Chicago Schools CEO Vallas Resigns

Published August 1, 2001

In surprise moves just a few weeks after the release of disappointing student test scores, Gery Chico and Paul Vallas, the two-man reform team largely responsible for nationally touted improvements in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) over the past six years, abruptly resigned, Chico in late May and Vallas in early June.

Vallas’s resignation was preceded by a notable lack of support from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who frequently has expressed frustration with the slow pace of student reading improvement in the city’s schools.

Board President Chico had indicated in April that some significant administrative changes would be forthcoming to address the Mayor’s concerns about the lack of progress in elementary reading scores. The first news of those changes came on May 21, when CPS officials announced central office staff would be cut by 16 percent, eliminating some 400 non-teaching jobs, to provide $22 million to hire hundreds of new teachers in the fall.

Four days later, Chico resigned, saying he was leaving voluntarily to spend more time with his three daughters and his law practice.

“Six years is actually a lengthy period of service in this position,” said Chico, noting that only three prior board presidents had served longer than he had.

Daley praised Chico, saying he had done “a tremendous job,” but then was notably cool when asked about Vallas’ future. In a memorable headline on May 30, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, “Daley Fires Spitball at School Chief.” This came after the mayor had said Vallas “can stay if he wants to,” while emphasizing that no one is “irreplaceable” and that there are “a lot” of people who could replace him.

Vallas Tires of “These Games”

Two weeks after Chico’s resignation, Vallas also quit, saying a meeting with Daley had made it clear his future was not with the Chicago Public Schools. Later, however, both Daley and Vallas insisted that Vallas alone had made the decision.

“I don’t want to play these games for another year,” Vallas told the editors of the Chicago Tribune, saying he needed a break. “It’s time to go.”

Following the resignations, Daley said both Chico and Vallas had done “a remarkable job” and that “[Vallas] has been quite simply the best chief executive in the history of the Chicago Public Schools.”

Chico called Vallas’s exit “a loss to the city” and gave the former city budget director much of the credit for improving the city’s schools. After Vallas took over in 1995, he quickly brought the budget and operations of the system under control. Subsequently, he built dozens of new schools, ended social promotion, greatly expanded after-school and summer-school programs, and gained nationwide attention for the improvements he achieved.

“This system is much better off than before Gery Chico and I got here,” said Vallas. “The schools are in great financial shape, and the children are rising to the challenge.”

“No Magic Bullet,” Replacements Warn

Daley moved quickly to name replacements. On June 28, Chico was replaced by Michael Scott, 51, a government affairs executive for AT&T Broadband and previously president of the Chicago Park District. Vallas was replaced by Arne Duncan, 36, his deputy chief of staff since 1999.

“There is no magic bullet, no one solution to these problems,” said Scott when he was named Chico’s replacement. Then, giving himself some breathing room, he added, “I do know that any effort, large or small, will not have an immediate impact.”

Although Scott is a veteran of three mayoral administrations, Duncan has had little experience to prepare him to take over a $3.5 billion system with over 435,000 students, 45,900 employees, and some 600 schools. Before becoming Vallas’s deputy, Duncan was director of magnet schools for the Board of Education and director of the Ariel Education Initiative, a nonprofit group that promotes education in poor neighborhoods. He comes from a family of educators and is a former Harvard basketball star.

“I am optimistic that the public schools can offer every child a good education,” Duncan said. “I want to be an advocate for every child and provide every child with a good education.”

Daley praised Duncan as someone who can “work with people and groups with different views to find the common ground that puts our children first.” Then, downplaying the issue that had led to his frustration with Vallas, he said, “Test scores may not improve as much as we would like.”

The Record Under Vallas

Since 1995, when Vallas took over, Chicago’s summer school enrollment has swelled from 30,000 to 200,000, and after-school enrollment has jumped from 100,000 to 250,000. From 1995 to 2001, the percent of students performing at national norms rose from 26.5 to 37.8 in elementary reading, from 29.8 to 43.8 in elementary math, from 23.6 to 31.8 in high school reading, and from 25.3 to 45.0 in 2000 for high school math.

When Vallas took over, about one in four students in Chicago could read at grade level. Now one in three can read at grade level, but progress has stagnated.

In May, Iowa Test results showed that 37.8 percent of students in third- to eighth-grade in the city’s schools could read at or above national norms, up from 36.2 percent in 2000. But reading scores for third-graders were down and reading scores for high school students also were down, even though summer school programs were instituted in 1999 specifically to boost the test scores of under-achieving first- and second-graders.

Last September, a report from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research raised questions about the effectiveness of ending social promotion. Although socially promoted third- and sixth-graders did as well or better than retained students, the study showed that one-third of retained eighth-grade students dropped out–about the same as before the bar on social promotion. In March, a Consortium report showed that nearly half of the system’s students (43 percent) still drop out before graduating from high school.

Last November, 80 percent of participating city schools failed state tests, with overall results showing little improvement over 1999 scores.