Sunday, February 08, 2009

Chicago's Daley the Younger says charter schools keep the system honest.

Richard Daley is rarely sick, and he doesn't believe in snow days. Sitting in an office high above his frozen city this week, the über mayor is fighting a flu and talking about Chicago's image. The city has been under the klieg lights lately as the hometown of President Obama, and because of its bid for the 2016 Olympics. Then there's Rod Blagojevich, who, when I sat down with Mayor Daley, had just become the first governor in Illinois history to be impeached....

Mr. Daley has just made what many considered a big sacrifice for Mr. Obama and the new administration, sending them Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan to be education secretary. Mr. Duncan is considered by many as a reformer in the same echelon as New York Schools chief Joel Klein and Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and his time in Chicago was marked by a strong commitment to charter schools, as well an improbable ability to work with both teachers' unions and reformers. But he wouldn't have had the opportunity if it weren't for Mr. Daley, who took direct control of the schools, making himself politically accountable for fixing what was widely seen as a broken system.

He laid out a series of goals in the citywide Renaissance 2010 plan, including closing 70 failing schools and opening 100 new ones. The move wasn't popular with neighborhoods and administrators who were losing schools. But Mr. Daley asks: "How long can they fail? Thirty, 40, 50 years?. . . We have to be able to save this generation and other generations"

Mr. Daley believes the goals of public education should be global competitiveness. "When children in America go to school six hours a day, that's 30 hours a week they get 25 hours of instruction." That's only about three full working days, he says, far less than kids are getting in other rising countries, especially in Asia.

Mayor Daley also sees an important role for charter schools. "You can't have a monopoly and think a monopoly works. Slowly it dissolves. And I think that charter schools are good to compete with public schools." Nobody says there's something wrong with public universities facing competition from private ones. "I think the more competition we have, the better off we are in Chicago."

But the mayor won't support vouchers. "School choice is hard. You're going back to arguing," he says, trailing off without making clear whether he means the politics. But he does think it's notable that, while federal money and Pell grants can be used to finance an education at a private college, federal money can't be used to help students get a private education at the K-12 level.

Ron Huberman, Mr. Daley's former chief of staff and head of the Chicago Transit Authority, is anything but an education bureaucrat, and that's just what the mayor wants in the man he named to replace Mr. Duncan as chief of Chicago schools. Too often in the past, before the mayor took over, the city would bring in schools chiefs who seemed to be riding an education lazy-susan from school to school. "We'd give them big bonuses to come here and then when we'd fire them they'd go to other school systems." Mr. Huberman's selection may have caused consternation in the education bureaucracy but, "this is a manager, this is a CEO," says Mr. Daley. He means an accountable leader.

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