Surprise move

What Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to not seek re-election means for schools

PHOTO: Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to drop his reelection bid has serious implications for several big public education initiatives in Chicago and for district leadership, from the membership of the appointed school board to the district’s handpicked CEO, Janice Jackson.

Emanuel announced he’s not seeking a third term Tuesday morning at City Hall. The news came just hours after he rang an opening-day bell at Bronzeville Classical, a new selective-enrollment school that opened on the former site of Hartigan Elementary.

Emanuel’s legacy is closely tied to schools, as his remarks Tuesday indicated. Ticking off his accomplishments, he said, “What matters most in public life is four more years for our children, not four more years for me.”  

Since taking office in 2011, Emanuel’s public record on education has hit both highs and lows. He steered the system out of a $700 million budget deficit that fall, to a near-balanced budget this school year, all while extending the school day citywide, instituting full-day kindergarten, forging a better relationship between the public school district and City Colleges, and pushing for a universal pre-K plan — a $175 million, four-year undertaking that is in the initial rollout phase this fall.

Though universal pre-K has enjoyed bipartisan support in cities and states, his successor could presumably scuttle the early-stage effort, which builds upon funds from the federal government, the state, the city, and Chicago schools.

“It’s a significant expenditure, so it will and should be a topic of conversation,” said Robin Steans, the chair of the Steans Family Foundation and the former director of the education policy advocacy group Advance Illinois. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat.)

But, Steans added, the public is starting to understand that investments in early education could pay substantial dividends. “There’s no way you can look at the [kindergarten-readiness] data for Chicago or any other part of the state and think that our investment in early childhood is where it needs to be.”

Alongside Jackson, a former principal who took the top job in January, Emanuel has basked regularly in recognition from a Stanford University researcher, Sean Reardon, who issued a report last fall identifying Chicago as the fastest improving urban district in the country. But the mayor’s school policies also faced serious backlash, chief among them his decision, in 2013, to close 50 schools and displace more than 12,000 students amid declining enrollment. The mass closing was traumatic for neighborhoods, students, and teachers, according to a report released in May by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, and had at best a neutral impact on student achievement in some areas, and a negative impact in others.  

And, after a revolving door of school district leaders with deep flaws — including Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is now in federal prison — it took Emanuel nearly his entire tenure to find a school chief who had the respect of rank-and-file educators.

In Jackson, a former principal who served as No. 2 under another flawed chief, Forrest Claypool, the mayor found someone who could navigate the murky politics of a school-choice district, spar with a prickly union, and size up troubling gaps in equity and pledge ways to tackle them.

Even last week, the mayor referenced the Stanford report when joining Jackson at Josephine Locke Elementary, in the Montclare neighborhood, to announce slight gains in math on a standardized test known as the NWEA. Explaining the test scores, Jackson called him the “genius” behind many initiatives.

The respect has been mutual. But as mayoral appointees, Jackson and the school board she reports to are vulnerable now that the election has shifted. The Chicago Teachers Union lost no time Tuesday saying it would likely choose a candidate to back based on who’s willing to call for an elected school board.

It’s time to “let the people of the city of Chicago decide about school leadership,” said Jesse Sharkey, who will be confirmed as president of the union Wednesday.

He sidestepped the question of whether the union would support Jackson once Emanuel’s predecessor was in place. “Janice Jackson is an educator so in that regard there are things happening in schools that are just plain old common sense.” But, Sharkey added, “the bar has been set so low,” and an elected school board would be the first step to raising it.

Emanuel’s decision to drop out of the race for the February election does not mean there will necessarily be a change in CEO, said Steve Tozer, a recently retired professor who mentored Jackson at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Education. He is the leader of several Illinois education policy initiatives. 

“Any mayor will want the school system to succeed,” said Tozer, “and Janice [Jackson] is the best bet right now.”

“Count me among those who are nervous,” said Steans, about the potential for change at the top. “While there’s always room to improve and review is healthy, in a world where CPS has been making steady and significant gains over a sustained period of time, I worry about the disruption that comes with big changes.”

Peter Cunningham, who worked for former Chicago schools chief and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both in Chicago and Washington, D.C., said that the local civic and philanthropic community generally supports Jackson, which makes replacing her a risky move for any new mayor. “We’ve never had a fully homegrown product of CPS — someone who is a parent, teacher, administrator, a former principal  — runnings schools in the modern era.”

The district has enjoyed more financial stability this year, with principals receiving budgets in the spring and fewer layoffs. That stability comes despite several seismic policy changes in the wake of scandals involving special education and student sexual assault at the hands of adults.

When students returned to school Tuesday, they were greeted at some schools with posters near the front doors that spell out the district’s new procedures for reporting sexual misconduct.

Instability at the top of the district contributed to its lapse in handling student sex cases, according to a preliminary report released in August by former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey. Regarding turnover of CEO and network chiefs, she wrote, “This turnover makes it difficult to instill and maintain productive policies and procedures, stable systems independent of any person, and cultures of compliance.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.