Chicago is closing 60 failing schools, opening 100 new schools and letting private managers run most of the new schools with no union contract. Chicago business leaders used the prospect of federal sanctions under No Child Left Behind “to pressure the city to put many schools into private hands, outside union jurisdiction,” reports the New York Times. The local teachers’ union is distracted by charges of fraud in the recent election for union president. With nobody in charge, the union hasn’t done much to fight the plan.
Since pioneering educators raised student achievement by creating small schools in Spanish Harlem in the 1980’s, smaller-is-better has become a national mantra of reform, with New York and other cities, like Baltimore, Boston, Sacramento and San Diego, dividing large schools into smaller, more personal learning communities. But Chicago’s plan breaks ground not only because it is huge but also because no other city has proposed to replace large numbers of failing, unionized schools by allowing the private sector to create new schools operating outside of the teachers union contract.
Philadelphia contracted with Edison Schools in 2002 to manage 20 public schools there. But Edison was required to work under the terms of the existing teacher contract, which limited the company’s educational options, said Paul T. Hill, a University of Washington professor who wrote a 1997 book, “Reinventing Public Education.”
“Chicago intends to give the private groups creating these schools full freedom of action and control over hiring and firing,” Dr. Hill said. “That hasn’t been done anywhere on this scale.”
About 60 of the new schools — 10 percent of the entire system — will operate outside the union contract.
In 1995, Mayor Richard Daley took control of the city’s school system. Despite reform efforts, one third of the city’s schools are in danger of federal sanctions under NCLB.
“Chicago has a long history of tinkering with failed schools,” said Tom Vander Ark, executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed some $25 million since 2001 to school reform efforts in Chicago. “They’ve called it re-engineering, reconstitution, restructuring. They would change a few things, but not surprisingly, its never worked very well. What this new plan offers schools is a complete break with the past.”
Under the new plan, the 100 new schools would open by 2010, including 30 charter schools and 30 schools created by private groups under five-year contracts with the district.