Richard M. Daley

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and D.C.’s embattled top honcho, Adrian Fenty, are often the first to come to mind when it comes to leading mayors on school reform. Yet neither one can claim the slow, steady (and often controversial)¬†success of Chicago’s Richard M. Daley, who has announced today that he will not attempt to extend his 21-year reign as the Second City’s mayor. From his takeover of Chicago’s school district to spawning the careers of Paul Vallas and (now-U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan, Daley is arguably among the most-influential players in shaping the role city leaders in education — and in ending the dominance of defenders of traditional public education on the debate over reforming schools.

Education certainly wasn’t foremost on Daley’s mind back in 1989 when he won the top office his father (and namesake) controlled for two decades. The younger Daley, had parlayed his family ties into a state senate seat and tenure as Cook County’s State’s Attorney, had promised to bring sanity to Chitown’s government structure and improve quality¬†of life in the city¬†after a decade of bureaucratic ineptitude, political sparring and gang activity that made the city seem more like Beirut than the jewel of the American Midwest. Chicago’s dropout factories were, at best, an afterthought for Daley as he tore down public housing that served as feeding grounds for urban decay, brought down crime and revived Chicago neighborhoods in order to lure back middle class families.

But by 1995, Daley realized what colleagues such as John Norquist in Milwaukee understood instinctively: Cities cannot revive themselves until their school systems are given a thorough overhaul. A system that commits educational malpractice on its poorest students cannot be trusted by wealthier citizens (who can avail themselves of what they often mistakenly think are better options). So Daley took full control of Chicago Public Schools and,¬†through the work of Vallas and successor Duncan, reform the district. In time, Chicago would become a hub of school reform, with the city fully embracing such innovations as charter schools while shutting down the city’s longstanding dropout factories.

The results can be seen in graduation rates that have increased from an abysmal 39 percent for the Class of 2005 to a (less-atrocious) 54 percent for its class of 2008. But Chicago, like other major cities, has plenty of ways to go before its traditional school district is providing every child a high-quality education. As the Consortium on Chicago School Research has pointed out, the city’s high school graduates struggle mightily when it comes to college completion; the city is still a long way from overcoming race-, ethnic- and gender-based achievement gaps. Daley has to own his failures as much as he must own his successes. At the same time, Daley’s successes — and continuing struggles — on the education front exemplify the need to address the systemic problems within American public education with strong reform. No one district alone can fully escape a system in which teachers are poorly trained, compensation rewards low quality, teachers and administrators are insulated from the consequences of their failures, and curricula is watered down to useless.

But the greater impact of Daley’s reign on the educational landscape comes not in graduationrates or in test scores, but in reshaping the conversation about what must be done to improve education for all children — especially in our biggest cities. Until Daley, Norquist and Boston’s Thomas Mennino began taking over districts and¬†launching school voucher plans, few believed that mayors had any place at the table of educational decision-making. Most held on to the thinking (fostered by the Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century),¬†that schools¬†are somehow apolitical organizations that should remain separate from city governance. But it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that education is as political as any other part of the public sector. More importantly, the traditional district model —¬†with school boards beholden to locals of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, and superintendents who are either too cozy with unions and fellow bureaucrats or lack political backing for their work — has largely proven to be a failure for kids and cities alike.¬†

By expending his political capital on school reform, and insulating his CEOs from opponents of reform, Daley proved that mayoral control is one possible tool in reforming public education. More importantly, Daley has forced other mayors to take on education as key elements of their own political agendas. Without Daley, there is no Bloomberg, no Fenty, no Bart Peterson, and no systemic reform.

Daley will have an even greater impact on education thanks to the work of Vallas (whose work in fostering school reform in New Orleans may serve as a model for other cities to follow) and Duncan, who is shaking up American public education through such efforts as Race to the Top. Although the results of their work are incomplete, they are forcing the NEA, the AFT and other defenders of traditional public education practices to step back and at least consider that their tried-and-true formulas are little more than just failures in bottles.

There is no question that Daley probably overstayed his welcome as Chicago’s mayor. Even before his announcement, the chances of him winning another term were more than unlikely (even if a credible opponent has yet to emerge). But Daley has certainly done as much to reshape the¬†conversation about American public education as he has left his mark on life in the Second City.