Janice Jackson
Credit: File photo by Max Herman

Janice Jackson has a lot of people pulling for her as she takes on her new position as interim CEO of Chicago Public Schools. For one thing, she’s an educator with Chicago roots – a former high school teacher and star principal – which is something we haven’t seen in that position for over 20 years.

That contrasts sharply with her predecessor, Forrest Claypool; indeed, Ald. Howard Brookins called Jackson “the anti-Forrest,” and yes, it was a compliment.

It’s not just Claypool’s lack of background in education or his high-handedness.  As Jacobin detailed last year, Claypool “has spent his career stripping public budgets, preaching the wisdom of privatization, enriching his friends, and generally following the philosophy of Ayn Rand” – whose photo could be found over Claypool’s desk – “a conservative ideologue who believed that ‘of all the government undertakings, none has failed so disastrously as public education.’”

As head of the Chicago Park District, Claypool laid off a quarter of the workforce and privatized a raft of facilities; at Chicago Transit Authority he laid off hundreds and privatized the fare-card system. At CPS he cut hundreds of teachers and slashed neighborhood school budgets while throwing millions at crony consultants.

Jackson’s credibility going forward could hinge on her ability to move away from Claypool’s disastrous policies. Like privatization: Claypool expanded an $80 million pilot project to contract out school engineer work.  Those are the guys who take care of a building’s basic systems, and previously they reported to principals.

Claypool also expanded the privatization of custodial services, resulting in system-wide complaints from principals, parents and teachers, who reported having to clean their own classrooms.  Reports of rodent infestations have existed for years now, and continue today.  A recent Chicago Teachers Union survey found 43 percent of reporting schools said they had problems with rats.

As a former principal, Jackson may understand the importance of school maintenance workers being directly accountable to the school’s leadership.  It’s certainly something she needs to look into.

Then there’s Claypool’s special education cuts.  WBEZ reported that secretive contracts with consultants with no education expertise resulted in the creation of a new set of onerous hoops for parents to jump through to get services for their kids.  “CPS’ new rules made it even harder to get children what they needed in a system that has long failed to properly support special-needs students,” one advocate told WBEZ.

While denying that he was cutting spending on special education, Claypool budgeted $29 million less and ended up spending $14 million less in 2017 than the year before, with 350 fewer special ed teachers and 100 vacant clinician positions.

Lots of parents are hoping that an educator at the helm of CPS will have a better understanding of the educational cost of these cuts.

Finally, there are the school closings Claypool has proposed.  When Claypool announced plans to close four Englewood high schools and build a new high school last summer, he said the existing schools would not be closed until the new construction was completed.   But when the announcements came out on Dec. 1, the four schools were slated for closing next year, leaving a one-year gap before Englewood has a neighborhood high school.  Current students will be shuttled to Hyde Park, Gage Park, and Bogan high schools – quite a trek.  Parents want the closings delayed, at least.

“It would be an easy thing to do, keep the schools open while the new school is being built and in the meantime have a process that really involves community members in what the new high school is going to look like, what the transition plans are, and whether this is the right thing for all these schools,” said Jennifer Biggs of Raise Your Hand.

It’s lack of planning that has undermined these once solid neighborhood high schools, according to a recent CTU report. “The severity of underenrollment in Englewood neighborhood schools is part and parcel of CPS’s strategy to undermine neighborhood schools in favor of charter expansion,” according to the report.  It notes that while CPS’s facilities master plan identified Englewood’s declining high school population – the number of 15 to 19 year olds has dropped by 31 percent since 2010 – CPS allowed nearly a dozen new charter and alternative high schools to open there, pulling students and resources away from existing schools.

Perhaps a former high school teacher and principal will understand that it’s time to reinvest in neighborhood high schools.

There’s lots of opportunity for someone who wants to be an “anti-Forrest” ­– though obviously, room for maneuver is limited, and Jackson’s own commitments remain to be seen.

“No matter what, there’s still one guy that’s in charge, and that’s the mayor,” said Biggs.  “And he’s making bad decision after bad decision. I don’t expect much to change without an elected school board.”

But having a Chicago educator at the helm of CPS might bring in valuable perspectives that have been missing for a long time.

Headshot of Curtis Black

Curtis Black

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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