Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard


THE ANNOUNCEMENT of Paul Vallas' departure after the current academic year has re-energized an already complex debate about public leadership and our school district.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of Paul Vallas' departure after the current academic year has re-energized an already complex debate about public leadership and our school district.

Our political class has focused less on what we want than on who will control or influence the choice: the city, the state, the governor, the School Reform Commission, the present mayor, the mayor to be. These governance issues are important but must be linked to a discussion of the direction of the district itself.

Said differently, our choice of the next CEO must be connected to our perspective on what we wish to continue from the recent past and how we might reconfigure the district in the future.

The Paul Vallas period accomplished three very important things that must be maintained.

Wide Tent: The past five years has been a time of relative political unanimity with respect to core school district constituencies: the teachers union, principals, state legislators, parent groups and the city administration. I'm not trying to gloss over the many disagreements that existed but in comparison to other periods of reform, this one had a wider tent.

Portfolio of public choices: The wide tent has allowed for a portfolio approach to public choice.

In a short time, we have nearly doubled our high school options and radically altered the K-8 ones. Parents have a wide spectrum of magnet, charter, district and contract schools from which to choose. They are all public schools, but they are managed differently, and they compete for attendance. We are leading the nation's large cities in school innovation.

Progress on achievement and standards: We've moved achievement numbers in the right direction.

It's been slow and uneven but something to build upon. We have instituted better standards and curriculum tools, as well as more forward-looking teacher recruitment and training protocols. The portfolio approach is an ally in facilitating achievement - as long as we have the political will to shut down whatever does not work.

Paul Vallas was a spark that took the deck he was dealt and ignited change. Was he or his regime without flaw? Of course not, but he was the leader we needed at the time. He was able to manage relationships, accommodate innovation and demand high-quality outcomes.

Now we have new choices to make - both about leadership and the district's direction. Here are my suggestions.

First, we need leadership that will consolidate and deepen the academic accomplishments of recent years.

Second, we need to drive our portfolio of options along a quality grid, no matter what the political consequences. This means being willing to shut down whatever does not work and scale up or consolidate whatever does.

Third, we need a strong manager (and management team) that can get a better handle on finance, capital expenditures and long-range budget planning.

FINALLY, WE need to maintain the city-state partnership that currently exists.

The next leader of the school district has to be more of a manager and less of a visionary. That is a somewhat natural evolution for any organization. Paul Vallas did what we needed him to do - he shook up the system and pointed the way out of the morass we have been in for several decades.

The next CEO has a platform to build upon, but must manage it in a new way. *

Jeremy Nowak is president of the Reinvestment Fund and chairman of the board of Mastery Charter Schools.