Is Mayor Lori Lightfoot Trying to Return Chicago to the Arne Duncan Era?

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has appointed a new CEO for the Chicago Public Schools, and everybody agrees he faces myriad challenges. He is Pedro Martinez, currently the school superintendent of the San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District, someone who grew up among 11 siblings in Chicago and was himself educated in the Chicago Public Schools.

Martinez is also the board chairman of Chiefs for Change, the corporate-reformer education leadership organization spun off from Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd (Foundation for Excellence in Education).

For WBEZ, Chicago’s best education reporter, Sarah Karp introduces Pedro Martinez: “Turning to a non-educator with deep Chicago ties, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot named former Chicago schools official and a current San Antonio schools superintendent Pedro Martinez as the next CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Martinez, who was born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, will be the first permanent Latino leader in the school district’s history… Martinez worked as CPS’ chief financial officer under former CEO Arne Duncan… Martinez is an accountant who has been called ‘analytics heavy.’  And in San Antonio, he has expanded charter schools as well as partnered with private organizations to take over failing schools. These ideas have been popular in Chicago, but they have fallen out of favor in recent years… Martinez has never taught or run a school as principal. And, thus, in choosing him, Lightfoot is rejecting the input of parents and others who said they wanted someone with a strong instructional background with ‘boots on the ground’ experience… Martinez is a graduate of the Broad Superintendent Academy training program. Critics say the Broad Academy promotes school leaders who use corporate-management techniques and that they work to limit teachers’ job protections and the involvement of parents in decision-making.”

The past year has been tense for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and for Chicago’s teachers. There has been ongoing disagreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lightfoot about what constitutes, during the COVID-19 pandemic, safe reopening in a school district filled with old buildings, but current tensions are overlaid upon a long history of conflict between the mayor and the teachers union under the mayoral governance and mayoral appointed school boards the Illinois legislature established back in 1995. Last April (2021), it was reported that, “Defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill… restoring the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain with the city over a wide range of issues, including class size, layoffs and the duration of the school year… The measure repeals Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which has restricted the CTU’s bargaining power since 1995, when state lawmakers gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the school district after several long strikes.”

Then in July, Governor Pritzker signed a bill that that will phase in a fully elected Chicago school board by 2027: “Until now, Chicago Public Schools was the lone district in Illinois with a school board appointed by the mayor.  But under the new legislation, the Chicago Board of Education will transition to a hybrid board of elected and appointed members before fully transforming into an elected body by 2027.”

My clipping file tracks problems with mayoral governance and  corporate, test-based school accountability in Chicago way back into the mid-1990s, with the disempowerment of Chicago’s groundbreaking local school councils, which sought to engage parents, teachers, and the community into the life of the neighborhood schools. In 1995, the Illinois legislature established mayoral governance of Chicago’s schools, gave the mayor the power to appoint the school board, and denied the Chicago Teachers Union the bargaining rights guaranteed to other teachers union locals.  Then came Renaissance 2010, the massive experiment under school CEO Paul Vallas, that sought—under Arne Duncan’s leadership—to open a mass of new charter schools to replace neighborhood public schools deemed “failing.”  Later Arne Duncan replaced Vallas as CEO.

Chicago has been the centerpiece of an experiment with an education governance plan called “portfolio school reform” in which the administration manages traditional and charter schools as though the district is a business portfolio—investing in the best schools and shuttering the so called “failures.”  And the problems were exacerbated under Mayor Rahm Emanuel with “student-based budgeting.” When students left for a charter school, the public school which lost enrollment lost funding, class sizes exploded, nurses were laid off, libraries were shuttered and substitute teachers were even hard to find as the school declined.  A downward spiral began to accelerate, and at the end of 2013, the school district’s mayoral appointed board closed nearly 50 public schools, with African American children making up 88 percent of the students affected.

In a press release last week, the Chicago Teachers Union expressed understandable concerns about Martinez’s ties to these corporate, test-based accountability initiatives which have, over time, disrupted neighborhoods and failed to turn around the huge school district as promised: “Mr. Martinez returns to a different Chicago than the city he left in 2009, as we move toward an elected school board and embrace the return of full bargaining rights for teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, clinicians, case managers, and librarians. Families, students, and community organizations are empowered leaders now, and have rejected the charter proliferation, the mass firing of Black female teachers, weakened worker protections, and top-down decision-making that were hallmarks of his time under former CPS CEO Arne Duncan.  Many of the failed strategies that our new CEO is accustomed to no longer exist in Chicago, as the experiments of education reform and privatization have proven to be a failure. Equity, justice and democracy, and student, parent, and educator voice are now at the forefront. Despite having no classroom or in-school experience, Mr. Martinez will have to be an independent thinker, a far better partner and collaborator than Mayor Lightfoot, and work with stakeholders to keep them safe, earn their trust, and meet high expectations.”

Karp reports: “In San Antonio, Martinez has partnered with charter schools and other private organizations to get them to take over challenged public schools.”

But in its press release, Chiefs for Change brags that Martinez has a strong record of improving public education for students in San Antonio: “During Martinez’s tenure, the number of… students attending low-performing schools has decreased by roughly 80 percent. Graduation rates have continued to rise, while dropout rates have continued to fall… In addition, San Antonio Independent School District has increased the number of students in dual-enrollment programs, allowing them to get college credit while still in high school… San Antonio Independent School District has also received national attention for its dual-language program, which existed in just two schools when Martinez arrived… and has since expanded to 61 campuses, more than half of all San Antonio Independent School District schools.”

What is clear is that Martinez faces enormous challenges posed by years of state policy and mayoral appointed school administrators who have alienated the district’s teachers and imposed unpopular experiments with school privatization and school closure which have undermined neighborhoods.

Because much has changed in Chicago since the time when Martinez worked for Arne Duncan as the school district’s chief financial officer, we must hope Martinez will take to heart the words of University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing in her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, which examines the widespread 2013 neighborhood public school closures in Chicago:  “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision: What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

Illinois Legislature Begins to Repair the Damage of Chicago School Reform

The detour into what we call corporate, test-based public school accountability began in Chicago. It involved an explicit effort to disempower unionized schoolteachers. And underneath it all was a corporate strategy that made assumptions about the wishes and needs of the city’s parents without consulting them.

According to Steven Ashby and Robert Bruno: “In November 1994, the Republicans gained a majority in the Illinois General Assembly… As 1995 opened, the new legislative session created a frenzy of anti-Chicago teacher ideas… After Mayor (Richard M.) Daley’s reelection to a third term in April, Republican leaders urged him to present a plan for school reform… Daley and the Republicans promptly negotiated a broader takeover of the Chicago school system. The plan gave the mayor a large measure of control over the system, which he had long sought… The new law did away with the School Board Nominating Commission, permitting Daley to handpick his own five-person school board. The position of superintendent was also eliminated, and Daley now had the sole power to appoint a school ‘chief executive officer.’ Further weakening the influence of the Chicago Teachers Union and its role in reform, at the mayor’s insistence the law also amended the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act… by banning teachers strikes for eighteen months, prohibiting bargaining over class size, layoffs, staffing and teacher assignments, eliminating seniority as a factor in filling teacher vacancies and limiting teacher rights to file grievances.” (The Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike, Cornell University. Press, 2016, pp. 28-29)

I have been tracking school reform since the mid 1990s, and my clipping file on the Chicago Public Schools is larger than any other. First the new plan disempowered Chicago’s groundbreaking local school councils, which sought to engage parents, teachers and the community in the life of the neighborhood schools.  Then came Renaissance 2010, the massive experiment in the expansion of charter schools and simultaneous closure of the neighborhood schools identified by standardized test scores as “failing.”

Rick Perlstein describes the launch of Renaissance 2010 by the city’s corporate establishment: “Travel back with me, then, to July of 2003, when the Education Committee of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago—comprised of the chairman of the board of McDonald’s, the CEOs of Exelon Energy and the Chicago Board Options Exchange, two top executives of the same Fortune 500 manufacturing firm, two partners at top-international corporate law firms, one founder of an investment bank, one of a mutual fund, and the CEO of a $220.1 billion asset-management fund: twelve men, all but one of them white—published ‘Left Behind: Student Achievement in Chicago’s Public Schools.’ (which declared:) ‘Chicago should have at least 100 charter schools… These would be new schools operating outside the established school system and free of many of the bureaucratic or union-imposed constraints that now limit the flexibility of regular public schools.’ Lo, like pedagogical kudzu, the charters came forth: forty-six of them, with names like ‘Infinity Math, Science, and Technology High School,’ ‘Rickover Naval Academy High School,’ ‘Aspira Charter School,’ and ‘DuSable Leadership Academy of Betty Shabazz International Charter School.'”

Since 1995, Chicago’s mayors and their appointed school boards have experimented in ways that damaged the city’s neighborhood schools, many of them shut down under a “portfolio school reform” plan that operated according to a theory similar to a business portfolio—eliminate the “failing” investments and buy more new, shiny charter schools. The mayor’s appointed board of education launched something called student-based budgeting at the same time the new charters were being launched and marketed with glowing promises. When students left for a charter, the schools which lost enrollment lost funding, class sizes exploded, nurses were laid off, libraries were shuttered, and substitute teachers were even hard to find as the schools declined. A downward spiral began to accelerate, and at the end of 2013, the school district’s mayoral-appointed board closed nearly 50 schools, over 80 percent serving African American students.

The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research documented extremely negative effects not only for the students whose schools were shuttered but also for students at the so-called “receiving” schools and for the surrounding community across Chicago’s South and West Sides: “When the closures took place at the end of the 2012-13 school year, nearly 12,000 students were attending the 47 elementary schools that closed that year, close to 17,000 students were attending the 48 designated welcoming schools, and around 1,100 staff were employed in the closed schools.” “Our findings show that the reality of school closures was much more complex than policymakers anticipated…. Interviews with affected students and staff revealed major challenges with logistics, relationships and school culture… Closed school staff and students came into welcoming schools grieving and, in some cases, resentful that their schools closed while other schools stayed open. Welcoming school staff said they were not adequately supported to serve the new population and to address resulting divisions. Furthermore, leaders did not know what it took to be a successful welcoming school… Staff and students said that it took a long period of time to build new school cultures and feel like a cohesive community.”

But something has begun to change in this spring of 2021. Twenty-six years since an Illinois legislature launched Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 1995 school reform plan, another Illinois Legislature has begun to turn turn away from corporate school reform.

In April it was reported that, “Defying Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill… restoring the ability of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain with the city over a wide range of issues, including class size, layoffs and the duration of the school year… The measure repeals Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which has restricted the CTU’s bargaining power since 1995, when state lawmakers gave then-Mayor Richard M. Daley control of the school district after several long strikes.”

In May, Mayor Lightfoot’s appointed board of education terminated its long contract with the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) to turnaround the city’s so-called “failing” public schools. School “turnaround” was a central part of the ideology of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and Arne Duncan’s 2009 Race to the Top program. School districts were required under federal law to identify the bottom 5 percent of public schools according to their standardized test scores and to turn them around quickly. Chicago turned many of its so-called “failing” schools over to AUSL, a city-wide consultant.  Chalkbeat‘s Cassie Walker Burke explains this history: “Tapped in 2006 to steer improvements at some of the city’s lowest-performing schools, the Academy for Urban School Leadership’s roster currently includes 31 schools on the South and West Sides that predominantly serve students from low-income families. Of the network’s schools, 20 campuses—or 65%—were in good standing last school year and had one of Chicago’s higher school ratings… but the remaining 11 were flagged for remediation or probation under that system.” Walker Burke describes Bogdana Chkoumbova, Chicago’s chief schools officer, explaining why school district leaders have chosen to terminate AUSL management of the schools: “She said that in school-level meetings about the transition plan, parents and educators said they hoped to see district takeover improve school culture and climate and prioritize restorative justice practices. Participants also said they hoped phasing schools back to district oversight would yield better collaboration with other schools and school leaders.”

Then last Wednesday, June 16, the Illinois House voted to approve a bill already passed by the Illinois Senate to begin the process of restoring an elected school board to the Chicago Public Schools. The Sun-TimesRachel Hinton reports: “Chicago will soon have an elected school board thanks to a bill passed by members of the Illinois House Wednesday over objections from Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The House voted 70 to 41 to advance the bill, handing another loss to Lightfoot, who has been vocal in her opposition to the prospect of an elected board. The bill will soon head to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has voiced support for an elected board and is expected to sign the legislation… House Bill 2908, as amended, would create a 21-seat board in January 2025, initially split between 11 mayoral appointees—including the board president—and 10 elected members.  Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, said the bill isn’t perfect but ‘this is a down payment on democracy.’… In a statement, the Chicago Teachers Union said the vote ‘represents the will of the people, and after more than a quarter of a century, moves our district forward in providing democracy and a voice to students and their families'”

Obviously the restoration of the fully elected board of education will be a long process fraught with several years of complicated politics. But there has been real concern in Chicago about the suppression of the voices of parents and teachers and the locus of power in Chicago in the powerful corporate establishment bent on pursuing ideological school reform for over twenty-five years.

In a profound 2018 book exploring the widespread closure of neighborhood schools during the years of mayoral governance, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing explores the meaning of school closures across Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—the meaning for teachers, grandparents, and students. Ewing contrasts their love for storied community institutions with the technocratic arguments of school district officials: “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school. A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city. A school is a safe place to be. A school is a place where you find family. A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  What is the history that has brought us to this moment?  How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it? Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 159)

Rahm’s and Arne’s Legacies Continue to Damage Chicago Public Schools, Especially in Black Neighborhoods

Corporate school reform was launched in Chicago back in 2004 in the form of a glittery new promise named Renaissance 2010.  By 2010, the school district said, it would close so-called “failing” public schools and replace them with one hundred new schools. Many of the new schools would be charter schools. There was a corporate flavor to every detail beginning with the formal announcement of the new scheme—at the Commercial Club of Chicago.

In Chicago, however, corporate school reform did not end in 2010. It continues to this day.

In Ghosts in the Schoolyard, her profound (2018) history of Chicago school reform, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing contrasts the widespread community grief that has followed school closures—as parents, children, and teachers understood and loved their schools as community and even family institutions, while schools CEO, Barbara Byrd Bennett and her staff brought a technocratic corporate mentality.  Ewing quotes the Chicago Public Schools portfolio planner, Brittany Meadows, justifying (at a formal 2013 hearing) the reason for closing Mayo Elementary School: “(T)he enrollment efficiency range of the Mayo facility is between 552 and 828 students. As I stated, the enrollment of Mayo as of the 20th day of attendance for the 2012-2013 school year is 408. The number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 100)

Ewing dissects the technocratic logic of the school reform imposed on Chicago by Arne Duncan, who ran the district before he became U.S. Secretary of Education and later Rahm Emanuel and a succession of mayoral-appointed school district CEOs: “Meadows closes with the language of logic: ‘This number is below the enrollment efficiency range, and thus the school is underutilized.’ Meadows presents this data using an ‘if… then’ statement, explaining the calculation of the metrics without explaining the validity of the constructs involved. In this manner the school closure proposal appears natural and inevitable. Well, of course, since this number is below the enrollment efficiency range, this is what happens next… The logic implied in Meadows’s statement reflects a certain view of reality: the idea that the most important aspects of the educational enterprise can easily be captured in no-nonsense, non-debatable numeric facts. These numbers are taken to be unbiased and a truer representation of what happens in a school building than more qualitative measures… which are seen as overly subjective or unreliable.” (Emphasis is in the original.) (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 101)

Corporate school reform in Chicago, while claiming to be neutral and based on data, has always operated with racist implications. Ewing provides the numbers: “Of the students who would be affected by the closures, 88 percent were black; 90 percent of the schools were majority black, and 71 percent had mostly black teachers—a big deal in a country where 84 percent of public school teachers are white.”(Ghosts in the Schoolyard, p. 5)

Besides Chicago’s school closures, which culminated in 2013, when 50 neighborhood schools were shut down, corporate school reform in Chicago has featured something called “student based budgeting.”  A new report from Roosevelt University sociologist, Stephanie Farmer now documents that Student Based Budgeting Concentrates Low Budget Schools in Chicago’s Black Neighborhoods.

Farmer explains: “In 2014, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) adopted a system-wide Student Based Budgeting model for determining individual school budgets… Our findings show that CPS’ putatively color-blind Student Based Budgeting reproduces racial inequality by concentrating low-budget public schools almost exclusively in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods…  Since the 1990s, the Chicago Board of Education (CBOE) has adopted various reforms to make Chicago Public Schools work more like a business than a public good.  CBOE’s school choice reform of the early 2000s created a marketplace of schools by closing neighborhood public schools to make way for new types of schools, many of which were privatized charter schools.”

Farmer contrasts the way Chicago Public Schools allocated funding across its schools in the past with what happened after Student Based Budgeting was introduced in 2014: “CPS central office provided each school an automatic allocation of teachers, school professionals, and staff positions. The cost of these professionals was covered by the central office, and not individual school budgets. This guaranteed that every school would have a baseline of education professionals needed to operate the school.  Under the new Student Based Budgeting model, CBOE ended the automatic allocation. Instead, schools would receive a stipend based on per student headcounts. Central office would continue to cover the cost of the principal, one clerk and one counselor, but automatic funding for eight school positions was eliminated. Principals had to use individual school stipends to pay for teacher salaries, educational professionals, and staff positions.”

Farmer explains: “Critics of Student Based Budgeting are concerned that it treats every kid the same, regardless of income level… Critics are also concerned that Student Based Budgeting forces low enrolled schools to cut their programs, enriching classes, teachers and support staff… to compensate for the loss of monetary support.  The diminished learning environment pushes parents to seek out other school options.”

In other words, School Based Budgeting causes a downward spiral.

External, non-school related factors also affect Chicago’s school choice marketplace, and Student Based Budgeting exacerbates these other very complex dynamics. Farmer explains: “Our research shows that Student Based Budgeting ignores the unevenness of neighborhood distress, which contributes to declining enrollments. Declining school enrollments are not just a result of student-consumers choosing the best school-product… Many lower-income and predominantly Black neighborhoods are experiencing distress caused by: a low wage labor market and poverty; cuts to the public sector (i.e. public housing and school closures); displacement caused by gentrification and growing housing unaffordability; and crime coupled with racially motivated policing.  These factors form the context in which approximately 250,000 Black people have moved out of Chicago between 2000 and 2016, according to the U.S.Census.”

Farmer concludes: “Instead of giving schools the ‘freedom to flourish,’ Student Based Budgeting sets up schools for the ‘freedom to fail.’…Classrooms are overcrowded, where there are over 40 students in elementary classrooms, because there is not enough money in the budget to reduce class size by hiring additional teachers. Small schools are also forced to pare down their curriculum to the bare bones and cut enriching programs like in the arts, foreign languages, and training in professional trades. Many low budget schools are concentrated in the neighborhoods that also have the highest level of student mobility rates, where students move from one school to another due to factors like evictions or homelessness. Schools with starved budgets are unable to provide institutional supports for these students.”

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is currently negotiating a contract, and the teachers voted last week to authorize a strike in mid-October if the negotiations break down. But the issue is not salaries. Chicago education reporter for WBEZ (NPR) Sarah Karp reports that CTU President Jesse Sharkey “and other union leaders have emphasized that the compensation package will still leave office clerks and teacher aides… who are CTU members—making such low wages their children will qualify for free and reduced lunch… Sharkey repeated Thursday night that the contract fight is about more than pay. Two of the big unresolved issues have to do with staffing and class size limits. The union had started out by insisting that the board of education agree to lower staff-to-student ratios for nurses, social workers and special education case managers. They also wanted a promise in the contract that more librarians would be hired.”

It is impossible to know from outside the district how many of the issues in the contract negotiations can be traced back to Student Based Budgeting and the rest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s corporate school reform legacy.  What is clear is that Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who is, by law, responsible for Chicago’s public schools, has a huge challenge to undo years of corporate school reform policies that have undermined the operation of the nation’s third largest public school district. It is a legacy fraught with racial overtones.