CHICAGO -- President Clinton stood before governors and school officials at the 1999 Education Summit last month and praised Chicago's school reforms. It was a far cry from what happened 11 years previously, when then-Education Secretary William Bennett said the Windy City had "the worst school system in the country."
That same year, Illinois lawmakers began to put in place a series of reform measures that culminated in 1995 when Mayor Richard M. Daley was given complete control over his city's public schools and their 407,241 students.
Since then, Daley's team has balanced the school district's $2.857 billion budget, students are doing marginally better and school buildings are being fixed. Lawmakers in Ohio and Michigan have modeled their reforms on Chicago's example.
There are two ways state legislatures deal with chronically failing school districts: they either take them over at the state level or they put the city in charge. New Jersey was the first state to intervene. Its legislature took control of Jersey City schools in 1989 by stripping the school board of power and replacing everyone from the superintendent on down.
When lawmakers have the city manage reforms, they generally give the mayor the power to replace the board with a management team headed up by a corporate board and chief executive officer who has more power than a superintendent.
Massachusetts introduced this reform style in 1991 when the mayor of Boston was given control of the schools. He in turn appointed Tom Payzant, a veteran educator, to lead the reforms. In a 1996 referendum people voted to keep this form of management.
While many would characterize Boston's reform movement as low-key, Chicago's has been called abrupt and aggressive.
"One of the big reasons Chicago has turned the corner and is moving in the right direction is because they have been aggressive and persistent," said Todd Ziebarth, an analyst with the Education Commission on the States.
But when Illinois lawmakers considered the measure giving the mayor school policy authority, Daley lobbied against it and only grudgingly embraced the law.
"This is a Republican law written largely by the business community," said Dorothy Shipps, who has researched Chicago school reforms for a decade, and is now at Columbia University's Teachers College. (Daley) decided that if he was going to be in control he wanted people in Chicago that would answer to him he wanted loyalty."
To get that loyalty, Daley appointed his chief of staff, Gery Chico, as president of the Reform Board of Trustees, which replaced the Board of Education. He made his budget director, Paul Vallas, chief executive officer. City hall staffers also filled three of the four other positions on the management team.
The first thing the new team did was to balance the school district budget, whisking it out of the financial chaos that had existed for years and ridding it of a $350-million structural debt.
Most significantly, say researchers, the city signed a four -year teaching contract with the unions that included a no-strike agreement for 18 months.
The team has also moved quickly to fix up school buildings that had been neglected for nearly 30 years. Ten new schools have been built, 23 have been added to and 27 have new annexes. More than 300 schools have new roofs and windows. Many also have new parks and play grounds.
Daley has successfully lobbied federal officials in Washington for more money for his schools.
"Because mayors are in charge of the police and parks and sanitation, they can require these people to work more cooperatively with the schools. No (school superintendent) can do that. No super can go to Washington and ask for money either, he doesn't represent a party or votes," Dorothy Shipps said.
The best-known reform policy that Chicago inaugurated was ending social promotion the practice of passing a failing student to the next grade. Now 35 of the nation's 49 largest school districts have policies against social promotion, according to the Council of the Great City Schools.
In 1997, the first year that Chicago disallowed social promotion, 41,000 students in grades 3,6 and 9 were held back for failing to meet minimum standards. They were sent to summer school and a little more than half were then promoted. This past summer, 66 percent of summer school students were promoted at the end of the program.
Chicago was such a notable example that Ohio decided to try out similar reforms in Cleveland. The Ohio legislature passed a law that gave the mayor's office control over Cleveland public schools. Eventually, the people of the city will vote on the structure.
Earlier this year, Detroit's Mayor Dennis Archer was given control of that city's public schools and 180,000 students. The legislation explicitly mentions Chicago.
"Bill 297 (S-2) is based on the successful efforts of Chicago to take dramatic steps to rescue a failing school district," it says.