This report was updated at 3 p.m. on April 24 at 3 p.m.
Smith, who was appointed to the position by the Illinois Board of Education on April 15, resigned unexpectedly from the Oakland Unified School District in April 2013 and left his post two months later. He said he was moving to Chicago because of his father-in-law’s ill health. Once there, he became president of the W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation, a philanthropic foundation with a focus on early education.
Smith, 48, was nominated to the Illinois schools chief position by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, who took office in January. The Illinois State Board of Education, the majority of whom are appointed by Rauner, confirmed Smith’s appointment to the post in mid-April.
In Illinois, Smith will help coordinate state policy affecting nearly 900 districts. With just over 2 million students, Illinois ranks fifth among states in total enrollment.
A spokesperson for Rauner described Smith as “a transformational leader who has a proven track record of increasing student achievement, while successfully addressing fiscal and structural issues at the local district level,” a reference to his tenure as school chief in Oakland and his work in other Bay Area school districts. Smith served on Rauner’s transition team after he won the governor’s post in November.
In an interview with EdSource, Smith said his experience in California will help inform his work in Illinois, especially Oakland’s participation as part of the consortium of 10 CORE districts. He said the work of Canadian educator Michael Fullan, who is working with districts and California Department of Education on school reform in California, will be especially instructive, including concepts such as a “leadership from the middle,” “peer-to-peer accountability” and “professional capital.” He said he has already reached out to Fullan to see how he could help in Illinois, and was “desperate to move as quickly as possible” to promote a collaborative culture in the state along the lines articulated by Fullan.
For a definition of “professional capital” go here.
Smith said that he would look at ways state agencies can be more supportive of local districts. “It can be easy just to say ‘do this,'” he said. “But it is difficult to run a public system well, and superintendents need support and help doing that.”
Smith will be paid an annual salary of $225,000. The superintendent of education in Illinois is an appointed position, unlike California’s state superintendent of public instruction, which is a statewide elected post. But their responsibilities are similar. In Illinois, Smith will help coordinate state policy affecting nearly 900 districts. With just over 2 million students, Illinois ranks fifth among states in total enrollment. California ranks first, with more than 6 million students.
Smith will take his position against a backdrop of great controversy in Chicago that has implications for the state as well.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, took a paid leave of absence last week in the face of a federal investigation into the district’s awarding of a no-bid contract worth more than $20 million for principal and school leadership training to SUPES Academy, a for-profit firm Byrd-Bennett had previously worked for as a consultant.
In addition, the Chicago schools face a $1.1 billion budget shortfall for the coming school year, largely triggered by massive increases in pension obligations – with no clear path for how to close the gap.
Byrd-Bennett, who has not been charged with any wrong doing, was appointed to her post by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012 and was a key ally in implementing explosive policies, including the decision to close 47 schools serving 12,000 students. Subpoenas were issued to three senior school district officials to appear before a federal grand jury in regards to the contract barely a week after Emanuel was returned to office after a heated runoff election — even though the reporting organization Catalyst Chicago has been reporting on the issue for almost two years.
One issue that Smith will almost certainly find himself in the middle of is the extent to which the state will assist Chicago in climbing out of its budget hole, or whether it will be left to the district to do so on its own. Rauner last week went so far as to suggest that the school district might need to declare bankruptcy. “The taxpayers of Illinois are not going to bail out the city of Chicago, that ain’t happening,” he said.
Smith’s appointment has itself not been without controversy.He was the only candidate considered by the board, in contrast to at least some previous appointments that were the results of a national search.
He was the only candidate considered by the board, in contrast to at least some previous appointments that were the results of a national search. Rauner is a self-described free market conservative and wealthy businessman who worked for the private investment firm GTCR for 30 years and retired as its chairman in 2012. This week, in a speech to the Education Writers Association in Chicago, he said a major priority of his was to ensure that all students are prepared for careers — which could include bringing back vocational tracking in the schools.
Smith has not been linked to the SUPES Academy flap. However, questions have been raised in the press and elsewhere about the role of the Chicago Public Education Fund, a private foundation whose board comprises some of the city’s and state’s most prominent business and civic leaders, including Gov. Rauner. Many are close to Emanuel. Smith joined the board of the fund last year.
However, according to a statement from its chief executive officer, Heather Anichini, the fund provided a grant to the SUPES Academy in 2011 – before Smith joined the fund’s board – but since then has not made any grants to the firm.
While in Oakland, Smith helped steer the district through the extreme budget cutting era brought on by the recession. He led a comprehensive district-wide community schools initiative to expand the role of all schools in the lives not only of their students but also the larger community, and he founded a focused division in the district to boost achievement of African-American male students.
At the same time, he generated considerable community opposition – which included a nearly three-week sit-in at now-shuttered Lakeview Elementary School – when the school board voted to close five schools that had suffered from declining enrollments.
There were also tensions with the teachers union on a number of issues, including requiring teachers at three struggling schools to reapply for new 11-month positions and attempting to change seniority positions to give principals more flexibility in hiring.
Now Smith will be tackling some of these issues, including immense budget challenges, intense union conflicts, and heated state vs. local battles, on a far larger scale and a more prominent canvas than he did when he was in Oakland, or when he was a deputy superintendent in San Francisco, and superintendent of the tiny Emery Unified School before that.
Smith said the number one issue on his agenda will be working to achieve is “funding equity” in the state. “It is difficult to describe how broken the system is in terms of equitably funding education in Illinois,” he said. “That will be a huge focus for me.” He said that he had learned “extraordinary lessons in California,” including implementing “ideas that might seem radical” like Oakland’s African America Male Achievement Academy. “We can actually figure out ways to increase equity for kids that seem least likely to succeed,” he said.