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Can Chicago Public Schools transform itself? - Opinion - Crain's Chicago Business

July 25, 2015


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Photo by AP ImagesForrest Claypool, center, addressing reporters after being named CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

If a reality TV production shop were to create a series about the world's toughest jobs, one of its first episodes would be shot at the headquarters of Chicago Public Schools. CEO Forrest Claypool, a former chief of the Chicago Transit Authority andgovernment fixer extraordinaire, is being handed the keys to the district's 664 schools, but he might as well be handed a mop: There's a mess years in the making to clean up. And there's no time to waste.

Not only must Claypool immediately face a $1.11 billion budget gap; he has only a few weeks to patch things up with a quarrelsome teachers union so Chicago schools can open on time in September. He also must swiftly revisit $60 million in cuts to classroom funds rammed through by the previous leadership and ferret out questionable contracts, like the one that cost his predecessor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, her job and made her the center of a federal corruption probe. And that's just a start.

Really fixing CPS requires a long-term strategy and a top-down reorganization—a prerequisite if CPS ever is going to stop being a major reason the city's middle-class tax base leaks to the suburbs. A transparent five-year budget plan grounded in real math and not crafted in a fog of crisis intervention and hysterics would be a good place to start. So would a diet for the central office, a customer-service approach to parents and thoughtful responses to divisive issues such as charter schools, high-stakes testing and selective enrollment. While we're at it, wouldn't it be great if the revamped school board put away the rubber stamps and engaged in some meaningful public debate once in a while?

Of course, this will require straight talk—something CPS never has been good at—as well as more cuts that no one will like. But let's be clear: While Claypool was tasked with this job, success or failure depends as well on Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who handpicks the school board. If Chicago wants to be a world-class city, its schools need to be world-class, too. Higher graduation rates, a longer school day and expanded pre-K are admirable first steps, but an overall strategy has to exist—and the math behind it has to work.

It's a tough job. Claypool and Emanuel now have a chance to show they're up to it.

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