A new chief executive officer with no education background has been appointed by Chicago’s mayor to run the city’s schools, angering some who cite his lack of experience but making sense to others who point to a national trend of going outside traditional ranks for these positions.
Before joining the nation’s third-largest school district, Ron Huberman ran the city’s transit authority, helmed its 911 center and served as chief of staff to the mayor.
“It used to be that almost all superintendents were lifelong educators who worked their way up through the system. That is no longer the case,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington.
Mr. Petrilli noted that other large cities have hired similar school chiefs who have done the job well. Those include former U.S. Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein, who was appointed in 2002 by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to run the nation’s largest district in New York City.
The Huberman appointment “makes some sense,” said Mr. Petrilli, who served as associate assistant deputy secretary of education in the Bush administration.
“Somebody in this role must manage a large, complex organization. What he does know is something about running a large government bureaucracy - he knows how to manage a budget, how to negotiate with public employees unions, how to deal with the media.
“I think this model can work as long as there is an educator in a key senior position who can make important decisions in education and do that well.”
Such a person appears to be Barbara Eason-Watkins, who was bypassed for the top post and will remain as the schools’ chief education officer.
Mr. Huberman, a former police officer, marks the third Chicago schools chief appointed by the mayor who was, for the most part, an education outsider. Paul Vallas, who now helms the Recovery School District in New Orleans, led the Chicago district from 1995 to 2001. He was followed by Arne Duncan, whom President Obama has selected as the nation’s new education secretary.
Mr. Huberman, 37, earned unanimous approval from the school board last week for the $225,000-a-year job but was met by 300 chanting protesters outside the board headquarters along with boos as he was introduced to a packed crowd.
Marilyn Stewart, president of the 32,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate and one of the nation’s largest, said she is moving forward with her eyes on reform, even as some have protested Mayor Richard M. Daley’s selection.
“I can’t begin to explain why the mayor came to that decision,” she said of Mr. Huberman’s hiring. “It was his choice.
“The district and the union have collaborated on very successful programs. We have turned around struggling schools. We expect that collaboration to continue.”
Miss Stewart said that among her initial concerns for the district are closings at what the Chicago school board has described as underused schools. She added that millions of dollars have been spent on rehabilitating some school buildings and on renting others. Despite the cost of this investment to the district, the board is moving forward to shutter these facilities arbitrarily, she said, negatively impacting many good teachers and students who have benefited by smaller schools and more individualized attention.
“No public school in the city is safe,” she said. “They have no justification or rationale for why they are closing schools.”
Members of her union will continue efforts to keep the schools open, she said.
“Our power is in the strength of the voters and the community and teachers who are being directly impacted by what they are doing.”
Among early detractors of the decision to go outside the education field is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who complained about the Huberman pick on Chicago Public Radio.
“It’s almost like a misfit,” Mr. Jackson said, comparing the situation to the city’s baseball and football coaches switching roles. “I mean, can you imagine Lovie Smith coaching the Cubs and [Lou] Piniella coaching the Bears? Good men, but there’s a misfit.”
Some in Chicago also have wondered why, with the national spotlight on Chicago after Mr. Obama’s election and his pick of Mr. Duncan as his education secretary, the mayor did not launch a nationwide search for a replacement.
Mr. Daley received state legislative approval to take over the troubled Chicago schools, and his formula seems to be working. Although some have called the selection of the city’s transit head to run the schools an insult to educators, Mr. Petrilli notes that the Chicago school district has made some “impressive” gains on national achievement tests in the past few years under nontraditional leaders that cannot be overlooked.
“As with most states, the Illinois test has been getting easier over time, but even on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, you see some incremental progress in Chicago in recent years,” he said. “It’s certainly trending positive, and it’s more than most urban districts can claim. They are seeing some gains that most cities would be happy to have.”
Charles Taylor Kerchner, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University in California, said confidence that traditional educators know how to fix schools has slipped in recent years.
He co-edited the 2008 book “The Transformation of Great American School Districts - How Big Cities Are Reshaping Public Education,” which includes case studies of trends and ideas in Chicago and other urban school districts, including Philadelphia, Washington, New York and Los Angeles. At the time of the research, none of the districts was run by a career educator.
“The institution of public education was founded a century ago with the central belief that professional expertise should trump political patronage. For the next eight decades, it would have been rare to appoint someone other than a veteran educator to head a big city school system.That’s changed,” Mr. Kerchner said of the trend toward hiring outsiders to run schools.
In selecting Mr. Huberman, Mr. Daley touted his record of success in previous posts and noted he had “great faith” in his ability to do well in the new assignment.
“The system repeatedly failed our children. … It was only after we separated the two - skilled educator and strong manager - that we started to see real reform,” Mr. Daley said at a recent news conference.
Mr. Huberman faces a district struggling with a plan to close or reconstitute 22 schools that has riled teachers and parents in their neighborhoods.
“The nontraditional superintendents get mixed reviews,” Mr. Kerchner said. “Outsiders bring a willingness to shake things up, but at the end of the day, they have to rely on the permanent bureaucracy to get things done. And that’s the rub. These are the people who actually know how to run schools, but they know how to run them the traditional way. The trick for an outsider is finding the internal reformers and work with them.”