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Mike Klonsky

Mike Klonsky

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Chicago Schools CEO Choice Shows Problem With Mayoral Control

Posted: 04/21/11 02:33 PM ET

"I wanted an entire new board, an entire new corporate suite because what's happening today both on the finances and the educational scores -- needs to be shaken up. And what I know in my heart [is that] the people of the city do not think we're doing what we need to do for our children." -- Rahm Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel isn't even officially mayor yet and he's already got the city and its schools in a fine mess. His appointment of the embattled J.C. Brizard as schools CEO (that's what we call school superintendents here in Chicago) rivals only Bloomberg's pick of Cathie Black in N.Y. as most embarrassing of the year. Black lasted a mere three months before high-tailing it back to the sanctuary of the corporate world, where failure is more often than not rewarded with super bonuses and not just a kick in the ass and a golden parachute a la urban school bosses.

Bloomberg's choice of the eminently unqualified Black reset the I-don't-give-a-damn-what-anybody-else-thinks standard previously set by former D.C. mayor, Adrian Fenty, whose pick of the also unqualified Michelle Rhee earned him the total disdain of D.C. voters who ultimately booted both Fenty and Rhee out of town.

It's not that Brizard isn't qualified for the CEO job. After all, he is a career educator who cut his administrative teeth (unfortunately) under the tutelage of former N.Y. chancellor Joel Klein and honed them at the Broad Foundation's academy for superintendents. There he learned the arts of union busting, charterization, privatization of public schools, and fudging data to make the boss look good. Brizard was a top student and wears all these stripes proudly on his sleeve. The one he's most proud of, and the one that won him favor with Emanuel and Chicago's corporate reformers was February's vote of "no confidence" by nearly 95 percent of Rochester's teachers. How much more qualified can a Broad graduate be?

But before Brizard could even book his first-class ticket to Chi-town, the bloom began to fade from the rose. Anyone paying attention should have seen this coming.

Back in 2008, Gary Stager, a senior editor at District Administration Magazine, described Brizard as "reality-impaired and driven by ideology." His condemnation by Rochester teachers should have been a clue, even to the most clueless. His inability to find any common ground with Adam Urbanski, probably the most reform-minded union leader in the country, is not only a tip-off to Brizard's style of work, it also tips the new mayor's hand, showing that with union negotiations on the horizon, he too has little interest in bargaining in good faith.

Emanuel praised Brizard as a "collaborator and a cooperator" who met with teachers, principals and parents before making key decisions (ironic, since Emanuel never met with teachers, principals, parents, or even with his own board before naming his new CEO).

"Oh give me a break,'' said Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. "He received a resolution of no-confidence from the Community Education Task Force and a 94.6 percent vote of no confidence from Rochester Teachers. That speaks for itself.''


Brizard's three-year tenure has been difficult, Urbanski has said, because "Brizard's definition of shared decision-making was to make a decision and then share it with others.''

By picking Brizard without any consultation or input from the school community, Mayor-elect Emanuel has somehow managed to mire himself, his new school board, and the city in a major scandal. Brizard's violation of his three-year contract in Rochester, which began January 1, reveals not only a lack of commitment or integrity, but also has that district's board president threatening litigation.

It's only taken the Chicago media (with some help from local bloggers, including myself and PURE's Julie Woestehoff and Rochester journalists like Rachel Barnhart) about a week to expose Brizard's phony test-score and graduation-rate claims. A Rochester "miracle"? The honeymoon is therefore declared over before it's even begun.

Here's the Rahm-friendly Sun-Times buyer's-remorse editorial:

"In introducing Jean-Claude Brizard this week as his Chicago schools chief, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel touted Brizard's record of dramatically increasing graduation rates in Rochester, N.Y. Too bad it's not true."

Tribune columnist Eric Zorn writing the same day the corporate-loving Trib declared Brizard to be "our kind of guy to lead Chicago schools," had this to say:

"Can Rochester, N.Y., superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard (left) pad a payroll? Skirt the rules? Spend frivolously? Distort statistics to make himself look good? Infuriate his constituents with a high-handed style? Check, check, check, check and check."

As I have maintained from the beginning, this is more about Rahm Emanuel and the very idea of mayoral control of the schools, than it is about J.C. Brizard. While Brizard showed himself to be an opportunist bureaucrat, ready and willing to violate his contract and trust with the city of Rochester, and come to Chicago to serve as Rahm's hatchet-man, it's Emanuel and his autocratic control of the schools that's the real problem here. When big-city mayors are given complete control of the schools and can hand-pick their school boards and name their school chiefs, they will inevitably do so based primarily on political fidelity to themselves and to their corporate patrons. Turning the school system into a wing of City Hall almost always leads to bad decisions where the interests of schools, children and their teachers are concerned.

Rahm rushed into this mess because of his imperial style of work, learned first in his days as a local machine politician and then honed as Obama's bullying chief of staff. Like any good politician, he ran his campaign with the promise of radical change. The cornerstone of his change agenda? "Hammer the teachers." (His phrase, not mine.)

But one larger question remains unanswered: Why is Rahm talking radical change for the city's school reform agenda, sweeping out the entire reform board, and even buying a "new corporate suite" when we've always been told of the great progress the schools were making under the previous corporate reform plan, Renaissance 2010? You all remember Ren10, right?

Gary Stager sums it all up in a fine post on his Stager-to-Go blog: "In education, nothing succeeds quite like failure."

 
 
 

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