Q&A with Richard M. Daley

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Mayor Richard M. Daley

Photo by Jason Reblando

Mayor Richard M. Daley

In 1995, Richard M. Daley was the first big-city mayor to take control of a public

school system. Since then, mayors in New York, Cleveland and Detroit have followed

suit, and the new mayor of Los Angeles is seeking control of his city’s schools.

Daley talked with editors Lorraine Forte and Veronica Anderson about the past

decade and his vision for the future.

What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment?

Getting the people, the citizens of Chicago to support the public school system.

They stayed the course in terms of added revenue, in terms of improvements.

It wasn’t going to be a miracle overnight. I think people really understand

how important education is to this city. That is a great success story.

Do you think the average citizen thinks the Chicago schools are now substantially

better?

Well, they’re paying the taxes. I would say they do, because if not, there

would be a full revolt. That doesn’t mean they’re pleased with schools.

With the exception of the wealthy ones, no one’s really pleased with any

public school system.

What do you think is the biggest challenge still ahead?

To impress [on] families and students that education is the highest priority.

Otherwise there is no way out of poverty, no way out of social problems and

injustice. The only way is through education. That requires a whole restructuring

in America of what education means.

Look at the number of hours and days we spend in elementary and high school

compared to India and China. No comparison.

You have been quoted saying there should be a longer school day—

Definitely, yes.

And a longer school year. Is that something you’re going to keep pushing?

Definitely, yes. In India and China they spend 220 days per year in school.

We spend 180 days or less. I believe in a year-round school year. If we don’t

change the whole education establishment then America is going to be on the

back burner as this century keeps moving ahead.

You mentioned India and China. Have you looked to them for inspiration?

First off, India has a caste system, which I don’t believe in. That’s

a great injustice. But look at what they’re doing in math and science [in

terms of jobs]. In China, 10- 13 million children a year are learning English,

and the adults are learning English. In America, we don’t realize how important

language is, and that we better change our way of thinking what education should

be.

Education gives you a lot of opportunities. But I don’t believe in the

idea that every child has to go to college [and] if you don’t, in some

way you’re looked [on] as a failure.

And, here for example, Illinois still doesn’t have a [universal] full-day

kindergarten. Well, why not? Why, if we’re so progressive, don’t we

have a full-day kindergarten?

Well, part of it is money.

How does Texas do it? How does all these other states that the progressives

watch, how do they do it? I guess they realized that it is important to them.

Everything is money, you’re right, but again you have priorities. If the

public doesn’t believe in early childhood education, they’re not going

to get it.

So you think if the public stood up and said “We want you to reform

the funding system, or give more money to education,” it would happen?

That’s right. For instance, if 12 percent of the kids are reading in your

school and you’re silent, I think it’s an accepted standard. You’re

not concerned about it. The community is not concerned. But I don’t know

if that’s a standard at all. I think that’s a complete failure.

We’re talking about the public making known what it wants and money

will come. But money is an ongoing thing. You’ve got new initiatives such

as Renaissance 2010 and the high school transformation plan, but budget cuts

are in the headlines again. How do you maintain and improve the quality of schools

and public education when this is going to always be a tension point?

Well, eventually you have to overcome the tension point. We’re 49th out

of 50 [in the amount] the state contributes to education. If they don’t

handle it this year, [they say] it’s going to be next year. So it’s

always next year. I have said until that [idea] is overcome, those [budget]

crunches are going to be there, throughout the whole state, all the way from

southern Illinois to Waukegan. That has a huge effect upon the economic vitality

and the future of the state.

For the first time, the U.S. Mayor’s Conference got together to write position

papers. They’ve never looked at education as one of their concerns.

Now when people move to a metropolitan area, the first thing they’ll do

is find out where the best schools are. That’s how people move into metropolitan

areas in this country–regardless of who you are, you’ll look for a good

school district.

From my view, we should have better education statewide, not just in Chicago.

There are many school districts out there that have major, major issues but

don’t get the publicity, the headlines or the [news] coverage every day.

The business community has been supportive of your efforts to make sure

schools are doing better, but there’s always going to be a need for money.

And there are new things that you want to do, such as longer school days. How

do you persuade them to make an ongoing financial commitment?

They are not supposed to make an ongoing financial commitment to supplement

what government is supposed to do. They pay taxes. In our city, we built in

accountability and showed where there’s waste, inefficiency and lack of

performance. They [businesses] like that. They made a [financial] commitment

and they don’t have to. They have no moral or legal obligation to do this.

They’ve stepped up to the plate with the new schools initiatives. But

even there, there’s going to be an ongoing need for some support.

They’re supposed to give so many years and then allow the schools to move

forward. They’re not supposed to stay there for the next 50 years.

So they’re a jump start?

They’re the jump start, maybe two or three years or more. That’s what

the concept is.

So you’re saying by then the state needs to step up.

Eventually that’s what it has to do. If the state keeps saying “We

have no responsibility,” then Illinois is going to have a real crisis in

the schools. Not just in Chicago, but across the state. More and more school

districts each year have financial problems, because the public has turned them

down on bond issues.

Let me go back to something you mentioned. What kind of post-secondary

opportunities would you like to see kids have?

First, every child should be able to read and function at the high school level

so that he or she can take [advantage of] many opportunities before them. They

should be able to fill out a job application, be able to look at a front- or

back-office job in the city or the metropolitan area. I don’t know if they

can do that today. The business community has said that constantly. It’s

very challenging.

What advice would you give to other mayors?

Every mayor should take some responsibility. If they don’t, their community

is going to suffer. Their business community will suffer; their children will

suffer. You have to get your community to support education. This is the answer

to all the social issues that we talk about. Hurricane Katrina brought that

out, the problems of those who were left behind and the failure of the public

education system. If we allow this to happen in this century, it’s a failure

for our society.

It’s happening in the suburban areas just as much as the city now. And

if those mayors don’t stand up and start asking questions, getting more

people involved and the business community involved, there will be a crisis

stage in the future.