

Teachers - 27,000


New York City schools

Schools - 1,408

Enrollment - 1.1 million

Racial breakdown of students - Latino 39%, Black 33%, White 15%, Other 13%

Operating budget - $14.6 billion

Teachers - 80,000


Sources: Los Angeles Unified School District, California Department of Education, Chicago Public Schools, New York City schools