CHICAGO -- When this city's 410,000 public school students return to classes next month, they will resume their roles as minor players in the second year of one of America's most radical experiments in school decentralization. Although the sweeping new changes were prompted by Chicago's notoriously inferior public schools, the controversy surrounding the reform has focused on the politics of school management rather than on issues of education. Moreover, the effort to improve the predominantly black school system has been opposed strongly by some black leaders.

This overriding concern with politics in a school system widely considered one of the nation's worst might appear to be a distracting preoccupation with side issues. In Chicago, however, politics are never a side issue. In fact, some contend that Illinois legislators sought to provoke a political struggle when they crafted the School Reform Act of 1988, the bill that launched reform. That legislation marked a dramatic shift in educational reform methodology; while previous efforts to upgrade student achievement generally have focused on teaching and/or curricula, the Chicago plan concentrated on reshaping the entire school system.

The most significant feature of the legislation was the provision under which city schools are run by parent-controlled Local School Councils (LSC's) that have the right to hire and fire principals. Under the act, half of the city's 540 LSCs had to pick their principals by April 15; 226 chose their incumbents. Ten failed to reach agreement on appointing new principals, and the remaining schools tapped outsiders. In two predominantly Hispanic schools, the dismissed principals filed suits charging the LSCs with racial bias for seeking to replace them with Hispanics. The other half of the schools have until next April to choose their principals.

In addition to creating the LSCs -- which are elected at each school and composed of six parents, two community members, two teachers and the school principal -- the legislation established a grassroots commission to nominate members of a permanent 15-member School Board, put a cap on administrative spending and revised the formula for Chapter One funding to allow more resources to be allocated to low-income schools.

"Anyone who is at all familiar with Chicago's school problems understood that the real enemy was the bureaucracy on Pershing Road," explains Joseph Reed, a member of the seven-member Interim Board of Education and President of Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), a coalition of business leaders that pushed hard for the reform legislation. Pershing Road, the location of the Board's labyrinthine headquarters, has become a derisive codeword for critics of the city's education bureaucracy. "All of the major players involved in the attempt to reform the city's terrible school system knew that the bureaucracy had to go if anything else was to change," Reed says.

And the system is in dire need of change. One-half of the city's high schools rank in the bottom one percent of the country in students' American College Test scores. Nearly one-half of the high school students drop out before graduating; of those who stay in school only one-third are reading at or above the national average. African-American students are being particularly ill-served; in the city's most isolated districts, for example, a mere eight percent of the students who entered high school as ninth graders both graduate and read above the national average. Because of those disparities, school reform had long been championed by Chicago's black leadership.

But for many black Chicagoans, Pershing Road was not the enemy.

"Our community fought hard for many years to make the Board one of the city's most equitable employers," says Robert Starks, president of the Task Force for Black Empowerment, and a fierce detractor of the current reform process. "Because of that struggle, there are more African-Americans in upper echelon positions in the Board of Education than there are at any other Chicago institution, by far. Under the benign guise of school reform, however, many of them are now being ruthlessly fired."

Starks's group is a loose confederation of more than 50 community organizations and his views reflect those of many Chicagoans who interpret this massive decentralization plan as an attempt to regain control of a black-led, $2.3 billion system. "The Legislation gave {Mayor Richard M.} Daley carte blanche in naming his own Interim Board of Education. And that's after we had battled this racist system for so many years to finally achieve racial parity. Daley also seized the opportunity to name another outsider -- albeit an African-American outsider named Ted Kimbrough -- to the superintendent's post. In my opinion reform has been an unmitigated disaster for Chicago's progressive black movement."

Reed sees another reason for Starks's discontent. "Many administrators at the Board of Education are more concerned with justifying their unproductive positions than in improving education," Reed argues. "What's more, a lot of activist black groups chose to criticize the reform effort rather than pitching in to help design it, and now they're trying to help sabotage the progress instead of making the best of it."

Although problems with Chicago's school system have been festering for many years, the state legislature became increasingly unwilling to vote the resources necessary to help alleviate some of the more glaring problems. According to figures compiled by the Chicago Urban League, state funding for city schools declined by $98.5 million between the fiscal years 1977 and 1987. Starks charges the legislators were reluctant to sufficiently fund Chicago's schools because the system was becoming dominated by minority students and led by black administrators. Black students make up nearly 60 percent of the student body, Hispanics total about 25 percent, whites 12 percent and about 3 percent of the city's students are Asians. Legislators justified their parsimony by claiming the system needed a drastic overhaul to warrant higher funding levels. The issue of funding shortfalls was crystallized by a seemingly endless series of teacher strikes that handicapped efforts at educational improvement through much of the 1980s.

A crippling school strike in 1987 proved to be the last straw. Pressured by enraged parents and community groups, the administration of Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, convened an "educational summit" to focus on the problems and devise workable solutions. The summit gathered parents, unions, corporations, community and civic organizations, the School Board, and others together to reach consensus on a reform program to submit to the Illinois General Assembly. Although the Washington education summit included black community groups, they were excluded by and large from the group that ultimately designed the actual reform legislation.

According to an article in the May 1970 edition of Catalyst, a publication created by the Community Renewal Society to monitor school reform efforts, the reform bill was written by the legislature's Democratic leadership, members of various educational reform groups, corporate leaders and newly formed parent groups. "The Board of Education, the Chicago Teachers Union and the mayor's office were, for the most part, bystanders. The city's most prominent black community leaders were focused elsewhere," the article said. After Washington died of a massive heart attack in November 1987, the city's black leadership lost complete control of the issue. Meanwhile, the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), a powerful Hispanic group, joined the corporate-civic coalition and gained an important voice in the reform process.

But, by and large, the School Reform Act of 1988 was crafted by a predominately white coalition of school reform professionals and business groups. The LSC elections energized many city communities. Chicago's Hispanics were particularly active in the campaign to gain control of the schools in their traditionally underserved neighborhoods. Much of that enthusiasm was fueled by UNO, which received more corporate support for its LSC campaigns than any other community group. "The LSC elections were very positive for us," says UNO President Mary Lou Gonzalez. "The city's Hispanics have traditionally been a bit reluctant to get involved in politics, but our stake was so high in these elections, it inspired us, and more than that, it opens up many possibilities for the future."

Not all black leaders are against the reform effort. "We got about 80 percent of everything we wanted in the School Reform legislation," said James Deanes, who served as the chair of Washington's Parent/Community Council and is widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable grassroots leaders of the reform movement. "The bill offered little that was directed toward student performance; like issues of class size, curriculum and more money for support services. The legislators and reformers were so anxious to sweep the bureaucracy out of Pershing Road, that they minimized everything else. But the bill also gives LSCs considerable influence over choosing textbooks and developing curricula, a precious power for those of us who have seen African-Americans and other minorities literally blacked-out of the pages of history."

Although Deanes faults the city's black leadership for sitting on the sidelines while the reform plan was being crafted, he echoes Starks' concerns that an elite squad of reform theorists is sacrificing the city's already undereducated students in a war for control of the educational bureaucracy, one of the few bastions of the black middle-class. "The bureaucracy was top heavy and needed some fat cut," Deanes admits. "but to me it looks like they're cutting the black instead of cutting the fat." He's also troubled by the reformers' zeal to experiment with a generation of inner-city students who already are tottering on the brink of functional illiteracy.

"Some schools in poor, predominantly African-American communities have a hard time finding parents with high school diplomas themselves, so how are they expected to run LSCs? And so far, the training for LSC members has been woefully inadequate." Despite those problems, Deanes is optimistic that school-based management can work. "This plan gives parents the opportunity to have the kind of influence we've always said we wanted over our children's education, but it requires a lot of sustained effort to make it work. We've simply got to work harder."

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times magazine.