The job pays $125,000 a year. The salary was raised to that level--almost twice as much as Mayor Jane Byrne is paid--to buy the best available talent. There was money to search for the best talent, too. A Chicago foundation provided $60,000 for the search for the one person in all the nation who could do the job--superintendent of Chicago's public schools.
Two years ago, the consensus here was that the only solution to the woes of the public schools was to go outside the local system in search of a messiah who could make the schools work for the mostly black, mostly poor children left in them. But less than a month after the new superintendent started the job, Chicago politicians and parents wee grumbling that they had gone on a nationwide hunt for the ideal educator to save their schools, only to end up with someone they now fear is just a clever, ambitious politican.
Ruth Love, former head of Oakland's public schools, was in the Chicago job less than a month before her top assistant said, falsely, that he and the superintendent had found listening devices on her phones. It was apparently an attempt to raise her status in the public eye. Love said newspaper reporters misunderstood her when they quoted her as saying she had personally seen the bugs.
"I was never convinced of the idea that we had to go outside the school system to find a superintendent," says Rev. Kenneth Smith, president of the Chicago School Board--he abstained from the vote on hiring her--"and I'm not convinced now. It is hard to judge what sort of superintendent the woman will ever be. She doesn't know the school system or the city, and like every city, we are unique. We are under court order to desegregate. The last permanent superintendent resigned because of the financial problems. Then the legislature fired the school board."
Chicago's experience holds a lesson for Washington as it searches for a school superintendent. The best bet is to stay in the city school system and find an administrator who already knows the schools and the city, someone the schools already know, too, and won't be unpleasantly surprised by.
Chicago decided it wanted an outsider to become superintendent because, in board president Smith's words, "We wanted someone without friends in the system, an outsider who didn't owe any debts, who had fresh ideas and the energy to change the system." That was the dream.
The school board hired an executive-search firm, Duff-Howard. "We found that what makes a great superintendent," says Ken Duffy, managing partner, "is, first of all, charisma. Someone who has the power to upgrade morale. The school systems that people feel good about have a hero at the wheel, an Ernie Banks who looks good, draws people to him . . . who can get the business community interested in the schools.
"They don't need to be a good educator, per se, but someone who can delegate authority to good, smart people who carry out the actual educational program."
The top superintendents in the country who were also black--another of Chicago's demands--were Arthur Jefferson of Detroit, Fred Holliday of York, Pa., Vincent Reed, former superintendent of D.C. schools, and Ruth Love of Oakland.
Jefferson and Reed turned the job down. Holliday eventually withdrew. That left Chicago with Ruth Love, a woman who gained a national reputation as an innovator i curriculum for beginning a system much like the District's Competency Based Curriculum and Chicago's reading plan, in which students must master specified skills before going on to the next level of work. She also began a program of handing out two grades, one for achievement and a second for effort. She began an adopt-a-school program to get businesses to sponsor school programs, buy books and get involved with the schools.
The other side of Ruth Love, however, was an ego that would make her do anything to get attention and the fact that she was a skilled political infighter who regularly fired people with other points of view. She also has an intolerance of vocal community groups and unions, according to reporters and school board members in Oakland. This was the side of Ruth Love that Chicago and its executive search firm did not know.
Criticism of Love ws muted during her selection because the three other candidates had already turned the job down and there was a push to just get the job filled after two years without a permanent superintendent. The school board was under fire from many blacks in the city, including Jesse Jackson, for not giving the job to Manford Byrd Jr., a black deputy superintendent in the Chicago schools since 1968.
"Ruth Love is not considered black at this moment by the black community," said Alderman Niles Sherman after Love was chosen superintendent. "A black candidate would have done what the others did--looked at the ramifications of the situation here and turned it down."
Two weeks after Love took office, she was involved with the bugging hoax. Suddenly the genius from a distant coast who was to save the public schools looked very ordinary.
"The bugging scandal hurt her," says a white Chicago politican who had supported hiring her. "No question. She had a whole heap of good will. She was the one who was going to save the schools. She takes that and gets her hand caught in the cookie jar. . . . If we had the chance again, I think you'd see more people willing to stay in the school system to pick a superintendent."
What happened in Chicago is a signal for Washington. If there are any candidates of good caliber in this city, they should be the ones competing for the permanent superintendent's job. If there are no good administrators with experience in the city's schools, then the school board needs to develop some talent. It should not be trapped into searching every two or three years for savior-superintendents who rarely live up to expectations.