Business model has limits for schools

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

Arne Duncan is making his move. In two years at the helm of Chicago Public Schools, he has recruited some of the city’s most talented educators and researchers to fashion a solid education plan, and has cultivated dynamic relationships with community leaders and school reformers who help keep the district grounded. He’s managed to right a wobbly relationship with leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union, setting it on firm ground by supporting a measure recently signed into law for teachers to regain some bargaining rights. He’s even forged a deal with them to hold off closing some schools for a year.

Simply put, Duncan has made it clear that he can maneuver smartly in the cast of thousands that is Chicago school reform. But maneuvering is not the same as getting things done, and Duncan’s starting lineup was weak on the administrative and political expertise necessary to take action, follow through and see that others do so as well.

A recent exodus of top managers whom Duncan had inherited from his predecessor, Paul Vallas, created an opportunity to do something about that. To his credit, and likely at the urging of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Duncan filled the void with newcomers whose background and business expertise can address these needs.

Topping the list is David Vitale, a banker with a reputation for cost-cutting and a knack for restructuring management. Initially he came on board as Duncan’s senior advisor, but he’s since been elevated to a new post, chief administrative officer, and charged with overseeing finance, operations and an array of non-education-related departments. He immediately put his money where his mouth was, insisting on a salary of just one dollar a year and, thereby, sparing Duncan the media drubbing that often comes with paying people what they are worth.

Other new faces at central office are Jill Wine-Banks, a former Watergate prosecutor; Greg Darneider, the longtime community organizer who directs the Steans Family Foundation; and Lucinda Katz, the former director of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Mayor Daley rightly offers that it makes little sense for educators to oversee school facilities, busing and other such operations, matters that are best left to business types. And Duncan is a believer. “We’re in the business of education,” he tells writer Grant Pick for this month’s cover story. “We have to make sure that every tax dollar makes it to the kids so they can learn.”

Indeed, the business world does offer lessons and models beyond standards and accountability that would well serve the district. Creating more opportunity for educators to be leaders, for instance, and providing them with sufficient training and support to make sound decisions about their schools and carry them out.

But the notion that you can transform public schools by running them like a commercial enterprise can go only so far. Principles that yield efficiency and productivity in business may fall short in the effort to create safer, better-run schools and smarter students. Take busing, for example. Cutting busing costs has become a mantra among Chicago school leaders.

However, buses allow students and parents not only to choose schools but also to stay in the same school even as they move around. And that spares everyone the deep educational costs of student mobility.

Duncan, the mayor and Vitale would do well to measure every business-inspired move with consideration for issues of social justice and public welfare. If they are not careful in this regard, Chicago could lose its footing on the path toward excellence and equity in its public schools.

TUNE IN CEO Arne Duncan will discuss his reshaping of central office and upcoming plans for CPS on the next Catalyst edition of “City Voices.” The program will be broadcast at 6:30 a.m., Sunday June 8 on WNUA-FM, 95.5.