Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel on Monday announced a new management team and school board for the Chicago Public Schools — 16 picks in all. Though Emanuel’s selection of Jean-Claude Brizard as schools chief has garnered the bulk of public attention, it is the new team that ultimately will determine the success or failure of the next era of Chicago school reform.
Emanuel’s team provides real reasons for optimism. Experience, brainpower and diversity won’t reform CPS alone — but it won’t hurt. Resume for resume, it’s hard to imagine another big city school leadership team going head-to-head with Emanuel’s team. It includes successful former teachers, principals and district leaders, Chicago public school parents, the former president of Northwestern University, the chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, top executives of Fortune 500 companies and nationally respected education philanthropists. The team comes from the public and private sector, from traditional and charter schools, and from inside and outside of Chicago.
Most important, the team takes the helm at a seminal moment in education reform, in Illinois and nationwide. To be sure, Chicago has had seminal moments before: the 1988 reform act that placed schools in the hands of locally elected boards; the 1995 legislation that established mayoral control of the school system. Both led to mostly incremental improvements, a testament to the challenge of moving the needle in a serious way in a system of 640 schools. But Emanuel’s education team has substantially more wind at its back.
This month, the Illinois State Senate unanimously passed a landmark reform bill that would fundamentally change how schools across the state operate. If approved by the House, it could lengthen the woefully short Chicago school day and school year; ensure that teacher tenure and dismissal decisions are based primarily on teacher effectiveness rather than length of service; and make it more difficult for teachers to strike. Critically, these changes come with support from organized labor.
The Illinois bill is also supported by the federal reform agenda advanced by the U.S. Secretary of Education and former CPS chief, Arne Duncan. If Duncan gets his way, the feds will award competitive grants to districts (as they did to states under Race to the Top) that enact precisely the kinds of reforms envisioned by the Illinois bill. This could be very good news for cash-strapped Chicago — saving teachers jobs, incenting further reforms, and helping make Chicago the national locus for education innovation.
A mayor-elect with the will to snap the status quo; a state law that would provide key new levers to improve schools; a nationwide, bipartisan demand for reform, and federal incentives to propel it should give Emanuel’s new team the momentum it needs to address the pressing challenges facing our schools — from a gaping budget hole to the urgent need to improve teaching, learning and leadership. If they fail, it will mean that experience, talent, and tenacity weren’t enough to overcome the system’s ills. If they succeed, this era of reform will be the one that matters most.
Timothy Knowles is the John Dewey Director of The University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.