Some of the toughest decisions Mr Emanuel had to make in his first term concerned schools. He demanded merit pay for teachers and a longer school day (Chicago’s was only 5 hours 45 minutes) and earmarked for closure 50 half-empty schools in poor districts. Teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years, but Mr Emanuel got the longer day and the closures went ahead in 2013. The teachers kept their seniority-based pay system.
Mr Emanuel ploughed some of the money saved by closures into charter schools, which made him even more unpopular with the teachers’ unions. But charter schools have worked well in Chicago. The Noble Network, which already runs 16 charter high schools with 10,000 pupils and plans to have 20,000 by 2020, has an attendance rate of 94% (compared with 73% for Chicago public schools) and a drop-out rate of only 0.4% (compared with 4.7%). It also gets better results on the ACT, a college-readiness test. It has an even higher percentage of minority students (98% compared with 92% at Chicago public schools), and slightly less public funding.