Testing Mayoral Control in Chicago's Schools

Ron Huberman walked the halls at Julian High School on Chicago's South Side one day in late March. Students were loitering in the lobby, wearing caps backward and sideways. The place was dirty. Even the clocks were wrong. Huberman, the new school chief installed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, did not like what he saw. He promptly moved to fire the principal.

Huberman later told the teachers at Julian: "You are going to be held accountable." He was not bluffing. At 16 other schools, he has canned the entire faculty and staff—and he's only been on the job since February.

The effect has been a sonic boom to a school system, the nation's third largest, that is mired in urban woes—and, in some cases, a sense of complacency. "It's been a huge change in the culture," said Robert Runcie, the chief administrative officer. "His management style is data driven. He wants results. It doesn't matter if you work 300 hours a week. If it doesn't make a difference for the students, it's not working. He's really shaking things up."

It has been 13 years since Mayor Richard M. Daley seized control of Chicago's school system, creating a new template for urban education. City hall now runs the classrooms in New York, Boston, Cleveland and a handful of other major American cities. The Chicago model has also gone federal. President Obama reached into the city's system to tap Arne Duncan as education secretary; he brings to the national stage a penchant for merit pay and charter schools, a determination to close failing schools—and a reasonably amiable relationship with the powerful teachers' unions, which may soon be put to the test. Duncan recently warned that he may withhold federal education stimulus money from states that limit the number of charter schools—caps typically backed by the unions. Success won't come easy.

"We're going to see some real drama on the education horizon," said Timothy Knowles, the director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, which has designed some new schools for the city. "This is the first time we're hearing some of these calls—for more parent choice and competition—coming from the Democratic side nationally."

To gauge how the battle might go, it is worth watching Huberman, who has had a fight on his hands from the start. When Daley brought control of the schools to city hall, he was determined to move beyond the traditional profile of a schools chief. In choosing Huberman, he threw convention to the wind. The 37-year-old Huberman, who is gay, was born in Israel, grew up partly in Tennessee—and has spent much of his career as a cop.

Huberman was chasing gangbangers in 2001 when he caught the mayor's eye. A technology whiz, Huberman had developed a laptop-computer program that enabled officers in squad cars to instantly trace the backgrounds of suspects at crime scenes. He subsequently helped mastermind the city's crime-surveillance camera system.

When Daley learned about the innovations of "this smart young cop," as the mayor calls him, he put Huberman on the fast track, tapping him first as his chief of staff, then putting him in charge of the city's transit system. In a city hall where aides often step gingerly around the powerful mayor, known for his fits of temper and tongue lashings, Huberman has earned a reputation for being blunt and confident enough to disagree with Daley on issues. "I tell the mayor things he doesn't always want to hear," says Huberman. "He respects that."

For his part, Daley has said he "can sleep at night" knowing the schools are Huberman's hands. If the new schools chief has upset entrenched interests and caused some alarm in the ranks about higher expectations, Daley could not be more pleased. He says he wishes more parents shared Huberman's indignation over school failures. "He's making the difficult decisions," says Daley. "He's not afraid to do that."

But the teachers union voiced indignation over the pick. Union president Marilyn Stewart accused Daley of cronyism, "an act of disrespect" to career educators. She noted that the new schools chief would not be qualified to teach in the system. "Just because you've been to a dentist," she scoffed, "doesn't mean you can be a dentist." (Daley's earlier picks for school boss, Duncan and Paul Vallas, were also unorthodox, at least by the measure of traditional school politics. Neither were career educators. But Duncan had worked as a top aide at school headquarters before taking over the top job. And Vallas had at least a brief stint as a teacher.)

Critics have also taken aim at the very system of mayoral control, arguing that such a concentration of power at city hall can lead to abuse. In New York, where the legislature is considering whether to extend mayoral control, some teachers and parents complain that oversight panels are mere puppets of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and that any dissent is quelled.

Those complaints might sound familiar to a student of education history. Going back to the early 20th century, scholars say, corruption and favoritism flourished under mayoral-controlled districts. "You couldn't get a job in the schools without checking with the mayor," says Professor Robert Koff, of Washington University in St. Louis. Chicago Mayor William Hale (Big Bill) Thompson, who controlled the city's schools in the 1920s, ranked among the most brazen. "Even the school custodians gave a kickback to city hall in exchange for their raises," says Jim Carl, an expert on education at Cleveland State University. Independent school boards were created as a Progressive Era hallmark designed to curb such corruption. "But it hardly did away with patronage," Carl says.

But as urban school districts have floundered for generations, with families fleeing to the suburbs for better schools, many education experts now regard mayor-controlled districts as a way to establish accountability. And Duncan has been stumping for the idea in speeches around the country. "At the end of my tenure, if only seven mayors are in control, I think I will have failed," Duncan said this spring to a group of mayors and school superintendents.

The Chicago schools were considered virtually a lost cause when the Illinois Legislature shifted control to the mayor in 1995. Robert Bennett, the secretary of education during the Reagan administration, had labeled Chicago's the worst classrooms in the nation. "The schools were a disaster, just poison," said Paul Green, a professor at Roosevelt University. "Some of them didn't even have toilet paper."

At the time, Republicans controlled both chambers of the Illinois Legislature. "They thought they were handing Daley a dead-bang loser of an issue," Green said.

Daley, adopting a bottom-line, business-oriented approach to the schools, changed the title of the top job from superintendent to chief executive officer. He put his budget director, Vallas, in charge, and ended the practice of "social promotion." In 1997, a whopping 25 percent of eighth graders were held back. Until then, more than 90 percent of eighth graders were being passed along, even with poor grades and scores.

Backers of mayoral control point to successes in Chicago, where 64 percent of the students met or exceeded state standards on achievement tests in 2008, compared to 36 percent in 2000. Under Duncan's leadership, test scores improved overall, and the city revamped dozens of schools, typically dismissing administrators, teachers and staff in underperforming schools, and starting over from scratch.

In his fifth-floor office in city hall, Daley told NEWSWEEK that the teachers union for too long had operated as if it only had "to answer to God."

"You need competition in education," the mayor said. "When you have a monopoly, it just doesn't work."

Some 60 charters now operate in Chicago, and the long lists for admission seem to indicate their popularity with parents. But many of these schools rely heavily on idealistic young teachers expected to perform on shoestring budgets. It is a situation that can lead to burnout. Turnover at charters tends to be very high. Three charter schools in the city have recently taken steps to form unions.

In the view of union president Stewart, the Daley model of running the schools has made a scapegoat of unions. "We have some Chicago public schools that are humming along beautifully," she said. "It's unconscionable to blame the teachers' union for the problems we see in some schools."

Despite the headway Daley's first two school chiefs made, Huberman inherited serious problems; the schools are running a deficit of about $475 million, and four of the city's charter schools have been sanctioned under federal standards for poor test scores. Many students still face poverty and perhaps chaos at home—and violence sometimes spills over into the classroom. So far this year, some 35 Chicago students have been slain—none of them on campuses but some frighteningly near schools. "Imagine yourself as a student trying to focus on academics, and you just lost a classmate to gunfire," says Huberman, who hopes his ties to the police department can help him create a safer learning environment.

Huberman—who says he speaks often to Duncan, using him as a sounding board for ideas and, surely, for support—knows he has a steep hill to climb. "There's been a lot of progress with the schools, but it's certainly not a done deal," he said. "I'm going to have to make decisions that are unpopular … If we don't have good leadership, the schools will fail. And we must have clear standards of success. We need to hold schools accountability. I'm going to tell it like it is. I will execute."

Like Duncan, he said he supports some modifications in the No Child Left Behind law but strongly supports its underlying premise: requiring schools to meet testing standards or giving parents the option to switch to another school. "The execution and the details are sometimes problematic," he said, citing as an example tutoring provisions that hamstring school districts. He said the requirements under the law should be set by federal authorities, not by the states. He stressed that schools serving mostly poor children—as in Chicago—should not be given any slack. "We can't let any districts off the hook," he says, "or we're saying that some kids can't learn—and all kids can learn."

Huberman visits a school nearly every day, often making surprise inspections. After his talk to the faculty at Julian, one teacher, Kelly Williamson, approached him and whispered: "We've still got a long way to go."