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More Failed Corporate School Reform for Chicago: Rahm Emanuel’s Selection of Jean-Claude Brizard

The day after election day in Chicago the Chicago Sun-Times suggested that with the problems facing mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel he may end up a one term mayor. In Emanuel’s first major act as he enters the job an unexpected uproar has ensued over his pick for the leader of the nation’s third largest school district.

Jean Claude Brizard is a terrible selection as Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Pubic Schools new “CEO” based on Brizard’s record in Rochester. Brizard faces allegations of padding payrolls, skirting rules, spending frivolously, distorting statistics like graduation rates to make himself look good, alienating teachers to the point that more than 95% gave him a vote of no confidence, -- alienating the school board, the union, and doing radical business reforms that affected 42% of the 59 Rochester Schools while implementing prison-like punitive measures such as subjecting a third of the students body (11,000) to suspensions in a year. Brizard leaves Rochester citizens angry and its schools in shambles with only 5% of high school students ready for college relative to a 41% readiness rate statewide in NY.

Brizard comes from years of experience working under the tutelage of the authoritarian statistic-juking corporate leadership of Joel Klein in New York and out of the pro-privatization, union-bashing Broad Superintendent “Academy” (a kind of corporate school reform finishing school) which meets just six times and offers business-oriented ideological indoctrination to its candidates.

Rahm Emanuel said he chose someone to “shake up the status quo” in selecting Brizard. Brizard, however, represents a longstanding corporate school reform agenda that was done by his predecessors Ron Huberman and Arne Duncan but that has been going on for over a century in Chicago as detailed by historians of education such as Dororthy Shipps, Joel Spring and others.


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Perhaps more importantly Brizard represents concentrated private power rather than public democratic power in education. He favors failed top-down approaches that treat the public, the parents, and the teachers as the enemy such as aggressive chartering (private management of schools), radical turnarounds, pay for performance, and so called data-driven decision-making despite the fact that there is no scholarly evidence that would favor any of these reforms. There is however massive evidence against these reforms in Chicago since these are the reforms that dominated in the failed Renaissance 2010 plan that ran from 2004-2010.

Policy research shows that charters both in Chicago and nationally have resulted in worse to par performance on tests with only 17% outperforming traditional public schools and 37% worse and 46% no difference. But charters have other big downsides and that is they de-union schools, eliminate democratically-elected school councils, drastically worsen teacher turnover and lowering pay which results in lower quality teaching and imperils recruitment of good teachers, drastically reduce the number of years of teacher experience, worsen racial segregation, destabilize finances, rely on unstable philanthropic support, and push out or under-enroll more expensive special needs and non-native English speaking students. All of this hurts the quality of schools and it hurts children.

The case of Brizard and Chicago highlights the troubling adoption of longstanding Republican education policy by Democrats as evidenced in both Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind. These reforms push privatization and over-emphasize testing. These corporate reforms not only fail to come through on their advocates’ desires for decreased costs and higher test scores. They also offer nothing to challenge racial segregration and radical funding inequality. Meanwhile their overemphasis on testing compromises quality intellectual curriculum and pedagogy that is necessary to prepare students to critically understand the world they inherit so that they can act as citizens to change it for the better.

It is time for Americans to reject failed corporate school reforms and the exhausted metaphor of the hard-driving business-oriented leader to lead public schools. More specifically Chicagoans should reject Brizard’s record of authoritarian top down corporate school reform and demand that he and his boss take the public democratic route and partner with the teachers and the teachers union, communities and community organizations, parents, and local school councils. The reality however is that Chicago has mayoral control and this is something that legislators in Springfield need to end if the public schools in Chicago are going to genuinely break with the failed corporate reforms of the past and their top-down tendencies that have so many in Chicago and Rochester up in arms. The Brizard debacle should be a “teachable moment” for Americans not just about the failures of corporate school reform but about undemocratic concentrations of power such as mayoral control.

Kenneth Saltman

Dr. Kenneth J. Saltman is a professor of Educational Policy Studies and Research at DePaul University in Chicago. His work in educational policy and politics and the sociology of education focuses on the possibilities for public schools to be sites of democratic renewal and just social transformation. He is an outspoken critic of public school privatization and corporatization. His recent books include Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools, The Edison Schools: Corporate Schooling and the Assault on Public Education, and The Gift of Education: Pubilc Education and Venture Philanthropy.

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