It’s the straw that broke the grassroots back: the appointment of Ron Huberman to head the Chicago Public Schools.

Tuesday night, an overflow crowd met at Operation PUSH headquarters to plot strategy aimed at forcing Mayor Daley to rescind his selection and launch a national search for a schools chief. It’s just the latest in a recent string of public meetings on education that reflect growing dissatisfaction among community groups with Daley’s management of the system.

Daley continues to insist Huberman, former head of the Chicago Transit Authority, is the right pick. True, Huberman has managerial experience, which gives him a leg up in terms of overseeing the day-to-day operation of the school system. His background as a police officer is a plus when it comes to improving school security, always a pressing concern for parents, students and teachers

But those who oppose Huberman’s selection have a compelling case when they argue that his resume is too thin because he has no background in education. Teaching kids is simply not the same as getting the el trains to run on time or creating a database to improve crime-fighting. In Chicago, the job is even more complex because so many students live in poverty and come from troubled homes and communities. Managerial skills are a plus, but they are no substitute for expertise in a particular field.

Educational expertise is particularly critical at this juncture in CPS’ history. Schools, especially high schools, must move up to the next level in terms of achievement. The mayor’s signature initiative, Renaissance 2010, has arguably done more to fuel frustration with the system than to improve it, and has still left too many needy communities without better schools. A University of Chicago researcher is slated to release a much-anticipated report on Renaissance this year that is expected to be critical of the effort.

So what’s the next step? It’s got to be something more than daily efficiency reports and elaborate performance evaluation systems, which Huberman is reportedly set to bring on board. At a time like this, what’s needed is a visionary leader with real educational chops, who inspires confidence among teachers, principals, students and parents. (Tuesday night’s crowd repeatedly invoked Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins, who is remaining in that post. One speaker suggested Eason-Watkins should have stayed on as CEO, with Huberman brought in as her chief operating officer.)

Daley says he won’t go back to the days when the system was run by “cast-off career educators” who got big pay packages when the School Board decided to get rid of them. Fair enough. But that’s a problem caused by picking the wrong career educator and could be resolved with a high-quality national search.

Organizers insist the flap over Huberman won’t die down, although they admit ousting him is a long shot at best. But the long-term repercussions may be just beginning. Activists at Tuesday’s rally want a new state law that would require City Council approval of Daley’s pick to head the school system. With new reform-minded Gov. Pat Quinn in office, they think they’ve got a shot. Another idea that might well resurface is the call for an elected School Board.

University of Chicago professor Charles Payne, a well-respected expert on education and social policy, recently told a group of activists at a citywide meeting on education reform that “Top-down power alone will never give us the schools we want. That power needs to be held in check.”  That democratic sentiment is coming to the forefront and deserves support.

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