Well, you can’t say that mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel is afraid to court controversy: his pick to run the Chicago Public Schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, just signed a contract in February to remain as superintendent in Rochester, and subsequently received a vote of no confidence from the Rochester teachers’ union. What happened? Brizard and the union squared off over controversial issues he’ll face in Chicago.
* A substantial budget deficit. Brizard says that it’s $76.5 million; the Rochester Teachers Association says it’s $15 million. The shortfall is due to familiar reasons: declining state and federal aid, retirement costs, health care.
* Program cutbacks: "the budget will deeply cut into art, music, foreign language, and physical education."
* Arguments over the size of the district’s central office. Brizard says he’s cut expenses, Rochester reporter Rachel Barnhart says that he’s raised them–more or less the exact same fight the Reader‘s Ben Joravsky had with the Chicago Public Schools over Ron Huberman’s claims to the same.
* Mayoral control over city schools: "Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy wants to set up more schools that produce results like World of Inquiry’s. But he says the superintendent’s efforts to close failing schools and open new ones have been hobbled by a school board mired in minutia."
* Connections to powerful, nationally famous school reformers. Brizard is an admirer of Michelle Rhee, the controversial former head of the DC schools, and co-authored a Washington Post editorial on school reform (PDF) along with Joel Klein (Brizard’s boss in NYC), Huberman, and others.
* Changes to tenure, seniority rules: "’The model for a teacher’s union is that it’s a union of professionals, and to be a professional you have to be treated as one,’ Brizard says. ‘You don’t have first in, last out. That’s a Teamster mentality. If you do more, you get paid more, and if you’re more effective, you get paid for more.’"
* Fights over metrics. The Democrat and Chronicle editorial board says that under Brizard "the district has increased the graduation rate by an unprecedented 12 percentage points in just three years"; Barnhart, of Rochester’s ABC affiliate, writes "Someone PLEASE tell Chicago reporters he did not improve grad rates." Barnart argues that the graduation rate fell, while the number of graduates rose. Brizard, in an e-mail exchange with his predecessor, said that graduation requirements had become more stringent, and that Regents diplomas had increased under his watch.
* School closings. "Jean-Claude Brizard, the schools superintendent in Rochester for the past three years, said that while he was surprised by the data, he welcomed the effort to move the conversation away from simply graduating. In an effort to improve, Rochester has closed half its high schools and opened new schools, including its first high school that allows students to earn credits at several local colleges."
* Support for charter schools: "People always ask me, ‘What do you need?’ And I always tell them two things: leverage and talent. You allow me to do what needs to be done, and then hire the people I need, and you’re going to get magic. When you look at some charter schools like Rochester Prep, the principal was able to do what she needed to do, hire the talent she needed, get rid of people, pay them different amounts of money, and operate much more like a business." Under Brizard, the Rochester schools worked with the Gates Foundation on charter schools.
Brizard’s three years in Rochester were stormy, but his hiring makes a lot of sense in the context of Rahm Emanuel’s statements on the campaign trail about the public schools, the makeup of his educational transition team, and his reported short list of candidates to run CPS.
And Brizard may actually face an easier time of it here: in Rochester, he warred with the long-serving and rhetorically unsubtle head of the RTA, Adam Urbanski, whereas in Chicago he’s arriving in the wake of comparatively smoothly negotiated compromise legislation worked out between the teachers union and school-reform lobbyists. (Update: the first quote I’ve seen out of CTU head Karen Lewis is pretty critical.)