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Chicago schools chief out after run-ins with Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard, recruited just 17 months ago by Rahm Emanuel, is stepping down nearly four weeks after the teachers strike. He reportedly infuriated the mayor.

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Steve Tozer, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the university’s program in urban education leadership, says the political machinations of having the school system controlled by City Hall has its strengths, but tends to make it difficult for school administrators in top leadership roles.

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“The consequence of that [structure] is the extent, to which such an individual can lead,” Professor Tozer says, adding that a schools chief “is more constrained by the mayor’s agenda than … by a school board agenda. With a school board, there is a shared shaping of that agenda…. The political stakes are so much higher with a mayor who must inevitably seek reelection.”

Brizard is the fifth CEO of CPS since the system went under City Hall control in 1995. Besides former interim CEO Terry Mazany, who served in the administrative transition between former Mayor Richard M. Daley and Emanuel, Brizard’s term was the shortest. The longest CEO to serve was Arne Duncan, who is now secretary of Education under President Obama.

Tozer says Brizard’s ouster likely has less to do with his ability to lead than it has with the politics of the school system that existed before his arrival in Chicago. Emanuel recognized that CPS “clearly has to do better and has no time to waste in getting better,” which likely drove the mayor to act fast, Tozer says. 

Replacing Brizard is Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a former teacher in New York City and CEO of Cleveland’s public school system. Her position as chief education officer for CPS, a position that oversees curriculum development and instructional policy, started this year. She played a more public role in the strike negotiations and was instrumental in drafting the updated teacher evaluation system Emanuel pushed for and won during settlement talks.

“Barbara is a proven leader and educator with the breadth and depth of experience that make her uniquely qualified to serve Chicago’s students and lead Chicago’s schools, and I am incredibly proud to welcome her into this position,” Emanuel said in a statement.

Under the new contract, which the union ratified Tuesday, principals will continue as decision makers in hiring, but layoffs, for the first time in CPS history, will be determined by the level of teacher performance in the classroom, starting with those with the lowest evaluation ratings. Also for the first time, CPS will establish hiring practices that fast-track highly rated teachers who are laid off – because of school consolidations or closings – for open positions at other schools in the system.

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