Huberman Named CPS Chief

January 28, 2009

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Ron Huberman has been tapped to lead Chicago Public Schools. (WBEZ/Mekea Williamson)
The Chicago school district has a new CEO. Mayor Richard Daley announced yesterday that Chicago Transit Authority president Ron Huberman will lead the city's schools. Some are wondering whether the 37-year-old former cop has what it takes to run the nation's third largest school district. And his appointment has touched off a debate about what sort of resume is needed to run a system of 650 schools and 400,000 students.

Related: Reaction to New Schools Chief
848: Tune in at 9 when Alexander Russo explains the decision

Arne Duncan flew back from Washington and his new position as the nation's Education Secretary to hand off the baton to Huberman. Both appeared at a press conference yesterday with Mayor Daley, who has the sole power to appoint a schools chief.

HUBERMAN: So Mayor Daley, I want to thank you for the opportunity you've given me. It's the most important challenge I've taken on so far. Nothing is more important than the education of Chicago's children. I also just want to thank Arne, both for being here today and for laying the fantastic groundwork..”

But the back story here is who Daley DIDN'T pick for the job.

Barbara-Eason Watkins, the district's #2 administrator, is widely credited for much of the district's progress, especially at the elementary school level, where gains have been greatest.

She's a former teacher and principal. Both Duncan and board president Rufus Williams had publicly supported Eason-Watkins for the top job. But at the press conference yesterday, Duncan called Huberman a “brilliant pick.”

DUNCAN: What you have here is extraordinary continuity. You have the mayor who's stayed the course. You have a board that's been there from Day 1. You have Barbara Eason-Watkins, who's a visionary education leader, who's been a great partner for me and will be a great partner for Ron, and you bring in Ron—someone who's just an extraordinary manager.

Eason-Watkins said in a statement that she remains committed to educating the children of Chicago and will continue in her role as Chief Education Officer.

In the speech he read, Huberman called Eason-Watkins an unsung hero and said he would continue to work closely with her.

Many teachers had advocated choosing an educator for the top schools job. Roberto Clemente High School English teacher Michael Hogan said he wishes the mayor had picked someone who understands the urban classroom.

TEAHCER: I'd like to have somebody other than a basketball player or a cop—not that there's anything wrong with being those things-- but as being the CEO of the Chicago Board of Education—which is an EDUCATIONAL institution.

Huberman has served as the president of the CTA for just under two years. Before that, he served as the mayor's chief of staff and headed the city's 911 center. He worked in the police department for nine years, starting out as a beat cop.

But some academics say it shouldn't be a concern that Huberman was never a teacher or principal.

RODERICK: The best and the brightest public administrators should be running large public agencies. Melissa Roderick is co-director of Consortium on Chicago School Research. She taught Huberman when he was a master's degree student at U of C.

RODERICK: When he was in my class he was a cop on the street and he would come in and talk about his experience with such caring and such empathy that I think the people will be surprised at how much he cares and respects the families of Chicago.

Huberman has some tough assignments ahead of him. High schools have seen little improvement over the past decade despite myriad reform efforts. The CPS graduation rate hovers just over 50 percent. Other challenges include violence in the neighborhoods surrounding schools…And school finance issues that will only get tougher in an economic downturn.

Huberman is also walking into a controversial round of school closings—public protests are planned at today's school board meeting.

Linda Lutton. WBEZ.