Illinois has hired a new state school superintendent. Former Oakland schools leader Tony Smith, a magnetic, yet sometimes unpopular, leader, who closed some of California’s struggling schools, went toe-to-toe with teachers unions, and created more charter schools in the state, had his contract approved by the Illinois State Board of Education.
At the age of 48, Smith, father of two, is poised to take over one of the largest state school systems in the US, with over 2 million schoolchildren and a series of challenges.
Diane Rado and Jessie Hellmann, writing for the Chicago Tribune, say that Smith left California’s 36,000-student Oakland district in mid-2013 to come to the Chicago area for personal family-related reasons. He then became the executive director of the W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation in Oak Park, which is a non-profit dealing with early childhood development and education.
Smith will be taking over for Superintendent Christopher Koch, who served longer than eight years, one of the longest terms in the US for a state school superintendent. Smith will have a salary of $225,000 and will lead the state agency that determines school policy, that is responsible for advocating for education funding, and which partners with local superintendents and educators in about 860 districts.
Illinois schools’ passing of the guard comes at a troubled time in Illinois’ education history. Parents are protesting the abundance of testing that is taking place in their children’s classrooms, some students are opting out of state exams, schools are dealing with changing standards and curriculum, and teachers are facing arduous evaluations. Also, hundreds of districts are struggling financially and facing pressure to reform education funding, Smith is going to have to learn fast about education finances in Illinois and how to navigate the Capitol’s difficult political environment.
Smith earned his three degrees at Berkeley, graduating with a doctorate in Education in 2002. He does not, however, have conventional teaching or administrator licenses.
“One thing I have always credited him with was his advocacy of social and emotional learning and how that is a huge part of what any urban district has to deal with — the trauma the kids come in with. He recognized that,” said Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association.
Smith made teachers and parents in California angry when he closed schools and made unilateral changes to teacher assignments and schedules, which also irked teachers unions. He endured other controversies as well, like the death of a young man in 2011 who was shot and killed by an Oakland School District police. When he took over the district in 2009, it had been under state control for years because of financial woes. Enrollment was dropping and test scores on state exams were plummeting. When Smith left, the academic performance in the district remained poor.
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said that Smith is “a transformational leader and has a proven track record of increasing student achievement, while successfully addressing fiscal and structural issues at the local district level.” Kerry Lester, writing for The Associated Press, reports that Smith will begin his leadership role on May 1.
Smith supports the “full-service community school” which focuses on combating poverty and bringing families and communities into the effort of improving their public schools. He is also a proponent of charter schools.
Board Chairman James Meeks says Smith is a visionary who will make get behind the important issues involved in education reform, says WNIJ-TV News.
“The Board selected Tony Smith for his proven track record of accomplishment and leadership in education,” said Meeks. “We know that Dr. Smith will move forward to improve and expand on the agency’s initiatives to improve teaching and learning on behalf of the more than 2 million kindergarten through 12th-graders in Illinois public schools.”