With a backdrop of light streaming through the spotless windows of the library of a brand-new school, Jose Hernandez said what everyone else in the room may well have been thinking: That the building would be part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s legacy.
Indeed, as much as for anything else, Chicagoans will remember Daley as the mayor who was handed control of the city’s 600-plus public schools and invested his emotional and political capital in improving them. At press conferences heralding educational accomplishments throughout his years in office, Daley often became red-faced when challenged, passionately defending his efforts.
“It has been my first priority,” Daley said Thursday, repeating a commonly-heard theme. “The greatest gift I could give the children in this city is education.”
In 1995, the year Daley won mayoral control, the school system was trying the shake the label given it by former Secretary of Education William Bennett: “worst in the nation.” Any parent who could do so got their child out of the system.
Today, Daley’s legacy includes more schools meant to appeal to middle-class families. Some are traditional neighborhood schools. Some are magnet schools with special programs in arts or math and science, drawing students from across the city. Others are selective schools that require entrance exams. And there are also charter schools, public schools run by private organizations.
Many of the new schools were opened through Daley’s signature education initiative, Renaissance 2010. Heralded by the mayor as a private-public partnership, Daley used Renaissance to win support for education from the city’s business elite. Millions of dollars have poured into schools since Renaissance was launched.
Daley also found the cash to build new school facilities. His $1 billion Modern Schools initiative led to the construction of 24 new buildings, including Calmeca Academy on the Southwest Side, where Hernandez spoke at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Daley.
Yet Daley’s legacy is complicated and leaves much undone. Critics point to research studies that show many of the new schools are not overwhelmingly high-performing. And students displaced by school closings often ended up at low-performing schools rather than better ones. Failing high schools remain a significant problem, despite a string of reform attempts.
Activists say that Daley has been too quick to embrace flashy programs and unwilling to put time and effort into forging community support for schools, an element that education experts say is essential for long-term school improvement.
Too, Daley’s relationship with the city’s grassroots community activists, most of whom view Renaissance 2010 in a negative light, remains troubled. Local school councils—boards of parents, teachers and community members—have had their power curbed under the mayor, said Don Moore, executive director of the group Designs For Change. Their most significant power, principal hiring, is one that Daley has openly said should be taken away.
“I think it should be left up to the Board of Education and the CEO,” Daley said last Thursday.
Hernandez, the council president lauded by Daley at the ribbon-cutting event, later noted the irony. The school’s council had to convince the School Board to let them have the new building, rather than turn the building over to a charter operator. Now, Daley was praising them for keeping it a neighborhood school.
“We did the fighting. We led the campaign,” Hernandez said.
A version of this article appeared in the Sept. 12 edition of the New York Times, through a partnership with the Chicago News Cooperative.