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Don Moore, school reform advocate, dies at 70

DMoore who led Designs for Change school reform group helped write 1989 school reform law thcreated local school councils died

Don Moore, who led the Designs for Change school reform group and helped write the 1989 school reform law that created local school councils, died at age 70.

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Updated: October 9, 2012 2:17PM

For over three decades, Don Moore’s was a voice for equity and quality in urban public education.

It was a strident voice for the right of parents and community to have a say in their neighborhood schools. It was a voice that demanded accountability from the Chicago Public Schools bureaucracy and from city government.

“Don Moore was a consistent, determined and deeply thoughtful advocate for educational equity who devoted his life to a city he loved and to the fight against policies he hated,” said Gary Orfield, the prominent author and UCLA professor who co-founded Harvard’s famed Civil Rights Project and had worked with Moore at Harvard during the 1960s, and later in Chicago.

Mr. Moore’s recognizable, authoritative baritone voice was silenced last week, when the longtime executive director of the nonprofit school reform group Designs For Change, was found dead in his home.

But the rich legacy left behind by Moore — who co-authored Illinois’ historic 1988 school reform law creating the system of local school councils — will stand the test of time, many friends and colleagues said, despite movement in recent years back toward school centralization.

“I was happy to work with him on some tough issues during my years in Chicago,” Orfield said. “Don was an advocate who knew how to understand and use data, and insisted on making public officials accountable to parents and citizens in Chicago’s more powerless communities. He leaves behind many he inspired, and a number he trained well to continue these struggles.”

Mr. Moore, who suffered from coronary heart disease, died of a heart attack. He was found in his home by neighbors on Friday. He was 70.

“Don Moore was the consummate education activist, self-effacing and never wanting attention paid to himself,” said DFC’s Board Chairman Joanne Howard. “He was a terrific tactician, and throughout the more than 20 years I knew Don, he was usually correct. His desire for improved schools, particularly in urban areas where the need is so great, will live on through his work.”

Born Feb. 15, 1942 in Youngstown, Ohio and raised there, Mr. Moore attended Haverford College in Philadelphia, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English in 1964, after graduating magna cum laude. He attended Harvard University Graduate School of Education, earning a master’s in 1966 and a doctorate in child development in 1971.

At Harvard, he became involved in the civil rights movement, spending three summers in South Carolina during the late ’60s, where he organized freedom schools that prepared African-American students to enter formerly all-white schools. Also at Harvard, he was among a team that wrote a proposal to help establish urban “high schools without walls” in several big cities, spawning Chicago’s Metro High School, of which Mr. Moore was a founder. Afterward, Mr. Moore became immersed in efforts to improve the failing Chicago public schools for its heavily poor and minority student population.

He co-founded DFC, an educational research and reform organization, in 1977.

Through applied research and advocacy, his group, in the mid-’80s, led a coalition of parents, community organizations and academics that drafted and lobbied the Illinois General Assembly to pass the Chicago School Reform Act, drastically limiting the power of the central office and Board of Education, in establishing school-based governance councils known as LSCs.

“He helped design the system of publicly elected local school councils that from 1990 to this day manage the majority of the city’s public schools,” said Ray Boyer, who at the time was an associate vice president at the MacArthur Foundation that made a 10-year, $40 million commitment to school reform.

Mr. Moore worked tirelessly to showcase successful LSCs and leverage funding for reform efforts. His group was among a coalition that shepherded The Chicago Annenberg Challenge through half of CPS schools from 1995 to 2001. He worked closely with then-state Sen. Barack Obama on the project, which was funded by a $49.2 million, 2-to-1 matching challenge grant from the Annenberg Foundation. Obama served as the CAC’s founding chairman and president until resigning in 1999.

“Don was proud of what those schools were accomplishing, and he published important reports on which schools were succeeding and why. His research revealed what he called the ‘essential supports,’ characteristics that must be present in a school, any school, in order for it to thrive,” noted Boyer.

Those essential supports were later adopted by school systems across the country. Indeed, during his 35 years in the trenches, the national research studies Moore conducted helped form the framework for many reform movements both at CPS and nationally. Friends say he was a phenomenal numbers cruncher.

“He was a giant,” said Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network and a friend of decades. “In 1985, his groundbreaking study on high-school dropouts for the first time followed a freshman class through senior year, showing CPS actually had a 50 percent or higher dropout rate, rather than the 10 percent they’d been saying. It started reform rolling, and today is the method the federal government requires school districts to use.”

Another of Moore’s research projects in the ’80s, detailing how CPS was failing to provide special needs students with entitled services, led to the historic Corey H. lawsuit and a federal consent decree forcing reforms in that arena.

In recent years, however, following passage of the 1995 Amendatory Act that began the movement back toward centralization, funding for groups like Mr. Moore’s dwindled, and most of his work was fighting efforts to limit the power of LSCs. He could frequently be found leading busloads of parents to Springfield.

“He was very down to earth, very practical, very honest, and very dogged about wanting to hold people accountable for the education of all children,” said Warren Chapman, who as a grantmaker at the Joyce Foundation worked with Mr. Moore in the 1990s. “He had this strong principle about democracy, and creating an open environment of inclusion. He really believed in fair and open equal educational opportunity for all children. The city of Chicago and people in the community who care about schools have lost a public education champion.”

Survivors include two sons, Peter, of Boca Raton, Fla., and Adam, of Chicago; and a sister, Susan Moore Johnson, of Newton, Mass.

A memorial service is being planned, and will be posted on his organization’s website,

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