News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Mayor Emanuel provokes a fight with Chicago school principals

After being pushed around for three years, some principals are pushing back.



If I'm looking on the bright side—which, of course, I always am—the latest skirmish involving Mayor Emanuel's policies for the schools is a lot less contentious than his last one.

That was ostensibly over standardized tests, and it culminated in March, when he dispatched investigators to muscle eight-year-olds into ratting on their teachers for not administering the ISAT, which is being phased out anyway.

In contrast, in his recent fight with school principals, the mayor bent over backward to appear conciliatory—not that anyone believes him.

That's the whole reason why, after three years in office, he's in the dustup with principals.

I'm talking about the ongoing fallout over an op-ed in the Sun-Times on May 9 that was written by Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine, a grammar school in Lakeview.

Man, oh man—LaRaviere's piece is the greatest tell-it-like-it-is putdown of phonies since Bob Dylan went off in "Positively 4th Street."

You know how it goes: "You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend . . . "

LaRaviere wrote that, under Mayor Emanuel, principals have been turned into automatons who are expected to repeat whatever line of the day comes down from the central office—even if today's line contradicts the one issued yesterday.

"The administration's interaction with principals is often insulting," LaRaviere wrote. "During the debate over the longer school day, some principals questioned its merits. CPS officials were then dispatched to tell the principals their opinions didn't matter. 'You are Board employees,' a central office official told a room full of principals at a meeting, 'and when you speak, your comments must be in line with the Board's agenda.'"

His essay exploded like a bomb. Within hours, thousands of principals, teachers, and parents were e-mailing it back and forth as if to say, finally—someone on the inside dares to tell the truth!

The reaction from City Hall was a textbook example of how the Emanuel administration responds to unwelcome news.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the mayor's handpicked schools CEO, told reporters that she was shocked—shocked, I tell you—to learn that some principals felt so used and abused.

Then she basically blamed it on the communications office—as though some press release writer had gone rogue and started beating up on principals.

Maybe this was the same unnamed employee who was blamed for yanking the acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis out of school libraries, to speak of another mayoral fight against CPS employees.

Most teachers view the principals' association as the biggest collection of mayoral suckups outside of the City Council.

For his part, Mayor Emanuel assured Chicagoans that he's always appreciated voices of dissent and differences of opinion—which must have come as a surprise to that guy who once received a dead fish from him.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, John Kupper, the mayor's chief political operative, was apparently e-mailing the Tribune, suggesting they write nasty articles about Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, who's seen as the mayor's biggest rival.

Oh, wait—that was a different set of e-mails.

What I'm thinking of is how Kupper e-mailed the Sun-Times to disparage the paper for giving LaRaviere more attention than he deserved.

"First, this guy got a full page in the Sun-Times on Saturday. Now, a story as well?" Kupper wrote in his e-mail, according to the paper. "When does he get a column?"

That's actually not a bad line, John.

But Kupper went on to rip the Sun-Times for quoting "at most, four disgruntled principals." And then he wrote that Clarice Berry, president of Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, doesn't represent the other principals in the district. "She's a CTU shill."

The CTU is, of course, the Chicago Teachers Union, whose president, Karen Lewis, has been on the outs with Mayor Emanuel since he told her "Fuck you" in 2011.

If only the mayor were so tough with the folks who own the parking meters.

The mayor's office almost immediately issued a statement saying that "Mayor Emanuel does not agree with what John Kupper said."

By then Kupper didn't really agree with what he'd said either. "I regret my reckless remark and offer Dr. Berry my public apology," he wrote in a statement to the Sun-Times.

The funny thing is that there's a kernel of truth to Kupper's original comments: the overwhelming majority of principals in Chicago are pretty much willing to go along with any old nonsense that comes out of the mayor's office.

And for as long as I can remember, too many principals have ruled with a blend of autocracy in their schools and deference to the bureaucracy. They bullied the people who worked for them and kissed the booty of whoever stood above them in the chain of command.

Kiss enough booty and you can get promoted to district superintendent.

Where Kupper most definitely got it wrong was his assertion that Berry is a shill for the CTU. Good god—most teachers view the principals' association as the biggest collection of mayoral suck-ups outside of the City Council.

In fact, LaRaviere's essay is probably less of a threat to Mayor Emanuel than it is to Berry. He's got principals all over town talking about how the association needs to be more daring. You know, like the teachers' union under Karen Lewis.

In any event, I don't blame the principals for being upset—they've been used and abused by Mayor Emanuel almost since the day he took over.

There are many examples, but I'll just pick one. During the the teachers' strike in 2012, Mayor Emanuel called a press conference to announce that he had to stand tough against the teachers' union because it was insisting that he take away the right of principals to pick their own staffs.

How did he put it? "It's just like holding a coach accountable for a team's results. They create the team. They create the culture. They create who's the best fit."

Then he got a bunch of his favorite flunkie principals to step to the microphone and basically thank him for looking out for them.

When the strike was over, what did the mayor do in appreciation? He changed the school-funding formula to make it harder for principals to hire experienced teachers, who come with higher salaries.

So more principals were forced to hire rookie teachers, who cost less.

Effectively, principal autonomy came down to this: Mayor Emanuel got the credit for anything that went well in the schools, while principals were forced to make the tough decisions about how to afford salaries and supplies.

So it's really not surprising that LaRaviere could set off an insurrection. Let's just hope it spreads to the voters.

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