The four candidates who showed up at the Chicago Mayoral Forum on Education at Walter Payton College Prep were the four who graduated from Chicago Public Schools: Miguel del Valley of Tuley High, Carol Moseley Braun of Parker High, Gery Chico of Kelly High, and James Meeks of Harper High.
Danny Davis (Savage High School, Parkdale, Ark.) wanted to attend, but had to vote in Congress. Rahm Emanuel (New Trier High School, Winnetka) declined his invitation.
Shaw started by asking the candidates whether they agreed with Gov. Pat Quinn’s call for a 1-point increase in the state income tax, a measure Quinn calls "a surcharge for education." Meeks, del Valle and Chico all said yes. But Moseley Braun was opposed, saying “the recession is the wrong time for a tax increase."
The candidates also disagreed on the qualifications for the schools’ CEO, one of many issues where Chico found himself defending his leadership when he was president of the school board from 1995 to 2001.
"The CEO model hasn’t served us well,” Meeks said. “I’ll be looking for a leader with an education degree. We’ve lost the trust of teachers.”
Chico countered that the school district needs a CEO to manage its $6 billion, but said the job should be paired with a chief education officer who has a teaching background. Not surprisingly, Chico was the only candidate who said he’d bring back Paul Vallas, the original CEO, who served when Chico was school board president.
Meeks found himself all alone on the school vouchers, which has been a cause of his in the state senate. He said the competition would improve the public schools, the way FedEx and UPS improved the postal service.
"What’s wrong with letting kids have a voucher?” Meeks asked. “I bet you that would make the public school system better.”
Del Valle disagreed strongly, saying, “the day we go to vouchers is the day that we throw our arms up and say, ‘We’re giving up on Chicago Public Schools.’”
Meeks, Chico and del Valle all wanted to extend the school day and the school year, and they all had a scheme to do it without paying teachers more money. Meeks proposed full-day kindergarten and doubling math and reading instruction in grade school.
As school board president, Chico created after-school programs that kept buildings open until 5:30 p.m., and summer schools that kept children around in July and August. Del Valle wants "community learning centers" that will involve parents.
Moseley Braun was skeptical.
"Half these schools aren’t educating,” she said. “Why give ’em more time to miseducate our children?”
Since the state legislature gave the mayor control of the schools in 1995, it’s been the office’s biggest responsibility. Chico, who made his name at the school board, seemed especially conscious of that.
"When I was at the school board, we had six years of balanced budgets and six years of test score improvements,” Chico said in his opening statement. "Ten years after I left, our schools are adrift again."
Not everyone agreed that Chico had been a success on the school board, but no one argued with his closing statement: “As a mayor, I will probably rise or fall on the success of the schools.”
That will be true for whomever gets the job.