Karen Lewis and Jean-Claude Brizard discuss public schools at Tribune forum at University of Illinois at Chicago

If it had been a debate, and the audience of more than 700 had voted a winner, the clear winner on the evening of September 13, 2011, would have been Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union. From the opening words to the last word, Lewis was able to speak more factually and clearly about the problems facing Chicago's vast public school system, while the latest Chief Executive Officer of the system, former Rochester Schools Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, was often charming but often equally unclear. Brizard, who came to Chicago in May after being given the nod by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was able to articulate some of his main objectives, but still unable to discuss much that was precise and concrete either about Chicago or its schools. And Karen Lewis, born, raised and educated through high school in Chicago, was in command of the narrative, even when a Tribune ringer tried to throw the discussion off late in the game.

Participants in the 2011 Chicago Forward forum on the city's public schools were (left to right) moderator Bruce Dold (editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune), Karen Lewis (President of the Chicago Teachers Union) and Jean-Claude Brizard (Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Public Schools). Substance photo by George N Schmidt.But it wasn't a debate, as both the moderator and host made clear. The second Chicago Tribune PCN Bank forum was just that, a forum, a discussion about the city's public schools. As much as there had been enormous heat thrown around town during the previous four or five weeks as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his surrogates continually attacked the Chicago Teachers Union for not immediately jumping on board his demand for a longer school day in the city's elementary schools, the hour and a half on September 13 was truly affable, with only one or two momentary flareups — still smiles all around — as Lewis and Brizard discussed one of the most complex issues facing urban America today: public education.

There were several ghosts in the large auditorium, however. One year earlier, a newly elected Lewis had faced three adversaries at the time of the first "forum." In addition to Ron Huberman, who on the opening day of school 2010 was "CEO" of CPS, Lewis was faced with State Senator James Meeks, then head of the Illinois Senate Education Committee, and the head of the city's Catholic school system. As Lewis noted in passing, Brizard was the third schools chief for CPS since one year earlier (Terry Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust had served as Interim CEO after Huberman abruptly resigned following the announcement by then Mayor Richard M. Daley that he would not run for another term).

One of the many topics largely ignored during the discussions was Brizard himself, and the reorganization of the school system he has made since his first Board of Education meeting, the special meeting of June 15, 2011. At that time, Brizard's staff reported to the newly appointed Board members that the school system was facing a "deficit" of $712 million. The amount, dutifully reported in the Tribune and other media, ignored many of the fiscal realities facing CPS and was largely created by increasing the anticipated expenditures of the system and reducing the anticipated revenues (a typical way of creating a "deficit" when a budget is being projected, and a longstanding one in Chicago's school system). The impact of Brizard's claims, however, was immediate and widespread. Based on the "deficit" claims, Brizard recommended that the Board of Education rescind a contractually agreed upon four percent raise for all unionized school workers due to begin July 1, 2011. The Board voted to accept the deficit "emergency" on June 15, and as a result, Brizard's first major act as CEO of the nation's third-largest school system was to break a contractually agreed upon pact with the system's workers.

Throughout the summer of 2011, Brizard and representatives of Mayor Rahm Emanuel have gone around the city repeating talking points based on the budget claims made by Brizard in June. But the problems for sustaining those claims became larger than they had been on September 2, 2011, when CPS announced that three of the city's elementary schools had voted to waive the existing union contract and begin the school year with a school day 90 minutes longer than most schools. (By September 13, the number of waivers had increased to seven).

Each school beginning a waiver in September 2011 is supposed to receive a "bonus" of $1,200 for each teacher, as well as an additional $150,000 per school for each school. Even the credulous editors of the Chicago Tribune were hard pressed to go along with Brizard's deficit claims by September 13, and Bruce Dold, who as editorial page editor had overseen the production of the editorials berating the CTU on the longer school day issue, noted during the forum that CPS had somehow found the money to pay the bonuses and the extra dollars per school for those voting for waivers. When Brizard answered that his administration had found another $30 million in cuts to what he calls the "bureaucracy," Dold failed to follow up onu the issue. The fact is, the "deficit" repeated by the Tribune (and some other corporate media) is a fiction, as is the claim that it is the largest in CPS history. (Last year, Ron Huberman eventally went around town saying the "deficit" CPS had been facing was $1 billion, a statement he repeated in the CPS CAFR, the audited financial reports).

While the general tone of the discussions was affable, there were some distinct differences between Lewis and Brizard. One of them, the most public during the past several weeks, is the question of the longer school day. While Lewis and Brizard were talking, in fact, Brizard's administration was continuing to circulate materials to school principals coaching them on how to get their schools to vote for the longer school day that the Emanuel administration has made a centerpiece of its attack on the teachers' union since the beginning of the summer. While several officials of the Brizard administration were in the hall at UIC Tuesday night, others were working the schools trying to increase the number of schools that voted for the waiver as prescribed by a ballot prepared by the Board of Education's Law Department. Lewis bristled when the issue of the longer school day came up, and reminded the audience that the union had asked that the discussion be focused on what should be part of that school day, and not simply on time.

There were more participants in the 2010 "Chicago Forward" forum on Chicago's public schools, although both events were sponsored by Chicago Tribune and PNC Bank. Above, left to right, moderator Bruce Dold (editorial page editor, Chicago Tribune), Ron Huberman (the former police officer who was then "Chief Executive Officer" of Chicago's public schools), Karen Lewis (President, Chicago Teachers Union), the head of the Catholic school system, and State Senator James Meeks, who at the time was chairman of the Illinois State Senate Education Committee. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.For several weeks, the union has said that it wants a "better" — not merely a longer — school day in Chicago.

At a few points in the discussion, Lewis took direct issue with claims made by Brizard. One of those was that research from Masschusetts had proved that student "outcomes" (the current Orwellian term for test score results) had improved as a result of a longer school day. Lewis pointed out that Brizard's administration had produced a chart claiming to be based on the Massachusetts study which truncated the Massachusetts results. She told the audience that the debate over the city's public schools should be a "no lie zone."

The clear majority of the people attending the event were members of the Chicago Teachers Union, many wearing the distinctive red shirts that the union has sported lately. In a few instances, discussions took place during the debate as some members of the audience tried to proclaim some of the earlier talking points of the national narrative against teacher unions and union members in the crowd challenged those. During the year since the movie "Waiting for Superman" was launched and the narrative attack on the teachers unions in the movie attempted to become the national narrative, things have shifted radically. Despite attempts by many leaders of corporate school reform to focus the narrative against the teachers' unions, or on the question of how to rid schools of "bad teachers," the complexities of the issues are now before the public.

One of those brought to the fore by Karen Lewis on September 13 was poverty. Lewis pushed aside many of the standard criticisms of Chicago's public schools and noted that American public schools, when poverty was considered a factor, are among the best in the world, even as measured by standardized tests. The enormous rate of child poverty in the USA, she noted, accounts for a great deal of the so-called 'failure' of America's public schools.

Lewis's statements were echoed by most of the people who had been selected by the Tribune to ask questions that night. Two students and three parents took the floor after having won an essay contest of sorts to ask their questions. The students both pointed out that they were receiving an excellent education in Chicago's public schools. Lewis came back to that point in the context of the current assault on unions in general and the Chicago Teachers Union in particular to point out that the nations that have the best overall scores on international education evaluations (like the PISA) also have unionized teaching forces. (The states in the USA with the worst "outcomes" as measured by standardized tests are all anti-union "Right to Work" states in the South).

The event was organized by the Tribune as part of its Chicago Forward series of events. It was sponsored in conjunction with PNC bank.


September 14, 2011 at 2:07 PM

By: Myron Miner

Durham School?

I was really impressed with this Durham School that JLB mentioned. Situated on the South Side, Durham continues to exceed standards despite 100% poverty. Why don't you ever write about Durham George?

Myron Miner

September 15, 2011 at 4:47 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Brizard made up 'Durham' school, just like he makes up so many things

Sorry, Myron, but I left that "Durham school" thingy by Brizard out of my report. Chicago doesn't have and never had a "Durham" school. But remember, the event was sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. That entity lost their grip on reality and facts before they became the plaything of the billionaire SOB Sam Zell. (One of the things we treasure at Substance is a copy of the old Tribune style and "ethics" manual; they actually have such a thing, just so their reporters and editors can laugh now and then while they pull a comic strip by Doonsberry after inserting a racist editorial cartoon by some FNG editorial cartoonist who also follows their scripts, but we digress...).

Tribune doesn't bother to fact check the "news" it prints any more — especially when it goes around teacher bashing and union busting. Nor do they fact check the pronuncimations of any other "CEO." (Think of all that nonsense Sam Zell was spouting when he bought Tribune four years ago; leverage and all that, while he robbed the Trib workers of their pensions and then began breaking off some pieces of Tribune -- like the Cubs -- to sell off before he got sort of caught. It's a Trib tradition, sucking up to CEOs and putting their words in quotes as fact.)

So Jean-Claude Brizard can lie any time he wants and the lies will get into print in the Chicago Tribune, then be recycled like toxic political sludge into the media food chain. Next thing you know, some teacher is walking around with a clip from a Trib story saying, "Well, did you read THIS?"

Brizard can say anything that floats into his mind and it's a "fact" in Tribune land. Which can sadly mean most of the Chicago "public" (especially in the suburbs, where most of the Trib's editors and owners live) will go around repeating it ad nauseum. (There was a guy sitting behind me with the strangest pouffy hair I've seen lately on a fancy dressed human being mouthing all those Michelle Rhee cliches until one of the retired teachers in the audience took him on. Did you notice him, with that huge white puff of stuff atop his pane?)

But back to Brizard's fictional perfect Chicago school...

Bruce Dold, the Trib editor who moderated the event, long ago surrendered the last piece of his reportorial soul to the official ruling class party line on corporate "school reform." Their editors and most of their reporters all get their knowledge of education after they pass that test on "Waiting for Superman" and the (very brief) "Collective Education Studies of Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein." They are also assigned a Roladex of "approved experts" to quote on any subject about public schools, and none of those experts will ever have had experience in a Chicago public school classroom for more than a brief visit.

Of course Brizard was lying, er., "reality challenged" when he pontificated with that practiced angelic smile about "Durham School" (which probably also has an ace principal to wrangle its teacher types). "J.C." — as the mayor and other ruling class types like to call him — made a career out of combining that smile with nothing but lies. As soon as he gets caught in one, he just moves on to another. It's like in "creative writing" class; when you're making things up, with enough imagination anything's possible. Rochester is still laughing at Chicago for taking him off their hands; they exposed most of his lies before Chicago became his latest Hollywood chance.

As you know, Chicago has no "Durham" school, impoverished, middle class, or otherwise. Brizard made it up. For readers who weren't at the Tribune forum, when Brizard claimed with a straight face that he had been at a school recently that was "100 percent minority and 100 percent poverty" and had really really high test scores, someone in the audience demanded that he name the school, so he told the crowd, with a straight face and that ever-affable smile, that it was "Durham School." Which does not exist, at least in Chicago's reality zone.

As in so many other things, Jean-Claude Brizard simply made it up. Once reality becomes a scripted media event, often with Hollywood coaching, things get really strange. Brizard and his "team" invented a "deficit" in June that enabled them (temporarily at least) to withhold the fifth year raises due to all unionized school workers in the union contracts. That "deficit" tall tale is as big a lie as last year's. That's when Ron Huberman told all that the "deficit" was going to be "$900 million." Huberman outdid himself in the fiction department when, in the introduction to the CPS audited financial statement in December, he rounded up that "$900 million" to "$1 billion" -- the "projected deficit" that he and his team slew.

But after all, Huberman was three CEOs ago, and they have all been going to the same creative writing seminars.

Jean-Claude Brizard's minions are the worst yet, however, because virtually all of them are imported outsiders, usually vetted by the Broad Foundation, who don't know shit about Chicago. They can't find their way from Bogan to Bowen without a GPS or a driver, but don't need to know anything about Chicago or the education of human children because they are provided with scripted to read from and that's enough for the billionaire Board of Education.

Once Brizard's boys and girls got going, they've been using their creative writing talents just about every day.

Karen Lewis suggests we create a "No Lie Zone" similar to the "No Fly Zones" of recent years. We can create one, but there is no way we can atop Jean-Claude Brizard and his wonderful team of fabulists from lying, cheating and stealing for as long as they are vested with the powers to do so by Chicago's ruling class, in the case of Tuesday's event — Bruce Dold and the editors and owners of the Chicago Tribune.

September 23, 2011 at 9:13 AM

By: Arthur Howe

Burnham School

George and Myron,

Thanks for your coverage of the schools and for raising the question about the "Durham" school, which also interested me.

You might want to take a look at Eric Zorn's 9/20/11 column "A tale of two schools -- One South Side elementary thrives while a similar school nearby struggles," which has a link to a mp3 of Jean-Claude Brizard's initial comments.

Zorn writes:

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard wanted to add what he called a “wrinkle” to the conversation about public education.

“I was at a school a few days ago, late last week, on the far, far South Side of the city,” said Brizard, speaking at a recent joint appearance with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “100 percent minority, 100 percent poverty. Yet at the 95th percentile in proficiency.”

Brizard went on to ask how the school could be doing so well when there is another school “only about half a mile down the road, same kind of school, same kids, same neighborhood, (but) at the bottom of the pile in achievement. That’s the question I think we also have to wrestle with: How some schools are doing it and others seem to struggle with the exact same situation.”

Which schools was he talking about? Several in the audience of 850 at the Tribune-organized forum shouted that question, but Brizard gave a short, unintelligible answer and the discussion moved along.

Intrigued, I followed up. It turns out Brizard was referring to Burnham/Anthony Math & Science Academy (right) and Robert H. Lawrence Math & Science School, kindergarten through eighth-grade facilities located in the same square mile of the Jeffery Manor neighborhood south of 95th Street and west of the Chicago Skyway.

And sure enough, allowing for a bit of creative license, Brizard had his facts straight. Both public schools are roughly 99 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, and more or less 95 percent of students at each school qualify as low-income.

Neither school is a magnet or selective-enrollment academy. Each has about 10 percent of its students classified as disabled and has daily attendance rates in the mid-90s.

Yet 88 percent of Burnham/Anthony students met or exceeded state standards on the composite 2011 Illinois Standards Achievement Test of reading, math and writing, compared to 47 percent of students at Lawrence (the city average is 73 percent).

Ten years ago, Lawrence’s meets/exceeds score on the ISAT’s was 41 percent, compared to just 38.5 percent for Burnham/Anthony.

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute now rates Burnham/Anthony "strong" in all five of its "essentials" -- Professional Capacity, Instructional Leadership, Family & Community Ties, Learning Climate and Ambitious Instruction (Lawrence "needs support" in the first three and rates average for the last two).

. . . .


It appears, at least to me, that Jean-Claude Brizard had his facts right, although it appears that he said or meant to refer to the Burnham school (not the Durham school) and was misheard or mispoke regarding the name of the school.

As an additional clarification, Zorn writes that neither school -- Burnham or Lawrence -- is a magnet school. It appears that that statement by Zorn (and not by Brizard) may be incorrect, at least with respect to Burnham. The website for Burnham Academy states that it is a Mathematics and Science magnet cluster school. See


Art Howe

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