Chicago Public Schools CEO Choice Gets Mixed Reviews

By Douglas Fehlen

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A Controversial Pick

Jean-Claude Brizard's appointment as CEO of Chicago Public Schools raised cheers among many people, including plenty from Rochester, New York, where Brizard served as superintendent for three years. Howard Eagle, part of an education taskforce in Rochester, said of the departing administrator, 'We wouldn't wish him on anybody. We're glad to see him go.'

From other quarters, however, mayor-elect Rahm Emanual's hire has been met with sincere praise. Supporters of Brizard insist he is a tough-minded reformer who only has the interests of kids in mind. They point to his experience as both a classroom teacher and an administrator, suggesting he has the right combination of education background and management skills to negotiate the difficult challenge of creating first-class schools while maintaining budgets.

A Tale of Two Perspectives

How can Jean-Claude Brizard be viewed simultaneously as brilliant administrator and disingenuous bogeyman? The answer to that question cuts to the heart of critical issues that schools face today. Brizard's attempts to close an $80 million budget deficit in Rochester Public Schools included the proposed layoff of 770 teachers. This move has not endeared Brizard to the Rochester Teacher Association or parents, nor have his efforts to close schools without community input - indicative, detractors say, of his 'top-down,' 'dictatorial' management style.

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Those who see Brizard as a forward-thinking administrator concede that he has made hard choices in Rochester, but that school officials throughout the country are having to take similar measures. Supporters applaud Brizard's efforts to create more privatized charters as a means by which to keep public education costs down while still offering school choice. And they like that he is a strong proponent of teacher merit pay, another pet concept of those entrenched in the school reform movement.

Jury Remains Out

Divisive feelings about Jean-Clead Brizard extend all the way to perceptions of his track record. In announcing Brizard's appointment, Rahm Emanuel lauded him for raising graduation rates by 12% during his three-year tenure at Rochester schools. Records indicate, however, that the system's graduation rates have been virtually stagnant over that period, actually dropping from 52% in 2008 to an estimated 51% for the 2010 school year.

This week has brought a new round of scrutiny with the news that Brizard was the target of a federal discrimination lawsuit. In 2010, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established there was probable cause to believe that an employee was fired based on her age, gender and race. Emanuel has come to the defense of his appointee in the wake of these allegations: 'That comes with the territory of trying to make change when stakeholders realize that . . . they may not be the beneficiary anymore,' he said. 'There's only one beneficiary when it comes to the Chicago Public School system: the kids.'

Learn about efforts to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the decade-old education legislation that ushered in the current era of school reform.

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