It’s a news item that’s becoming all too familiar: Chicago Public Schools is getting a new CEO. The former head of CPS, Forrest Claypool, announced his resignation Friday amid an ethics scandal, and Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson is stepping in as the interim CEO—the eighth schools chief that Chicago has seen in the last 10 years (two of which, excluding Jackson, were interim chiefs).
Despite the turnover and the less-than-inspiring reasons for Claypool’s ouster, some in the local education scene were optimistic about the change: Jackson has deep roots in CPS. She attended CPS schools from kindergarten through high school before earning her bachelor’s degree from Chicago State University and later her master’s degree and doctorate from University of Illinois- Chicago. As a professional, Jackson was a CPS teacher before becoming a principal, then a network boss. As Lauren Fitzpatrick at the Sun-Times points out, it’s the first time since 1995 that CPS has had an alumna who has taught in the school system as its chief.
In a 2016 episode of the locally-produced education podcast, “The Ed Couple,” Jackson noted of her educational and professional career, “there’s nothing of interest to me outside this city.”
So how do teachers feel about one of their own being elevated to the top of the totem pole?
CPS teachers who shared their thoughts with Chicago varied slightly in their estimates of whether the Jackson would be an ideological friend or foe to rank-and-file teachers. But they shared the same fatalistic view that who gets appointed to the job doesn’t matter as much as how they’re appointed. Chicago is the nation’s third-largest school district and the only one in Illinois to have a school board appointed by the mayor rather than elected by voters.
“The CEO role is essentially a puppet. [Jackson] has no control,” a nine-year CPS veteran who teaches special ed students says. Like all teachers interviewed for this story, the teacher asked not to be named for fear of retribution from CPS leadership. “The mayor controls the school board and the CEO; it doesn’t really matter who is put in power until there’s an independently elected school board and CEO,” the teacher says.
The Chicago Teachers Union, which had an acrimonious relationship with outgoing CEO Forrest Claypool, praised Jackson’s public school past but had reservations about her ties to Claypool and Rahm Emanuel—both of whom the CTU tends to regard adversarially.
“We’re also glad to see an interim CEO chosen from among the ranks of CPS educators. It’s been 20 years since we’ve had someone at the helm of our schools who’s actually also taught in our classrooms,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey in a statement issued Friday. “But Interim CEO Janice Jackson has also been an integral part of the Claypool administration. She’s got to show that she will take a different approach on revenue, reject Claypool’s agenda to close schools and expand charters, and start listening to educators and parents.”
Few schools chiefs were as reviled by teachers as Claypool, whom several teachers described as a “slasher.” The Claypool years, they say, were marked by aggressive budget cuts for programs like special education alongside refusals to terminate controversial and costly contracts like the one with Aramark, the district’s third-party provider of custodial services.
And unlike his boss, the mayor, Claypool was not particularly image-conscious, teachers say. His style alienated teachers from the executive leadership team, particularly during the most recent round of contract negotiations.
A few teachers were wary that Jackson, a black woman who comes from the education field, would be used as a prop by Emanuel to “put a kinder, gentler face on some really horrible policies,” according to one 11-year teaching veteran who works on the Far South Side. He noted the similarities Jackson and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a lifelong educator who was tapped by Emanuel to lead the district during a time of tumult. “[Former CEO Jean Claude] Brizzard was out, and Rahm put an experienced person of color, [Byrd,] as the face of the 50 school closures,” he says.
Like Claypool, Byrd-Bennett resigned amid scandal. She is now serving a federal prison sentence for a bribery and kickbacks scheme.
But some of the 11-year veteran’s colleagues feel optimistic, he adds: “There are a lot of people out there who are looking at [Jackson’s] experience and feeling like she understands how this works and hoping she can influence the mayor,” he says. “Maybe she can let the mayor see the wisdom in letting an elected school board come about.”
On the other hand, some teachers say the days would be numbered for any appointed schools chief who fails to serve as a mayoral ally.
When Jackson’s interim position becomes permanent (pending school board approval in January, which she is sure to receive), among her first challenges will be the proposed shuttering of four South Side high schools, which has sparked fierce criticism. Other areas where teachers say they hope Jackson can reverse or halt previous changes include cuts to special education funding and tying school budgets to enrollment, which they say has led to a disinvestment in schools and neighborhoods that need the most help.
“Hearing about the resignation [of Claypool], it’s one of these instances where it’s dangerous to cheer little changes,” says a former CPS teacher who taught on the South Side during Claypool’s administration. “There are already many things that hurt students already in motion. We're going to find out pretty quickly if Janice Jackson stops these things or if she continues them.”