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.”