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)

Local School Councils Persist, Inject Democracy into Chicago Public Schools

In 1988, after the sudden death of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the Illinois Legislature did something unusual. It created an experiment in truly democratic school governance in Chicago: the idea that parents, teachers, and community members would stand for election to local school councils whose members would have considerable power including the hiring of the school principal. When top-down school governance was instituted in 1995 by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who appointed Paul Vallas and then Arne Duncan to run the school district, the power of the elected local school councils faded. Arne Duncan brought Renaissance 2010, whose goal was to expand school choice, shutter so-called “failing” schools, and open 100 new schools—the very top-down school “reform” that has dominated Duncan’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education since 2009.

But the 25th Anniversary issue of Catalyst-Chicago features a retrospective examination of the elected local school councils that have persevered in many of the city’s schools: “Of all the reforms that have swept through Chicago Public Schools in the past 25 years, the creation of local school councils is one of the few that persists.”

Chicago’s local school councils have faced challenges from the beginning. Catalyst quotes Sokoni Karanja, an activist in the Bronzeville neighborhood who helped lead the movement to support and maintain what Chicago calls its LSCs: “In the first few years they were very effective and we saw major turnarounds at some schools.  And there are still diehard parents that maintain their commitment to the LSCs, although there has been continuous reductions in their power.”

Catalyst interviews Dion Miller Perez who chaired the Chicago office of what was the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform and who was elected over the years to three LSCs: “There was a fickleness of funders supporting parental involvement in a grassroots way.  There used to be more foundation money for LSC training and parent involvement in general.  That doesn’t exist anymore.”

Elaine Allensworth, of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago comments on school improvement in the early 1990s, though she is hesitant to attribute the growth in test scores solely to direct democratic involvement of parents through the LSCs: “In that period just after decentralization, we do see improvements in a lot of schools.  A lot of schools did show improvements in student test scores, though it seemed to be related to the economic conditions in the community…. Then we start to see (scores) flatten out when mayor control came in.”

Catalyst ‘s anniversary issue features two parents who have been deeply involved through their LSCs.  These interviews expose not only the commitment of deeply involved parent leaders but also the challenges to parent involvement for schools in poor and working class communities.  Sabrina Jackson, part of the LSC at Perkins, Bass Elementary School in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, was involved to the degree that she could be as a parent employed full-time and attending community college through the years of her four children’s enrollment.  Jackson comments: “They say churches can be a stabilizing force in a neighborhood, but schools are too, especially if they’ve been in the neighborhood forever.”  At one point Jackson tried school choice but returned her daughter to Perkins, Bass when she wasn’t overly impressed with the receiving school and realized that, “Bass had been in my family for four generations.  It’s part of my heritage.”  Then the family moved to South Bend, Indiana, returning to Chicago and to the Bronzeville neighborhood when Jackson needed to care for her own parents.  In 2007 Jackson successfully ran for a position on the school’s LSC and helped interview more than two dozen candidates and eventually choose a principal.

Margarita Vasquez emigrated from Mexico to Chicago’s west side Belmont Cragin neighborhood.  She and her husband were employed full time as factory workers when her oldest children were enrolled in Hanson Park and Shubert elementary schools, but when her third child was born, she left work and became involved at Hanson Park, where she was elected to the LSC.  Catalyst describes Vasquez’s biggest concern: “‘The kids are crammed into that building,’ says Vasquez. Even so, she says, parents tend to keep their children at Hanson Park because they work and siblings have to walk them home.”  As an engaged parent, Vasquez’s interests have been connecting with parents who are, as she used to be, intimidated by the language barrier.  She has transcended her initial reticence, however, and articulately describes the challenges presented by the demand that the school keep its 96 percent attendance rate, especially as Hanson Park is a ‘cluster school’ for students with disabilities: “That’s a pretty high bar, especially when you add in the 80-some kids who are… medically fragile,who have trach tubes or feeding tubes or ventilators.  They miss a lot of days.”  She describes her own priorities on the LSC—improving the school climate and pressing the principal to improve evaluation of teachers.

The kind of top-down school reform brought to Chicago by Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan is touted by its proponents as efficient and innovative, buzzwords that sound impressive.  Granting parents, teachers, and community members power through the local school council is, by contrast, the essence of democracy. It is about engagement and about addressing the needs of a school from the bottom up, from the point of view of the families it serves.

Thank goodness, as Catalyst points out, many local school councils have hung on. The dogged persistence of so many of Chicago’s LSCs, despite many threats to their viability, is something to celebrate.

Bruce Dixon Profiles Paul Vallas as “Neoliberal Chainsaw Man” on Public Education

Bruce Dixon, the managing editor of The Black Agenda Report, has been consistently insightful about the danger of the privatization of education.  His reports for The Black Commentator were instrumental more than a decade ago in exposing the far-right agenda of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which funded the astro-turf Black Alliance for Education Options to promote vouchers beyond Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Dixon’s stunning new profile of Paul Vallas is no exception to his tradition of quality reporting.  Dixon follows Vallas from 1995, when Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Vallas, a non-educator who was then Daley’s chief of staff, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools to implement corporate school “reform.” Dixon tracks Vallas’s work to bring corporate-portfolio style school reform to Philadelphia, then to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, then to Haiti, and finally to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Vallas was ousted because he had never earned a school administrator’s credential, a state requirement for school superintendents in Connecticut.  Now Vallas is Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn’s choice to run for Lieutenant Governor in the upcoming 2014 November election.

Dixon writes:  “Democrat Paul Vallas has spent the last two decades dismembering and dismantling public schools, lying about deficits, unjustly blaming and firing public school teachers across the country… If neoliberalism is the economic and social doctrine that all human interactions ought to be disciplined and mediated by the market, then Paul Vallas is the neoliberal chainsaw man on public education.”

Corporate education “reform” replaces locally elected school boards with mayoral control, silences the voices of parents who have fought school closures, and quashes the voices of teachers who have protested such top-down, test-and-punish policies.  Dixon reminds us that leadership to undermine the public in public education has become bipartisan: “We should never forget that the idea that all children in a society deserve quality education is historically a new and revolutionary idea. Even more revolutionary is the notion that students, parents, communities and teachers ought to design and control every aspect of those educational processes. There is a struggle of historic proportions going on over the question of education, and ultimately all of us will have to take a side. Jerry Brown, Andrew Cuomo, Michelle Rhee, Barack ObamaRahm Emanuel and Chainsaw Paul Vallas are on one side. What side are we on?”