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Glitter Falling off Mayoral Control of Schools in Chicago

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Fifteen years ago, Chicago was the first to do it -- turn control of its public schools over to an all-powerful mayor. Now the second city has become the nation's model for mayoral control, a model favored by the business community and the city's power philanthropists as their way of ensuring accountability over this $5 billion/a year enterprise called public schooling.

With mayoral control has come the business model, complete with the appointment of a CEO (what used to be called a superintendent) and a small, politically faithful and compliant school board, dominated by bankers and the city's real estate interests. It is also favored by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who rose to power as a prototype non-educator/manager and top-down political overseer for the mayor.

Upon his appointment as President Obama's schools chief, Duncan made mayoral control of the nation's largest urban school systems one of his top priorities. Speaking at a forum with mayors and superintendents, Duncan promised to help more mayors take over, declaring that mayoral control would provide the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools.

"At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control, I think I will have failed," Duncan said.

He offered to do whatever he could to make the case.

"I'll come to your cities. I'll meet with your editorial boards. I'll talk with your business communities. I will be there."

And be there he has, recently jumping directly into the mayor's race in D.C. to support incumbent Adrian Fenty and his embattled school chief, Michelle Rhee, in his race against eventual winner, Vincent Gray. Duncan couldn't deliver a victory for Fenty, even while resorting to threats of pulling millions of federal grant dollars from D.C. schools should Gray win. This left many wondering if Duncan only favored mayoral control if he could control the mayor.

But now, with Chicago's schools in a state of leaderless limbo, the problems of having a single autocrat running big-city school systems have become obvious to all. After a decade and a half of Daley's top-down reform efforts, seven of those years with Duncan as the CEO, neighborhood schools remain pretty much as they were. Scores have flattened out. The so-called "achievement gap" continues to widen. Violence has reached pandemic proportions and the school system is on the brink of insolvency. Daley's pet reform project, Renaissance 2010, has been discarded and the phrase banned from usage within the bureaucracy.

Daley's appointed school board has been riddled with scandals, including probes of patronage and civil rights violations. Daley's former board president Michael Scott committed suicide when faced with an investigation of his misuse of school board funds.

The mayor's announced retirement has been followed by the departure of Duncan's successor, Ron Huberman. As the crisis deepens, both he and the mayor, it seems, suddenly want to spend more time with their families. So much for stability and strong leadership.

The city has also been without a chief education officer since the June departure of Barbara Eason-Watkins. Experienced educators, especially black and Latino educators, are now a rare sight around around 125 Clark Street. Daley has used CPS as an extension of patronage-laden City Hall, moving several political hires off the City Hall payroll and over to Clark Street. Huberman, who previously managed the Chicago Transit Authority, has done the same, filling CPS offices with former CTA bureaucrats.

With mayoral elections taking place in February, the new mayor's term won't begin until May, 2011. It appears that Daley will appoint local foundation head Terry Mazany as interim CEO, just to try and hold things together until the new new mayor comes in and selects his or her own CEO. A lame-duck Mazany without a strong mayor at his back, may be way over his head as he tries to balance an out-of-whack school budget and go head-to-head with the new dynamic leadership at the Chicago Teachers Union on issues such as teacher firings, neighborhood school closings and more privately-run charter schools.

The next mayor isn't likely to have the same unchallenged authority as Daley enjoyed, and there is already a cry coming from the union, parent groups and many school reformers, for a real educator to be appointed as CPS leader.

All this portends gridlock within the nation's third largest school system for at least the next six months. It's sure to take some of the glitter off of the idea of mayoral control in other cities where it's now being considered -- Newark, L.A. and Sacramento to name but a few. Mayors, superintendents and school boards around the country are watching. The current predicament does not bode well for Duncan's stated goal of widespread mayoral control of urban school systems nor for his Race To The Top initiative which depends of urban mayors for faithful implementation.