Meet the New Boss
Jonathan Alter with a long profile of Rahm Emanuel in the current issue of The Atlantic, with a great plug for his courage in taking on the teachers' union:
INSIDE THE OBAMA White House, Rahm was a passionate advocate for education reform. So upon taking office as mayor, of course he lobbied feverishly for legislation in Springfield to give him more power to remake the sprawling Chicago Public Schools system. Among other things, the new law, hailed as a national model, allows districts to fire bad teachers more easily (in recent years, only about three tenured Chicago teachers out of 30,000 were terminated annually), to implement tenure reform, and to allow for performance pay. It also gives CPS the leeway to lengthen the school day to seven and a half hours and the school year to 180 days starting in the 2012–13 school year.
During the campaign, Rahm seized on Chicago's school day, the shortest used by any big city in the nation. He shocked audiences by describing a system where the typical school day was less than six hours and some kids left as early as 1:45 p.m.—this in a city where the starting salary for teachers ($50,000 a year) was $5,000 higher than in New York. At City Hall last summer, he pushed schools to voluntarily extend the school day in fall 2011, a year ahead of schedule, in exchange for a 2 percent pay increase for teachers, which was half of what they were owed but had not yet received under an earlier contract. Rahm is still steaming about the contracts negotiated by Daley and Arne Duncan—who was then running CPS and is now the nation's education secretary—which gave teachers hefty pay increases and a shorter school year. "I know what the teachers got, and I know what the politicians got," he says, meaning no strike. "But I don't know what the kids got."
Since January, only 50 of the city's 675 schools have voluntarily agreed to the extra time (compliance among charter schools was higher). Critics who should have known better cited Japan as an example of a country that produces high test scores while having a short school day. (They forgot to mention that Japanese students routinely spend afternoons and evenings at "cram schools," preparing for tests.) Rahm's view is that a longer school day and year are necessary without being anywhere near sufficient. "If it were up to me, we'd have year-round schools. I wouldn't have a summer break for children. I think it's nuts," he tells me. "We lose basically half of the academic year in the summer."
The mayor's main adversary on education is Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. Lewis is probably best known for a salty YouTube video that shows her addressing a 2011 convention as if she were opening for a Chris Rock Comedy Central special. She makes fun of her own girth, jokes about drug use, and goes after Arne Duncan: "Now, you know he went to private school, because if he'd gone to public school, he'd have had that lisp fixed." (She later apologized.)
In August, Rahm met privately with Lewis, who derided the longer day as "babysitting and warehousing," though Rahm had specifically said he was seeking the extra time for instruction in math and reading. They exchanged harsh words. Three weeks after the meeting, Lewis told the press that Rahm had stuck his finger in her face and shouted, "Fuck you, Lewis!" She went on: "He's dirty. He's low-down. He's a street fighter." When that story broke, Rahm mildly told reporters that it had been a good meeting that ended with a hug. Privately, he was furious that his media team hadn't given him a better heads-up that the press had learned about the profane exchange.
The energy expended on the length of the school day has obscured coverage of other Emanuel initiatives, like alerting parents about the availability of subsidized preschool, expanding full-day kindergarten access to 6,000 new kids, and adopting better-designed standardized tests. Perhaps most important, CPS and a consortium sponsored by the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute unveiled a sophisticated online tool that lets parents and administrators learn which of Chicago's public schools are working. Each detailed report card goes far beyond test scores to determine whether teachers collaborate and classes are demanding and engaging; the ratings are based on answers to student and teacher questionnaires.
Meet the New Boss
Tattered finances, broken schools, rampant crime—Rahm Emanuel is taking on an entrenched bureaucracy and a legacy of corruption to fix the problems that American voters care about most deeply. Can the mayor of Chicago make the city that works work?
I WAS WALKING AROUND my sister's Near North neighborhood in Chicago recently and came upon a small patch of green called Bauler Park. Paddy Bauler was the rollicking tavern owner and 43rd Ward alderman who in 1955 famously shouted, upon hearing of the election of Richard J. Daley as mayor: "Chicago ain't ready for reform!"