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Can Barbara Byrd-Bennett Save Chicago’s Schools?

The CPS chief must fix the district’s dire finances—and that’s just task one.

Photo: Jeff Sciortino

As she enters her third year as the head of Chicago Public Schools, the no-nonsense Barbara Byrd-Bennett faces a challenge more daunting than subduing a teachers’ strike or closing 49 schools: figuring out how to pay for even one more school year. The 65-year-old New York native, whom Mayor Emanuel appointed CEO in 2012 after she had led school districts in Cleveland and Detroit, spoke to Chicago in July about selective enrollment schools, standardized testing, and, of course, the district’s newly released budget. (For more on Chicago schools, see “The 2014 Guide to Chicago’s Private High Schools”.)

In the CPS budget for 2014–15, you rely on a one-time accounting adjustment to close an $862 million shortfall. But for the next two fiscal years, the district faces a $1 billion–plus deficit. What can be done?

We need additional revenue. Illinois ranks 47th in terms of states’ per-pupil investment. And we’ve already reduced spending on our central office and operations by $740 million since 2011. Pension reform would guarantee increased revenue.

What if pension reform fails?

I don’t know another [accounting] gimmick, another solution to keep us solvent.

Is the teachers’ union the problem?

I do not believe so. I was at the table during negotiations [leading up to and throughout the 2012 teachers’ strike]. We didn’t always agree on how to get to where we needed to go, but we always agreed on where we needed to be. Obviously I think we all, including the teachers and the union, regret the strike. Do I think it could have been avoided? Yes.

How?

Teacher evaluation was the last item up for discussion. If we had put the big rocks on the table first and gotten those done, we probably wouldn’t have passed the [union contract] deadline. That said, the agreement we did reach on teacher evaluation [during the strike] was pretty incredible. [That agreement called for one-quarter of a teacher’s annual evaluation to reflect student growth in test scores.]

What’s your relationship like with teachers’ union president Karen Lewis?

We break bread together regularly—breakfast meetings, dinner meetings. It generally starts with a conversation about how our families are doing. It’s cordial, respectful, and I have to tell you, very often I enjoy those conversations. I would describe my relationship with her as both personal and professionally positive.

You’re spending lots on selective enrollment high schools, adding capacity at two of them and committing $60 million to build another. How do you justify that?

Our selective enrollment high schools are a part of what we are currently building: a comprehensive high school strategy. We’ve also increased our investment in neighborhood schools and STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] programs. We have the largest International Baccalaureate program in the nation. Our selective enrollments are highly competitive, as they should be.

Are you saying that the strategy is to not change the selective enrollment program but to improve the next tier of high schools?

That’s absolutely correct. We are making investments in schools other than our selective enrollments to ratchet up the quality of those schools.

How do you feel about the recent Sun-Times calculation that after CPS dropped race as an admissions factor for selective enrollment schools, many of them got significantly whiter? [Four schools jumped from 30 percent white in 2009 to 38 percent in 2013.]

There’s a lot of nuance in those findings. When you look at it black-and-white, no pun intended, that does look like the reality. But we look at all 10 of our selective enrollment schools, and the Sun-Times data was predicated on four [Jones College Prep, Northside College Prep, Walter Payton College Prep, and Whitney Young Magnet, all located on the mostly white North Side]. This year, we’re going to be working with North Side selective enrollment schools to develop [minority] recruitment plans. We’re working with South Shore to do the same. Clearly, in the skin that I wear, I want to see additional Hispanic and African American students gain seats in selective enrollment schools. But I would argue that many of our parents would be perfectly satisfied if we had more high-quality neighborhood schools like Kenwood.

One criticism of selective enrollment schools is that they remove the best students from the general school population, so other kids don’t benefit from being in a class with the brightest ones.

You’ve got it. You know, back in the day—or, as my grandchildren would say, in olden times—Barbara Byrd-Bennett may not have been one of the kids accepted in the selective enrollments. I was a C-plus student. Really into the arts. That doesn’t mean I was lesser than them. I think as we separate our children into these pods, it’s unhealthy. Do we have children that do not meet the challenge? Absolutely. We must raise all boats.

Earlier this year, Illinois received a waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Does that mean an end to the tyranny of testing?

[Laughs.] When I arrived here in Chicago, it astounded me how many assessments and tests the district had, how many the state had, how many the federal government had. I think there were 25 [district-mandated] assessments and tests. We said, “We’re not doing that. They’re not serving a purpose.” Now, there are required state tests, and we’re still doing those. I’m too old to wear silver jewelry and orange, so I’m not going to jail for violating a law. What we have done is diminish the number of tests. [Students now take 10 district-mandated tests throughout their K to 12 years.]

What message should Chicagoans take from the fact that the mayor sends his children to private school [the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools]?

I don’t think there is a message. I’m a product of the ’60s, and I think people have a right in America to decide where they worship, where they live, who they marry, and what school they want their children to attend. That’s a conversation I’m sure the mayor and [his wife] Amy have had.

We hear Rahm likes cheesecake [see “Rahm Emanuel Lets Them Eat Cheesecake”]. Has he ever given you one?

No. I’m going to have to put that on my list of asks.

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