Facing a critical juncture

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Fix another budget mess. Do something—anything?—to improve the worst schools. Curb school violence. Keep labor peace.

Almost enough to make you ask, who needs this headache?

Making inroads on these vexing problems could easily consume every waking hour of the city’s next mayor and schools chief. (As Catalyst Chicago went to press, leadership of the district was up in the air and outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley had yet to choose an interim replacement to succeed Ron Huberman, who decided to step down before his boss and was set to leave Nov. 29.)

On some fronts, the school system has made progress under Daley’s tenure. But the district is still mired in red ink and is at odds with the Chicago Teachers Union and some of the city’s vocal grassroots activists, who are flexing their muscles and want a broad-based group of educators and city leaders to form a committee that would conduct a national search for the next school leader. There’s the added wrinkle of declining enrollment, which means fewer state dollars and, to a certain degree, makes it harder to build public support for schools.

Most importantly, the district still has too many children stuck in bottom-of-the-barrel schools in neighborhoods hit hard by unemployment, foreclosures, lack of health care and other social ills that affect children’s ability to learn. While the district likes to tout rising scores on state tests, the ISAT has been watered down and, as standardized tests go, is not the best measure of achievement. In comparison, Chicago’s performance on national tests remains below average, even compared to other big cities.    

Given the tasks ahead, one thing is certain: Whoever the next mayor selects to run the schools must, above all, have an unwavering dedication to improving education. That’s the strongest argument for choosing an educator, although it doesn’t preclude a businessperson or expert manager from being selected. Plenty of people outside the world of education are deeply committed to making schools better and knowledgeable about how to do so, even if they have never been on the front lines in a school. But without that dedication, a tough job morphs into something worse: a tough, onerous job being done by someone whose heart isn’t in it. Not necessarily a recipe for disaster, but not the road to excellence either.

All this assumes that the next mayor will want to maintain control over the schools. Mayor Daley’s takeover of Chicago Public Schools in 1995 was at the front end of a trend that continues to this day, despite little evidence in its favor. There’s always the possibility that whoever wins the election will decide to cede at least some measure of control, either in a fit of democracy or to spare a few headaches.

At this critical turning point, Catalyst decided to depart from our usual format for Catalyst In Depth. Instead of presenting deep reporting on a single topic, we have four extended analyses that attempt to answer two key questions: Where do schools stand, and what needs to happen to make them better?

Obviously, the next leaders will have to make hard decisions about the worst-performing schools. Declining enrollment makes the schools a bad financial bargain, but closing them is a political quagmire. As Deputy Editor Sarah Karp points out, there are no easy answers to this puzzle.

Next year’s fiscal mess will be harder to untie than a Gordian knot, with federal stimulus money running out and no end in sight to the state’s budget problems. Yet the teachers’ contract calls for another 4 percent raise, and new union leader Karen Lewis has swept in with tough talk and ambitious plans to forge a coalition with parents and community activists. Publisher Linda Lenz, who’s seen a long line of union and school leaders come and go, writes that the next mayor and CEO will have their hands full dealing with the most aggressive leadership the union has ever had.

Finally, the problems inside a school can’t be separated from those outside the walls. Rounding up truants (the district’s truancy rate is now a shocking 10 percent), providing support for homeless students, curbing mobility brought about by foreclosures, stopping school violence—all of this will take collaboration between schools, city agencies, community organizations and other institutions. As Sarah Karp and I note, accomplishing these tasks is essential. What kind of educational results do we expect if 42,000 students miss a month of school or more? If parents are jobless and the family just lost its home? If children’s lives are so unstable that they can’t get to school on time and don’t have clean clothes to wear?

It’s important that schools accept responsibility for educating children. But it’s also important to share the burden. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum.