Rahm Emanuel Discusses Chicago, National Ed. Policy at NewSchools Summit

San Francisco

In a wide-ranging discussion that focused on some of the difficult changes made to Chicago schools, the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, closed down the (deep breath) NewSchools Venture Fund-Aspen Institute Summit on Education Innovation held Wednesday.

The summit, hosted by the nonprofit venture firm and featuring about 900 entrepreneurs, reformers, investors, and like-minded educators, had a technology and entrepreneurial bent. But Emanuel’s talk fit into an undercurrent of the day: how school districts drive change from within, instead of relying on outside forces.

During a speech and interview—conducted by Laurene Powell Jobs, co-founder of College Track and widow of Steve Jobs—Emanuel repeatedly said he was not in favor of charter schools, or turnaround schools, or magnet schools, but whatever schools get results.

“I’m for educational excellence,” Emanuel said. “Any one of those jockeys that get us there, I’m for it.”

He touted hard-fought but controversial collective bargaining wins in Chicago that added time to the school day and school year and established merit pay for principals. Though private funders are helping support that system, Emanuel said he doesn’t support private money getting involved in public schools in the instance of school vouchers, an issue brought up by a member of the audience.

Throughout the day, in comments from district leaders like Cami Anderson, of Newark, N.J., and Kaya Henderson, of the District of Columbia, the capability of school districts to act like charter schools and entrepreneurs was paramount. Districts can give schools the same autonomy and operate under the same focus on assessment and data as charter schools, and do it at a greater scale, the argument went.

Emanuel agreed, consistently highlighting the Academy of Urban School Leadership, where teachers are trained for one year before working in some of Chicago’s lowest-performing schools, which are also managed by AUSL.

Questions about the recent exodus of top education officials in Chicago were notably absent from the conversation (as were swear words, though NewSchools president Ted Mitchell teased Emanuel about his fiery reputation by dropping two f-bombs in his intro). This week, Chief Education Officer Noemi Donoso, who Emanuel selected to be Chicago Public Schools second-ranked officer, resigned before the end of her contract. She became the fourth high-ranking education official to resign recently. (Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former CEO of Cleveland Public Schools, was named her interim replacement.)

Emanuel was asked about his former boss, President Obama, and how a potential second term might affect education policy. Emanuel personally advocated for Race to the Top funds made available to local school districts, instead of states, an idea U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has floated in our pages.

Never one to back down from a chance to offer his opinion, Emanuel also speculated that the DREAM Act for undocumented immigrants graduating high school would be passed, but only if Obama wins a second term, the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, and Obama wins most of the southwestern states. Hey, at least it’s something.

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