This article originally appeared in Gambit Weekly

When urban school systems erupt into turmoil these days, someone is bound to say: Let’s do what Chicago did. Put the mayor in charge.

Oh that it were that simple.

The Chicago Public Schools are better than they were 14 years ago and, at the elementary and middle school levels, have the test scores to prove it. This year, about 43 percent of students in third through eighth grades scored at or above average in reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills—a gain of about 20 percentage points since 1990. Most of the gain has been in the schools least burdened by poverty, though.

High schools are another story, with the dropout rate still at about 40 percent between the eighth and 12th grades. Many of those who do graduate are ill prepared for college or the workplace.

Making Mayor Richard M. Daley accountable, beginning in 1995, for the school system’s performance has had much to do with the progress the system has made. But so did a host of other factors.

About a third of the system’s elementary schools already had built a head of academic steam under a prior reform, one that decentralized the school system by creating elected, parent-dominated councils at each school, entrusting them with important responsibilities, such as selecting the principal, and giving them extra money to carry out their plans.

However, citywide test scores did not rise at the expected rate, and fiscal crises and labor unrest continued to plague the system. Taking control of state government in 1994, Republican officials seized on this logjam to give Chicago its second phase of reform. Daley, a Democrat, worked with them behind the scenes.

In Chicago, the mayor has always appointed school board members, though none until the current Daley had both the interest and power to do much good for kids. However, the 1988 decentralization legislation created a cumbersome nominating process that had tied Daley’s hands. The 1995 “take-over” legislation got rid of the nominating committee and gave the mayor the power to select the superintendent, too. As important, it freed the mayor’s leadership team from many of the financial and union constraints that had bound previous administrations. For example, the school board could privatize some union jobs to save money.

For his part, Daley gave the school system two hard-charging, politically savvy aides: Budget Director Paul Vallas, who became chief executive officer of the school system, and Chief of Staff Gery Chico, who became school board president. Within weeks of their appointment, Vallas and Chico were able to resolve a projected budget deficit and settle a four-year contract with the Chicago Teachers Union. That stifled any objections to the fact that a majority-black school system now had a white chief executive, the first in 15 years.

Blessed with the backing of an all-powerful mayor, labor peace and some spare change, the new leadership team quickly went on to launch dozens of programs and crack the whip at schools and students with the lowest test scores.

Blessed with a good economy, it also launched a school construction and rehabilitation program that has brightened virtually every community in the city. Even the City Council, a separate taxing body, chipped in with a school bond issue of its own. Along with a surge in test scores, these developments and Vallas’ masterful handling of the media generated new public confidence in the public schools.

So it was a shock even to Chicagoans when Daley pushed Vallas and Chico out at the end of the 2000-01 school year. Their departure came on the heels of the first downturn in test scores in six years. However, scores had begun to level off two years earlier, according to local researchers, who reasoned that the school board’s accountability program, which includes both sanctions and extra resources for lagging schools and students, had generated as much progress as it was going to on its own. Most everyone was working harder, researchers found, but they weren’t working much smarter. The mayor himself already had scolded his team by suggesting publicly that they “think outside the box.”

Yet the dynamic duo seemed at a loss over what to do about the next major challenge, improving leadership and instruction school by school. In years five and six of their administration, they merely offered more of the same measures to advance student achievement, mainly more time in class for kids and more monitors for schools. For example, Intervention, a carrot-and-stick effort aimed at the lowest-scoring high schools, was presented as a new and improved Reconstitution, a similar, previous effort. Both failed. Something needed to change, and the mayor decided that it would be the men in charge.

IN CHICAGO, BRINGING AN ENTIRELY new team does not mean starting over. The underpinnings of the Vallas and Chico accomplishments—the mayor’s commitment to improved schools and state laws that give him the power to impose his will—remain in place. Chicago’s broad-based school reform community—including corporate leaders, universities, foundations, education groups, community-based organizations and many teachers and administrators inside the school system—remains actively involved, providing hard-earned knowledge as well as continuity. The Consortium on Chicago School Research, based at the University of Chicago, continues to churn out copious data to help guide the way.

There also was a remarkable consensus about what School Reform Phase III should focus on: Recruiting good teachers and administrators, and supporting them with intensive training and professional development.

Daley turned to Arne Duncan, a little-known, mid-level district administrator, to replace Vallas, and Michael Scott, a longtime government operative with deep community roots, to replace Chico. Duncan is white; Scott, African American.

Soft-spoken and willing to listen, Duncan is a personality opposite of Vallas. School reform activists, whom Vallas routinely savaged, welcomed Duncan with open arms. Yet he has been just as tough as Vallas, closing schools for failing to improve, providing more supervision of principals and putting more schools on probation, thus limiting the power of their principals and local school councils. He also is a strong proponent of public school choice and creating charter and contract schools to increase the number of good choices.

In Duncan’s two years at the helm, there has been little change in test scores or the dropout rate. And now a state budget crisis is forcing him to make layoffs and cut back on programs, which has drawn the ire of the teachers union.

While Mayor Daley appears to stay out of most school management and policy decisions, he stays in touch with his school leaders and educational issues. He talks frequently about the importance of good schools and takes the podium at good-news press conferences.

STANFORD UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR Michael Kirst observes that one of the main contributions that mayors in mayor-controlled systems make is providing political cover for superintendents to ride out controversial decisions and the slow pace of school change. Daley’s public support of his superintendents has done that in Chicago.

A recent issue of Catalyst Chicago looks at retention and high-stakes tests. Critics of mayoral takeovers claim that mayors tend to support quick fixes. However, in cities such as Boston and Cleveland, the superintendents took the slow but steady approach.

Some observers look to the day when the mayors who are in charge of schools improve city-school coordination. “A mayor is in a much better position to coordinate services,” notes Michael Usdan of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Educational Leadership. “If kids are going to achieve, you’re going to have to buttress the social and health services as well.”

Critics of mayoral takeovers claim that mayors tend to support quick fixes such as high-stakes testing. However, in at least two takeover cities, Boston and Cleveland, the superintendents took the slow but steady approach, focusing from the outset on instructional improvement. In both cities, voters agreed to keep mayoral control following a trial run of several years. Boston often is mentioned as the leader of the urban pack on school improvement.

Critics also point to reduced opportunities for community participation. While Chicago has a vibrant school reform community with good access to school district leaders, the general public is left out. The school board does not have committees, rarely conducts public hearings and engages in scant public discussion. Monthly board meetings allow for only two-minute commentaries from members of the public.

Currently, 10 of the 63 school districts in the Council of the Great City Schools have school boards that are appointed at least in part by the mayor. They are Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, District of Columbia, New York City, Norfolk, Oakland and Philadelphia.

Usdan emphasizes that mayoral control should not be seen as a quick fix. “There are no panaceas—the culture of each of these cities is different,” he says. “The macro issue is that people are realizing that governance structures have to change.”

There are no miracle workers either. While mayors can bring progress, overarching issues such as adequate and equitable school funding and the quality of the teaching corps are more than they and their superintendents alone can handle.

Linda Lenz is the former chief education writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, and the founder and publisher of Catalyst Chicago, a newsmagazine published by the nonprofit Community Renewal Society. Catalyst Chicago covers the problems, progress and politics of school reform in Chicago and can be found online at www.catalyst- The comments in this article by Michael Usdan were taken from a May 2001 article by Catalyst associate editor Piet van Lier for Catalyst Cleveland.

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