Chicago School Reforms Bring Improvement

Published February 1, 1999

During a 1987 visit to Chicago, then U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett described the city’s school district as the worst in the nation. He was not invited back for eleven years.

But when Bennett introduced Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas at a December 10, 1998, event at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, Bennett reported that Vallas had invited him to visit the district again, and that he had accepted.

Much has changed in Chicago since 1987, a result, at least in part, of Bennett’s statement. Students are achieving at a higher level, physical improvements have been made to the district’s 550 schools, and Vallas’ successes have attracted nationwide attention.

Reform in Chicago was initiated by the Illinois legislature, which mandated the creation of local school councils to give citizens more say over how local schools were run. Deeper reforms have come since 1995, when the legislature gave control of the city’s schools to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. According to Vallas, six factors have made progress possible.


The mayor appointed a five-member reform board to replace the former school board and appointed Vallas the school district CEO. For the first time, the city and school administration have a common agenda, both internally within the district and externally when working with the state legislature and Congress.


According to Vallas, flexibility has been the most important factor in his success with the Chicago public schools. The district gained control over its funds when some 29 categorical grants were combined into two block grants, one for special education students, and one for all other programs. As a result, a massive deficit was eliminated, the budget was balanced, and funds were made available for an extensive building improvement program.

In addition, work rules no longer are negotiable and privatization has been widely adopted. The local teacher union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, has been cooperative, and four-year contracts provide long-term labor stability. With one year still to run on the current contract, negotiations already have been completed for an additional four years through 2003.


Academic standards have been raised and made uniform, and social promotion has been abolished. Although education experts predicted those changes would lead to a dramatic increase in the dropout rate, student attendance, achievement, and behavior all have significantly improved.


There is no tenure for administrators and no golden parachutes, even for Vallas himself, who serves at the pleasure of the mayor and can be replaced at any time if he is not successful. Principals have four-year contracts that allow for direct accountability. Teachers have tenure but can be transferred, and the union cannot negotiate work rules. Individual schools not only can be placed on probation for academic failure but can be closed down–and Vallas has done both. The staff of such schools are laid off but may reapply for employment, with hiring decisions made on an individual basis.

Additional Support for Children

New support programs cover a wide variety of activities, including one for early childhood and another that provides pregnant teenagers with information on prenatal care, nutrition, parenting, and abstinence-focused sex education.

Studies showed that, prior to implementing the abstinence program, pregnant teenagers who dropped out of school had, on average, two children within three years, and three within five. According to Vallas, none of the 1,100 teenagers who have been through the teen pregnancy program has become pregnant again–a 100 percent success rate. He noted that the district also works with the fathers-to-be; in a few instances, the father subsequently has become responsible for rearing the child.

To address the consequences of abolishing social promotion, the district has restructured and further emphasized an intensive summer school program, which now reaches 180,000 of the district’s 433,000 students. While 50,000 of those students are in gifted and other special programs, 130,000 are in the academic improvement program.

Over 90 percent of the teachers involved in the academic improvement program now use a model curriculum for the core subjects, which has produced significant improvements. The program, which once improved the achievement levels of students with academic needs by an average of 2.5 months, now produces gains of one full year in reading and 13 months in math.


“The worst segregation is academic segregation,” according to Vallas, and he has attempted to reduce that in Chicago by instituting open enrollment at the high school level. Vallas also has successfully privatized much of special education and vocational education, as well as some alternative schools and some individual schools.

The district works closely with area churches, sometimes establishing relationships for students with some element of the local religious community. As Vallas noted, sometimes only 20 parents will attend a meeting at a school while nearby churches may have as many as 1,000 people attending each of three separate services in a single day.

Chicago also now has 15 charter schools, and school officials are encouraging parochial schools to convert to charter school status. Although such schools would be required to forego religious programs during the school day, such programs could be part of on-campus after-school activities. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this is constitutional if schools offer other voluntary extracurricular programs for students. No public dollars could be spent on such after-school activities and participation must be voluntary. While some opponents think these projects may be subject to a First Amendment challenge, Vallas commented, “What’s worth doing is worth being sued over.”