In the race for Chicago’s mayor, education has emerged as one of the top issues in the campaign, with candidates laying out competing plans for improving the nation’s third largest school system.
Arguably the biggest issue Chicago’s next mayor will face is confronting the school district’s plummeting enrollment.
Outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel dealt with population loss by closing 50 schools all at once in 2013. Since then, Chicago Public Schools has lost another 42,000 students — enough to fill 70 average sized schools.
The candidates also are weighing in on opening more schools and whether they support switching Chicago from an appointed to an elected school board.
Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley has come up with some of the most out-of-the-box ideas. He wants to merge the City Colleges of Chicago with Chicago Public Schools to create a system that serves children from preschool through community college.
He also wants to create 50 mini school boards and do away with individual local school councils. Daley said he believes this will encourage people to start thinking about how to improve schools across the community, rather than just about their own school.
Former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico says he would invest heavily in vocational and career education. He also wants to open more selective enrollment schools.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State Comptroller Susana Mendoza and former Police Board President Lori Lightfoot have focused their campaigns on changing the way the school system doles out money to individual schools. They said they want to bring in additional support staff and make funding more equitable. Mendoza said she will pump money into 50 high-poverty schools.
Plummeting school enrollment
Three of the candidates — Chico, Daley and former CPS CEO Paul Vallas — say they may have to close or consolidate schools. However, they say they will do it differently than in 2013.
Preckwinkle, Lightfoot and Mendoza say they will place a moratorium on school closings. Preckwinkle’s moratorium on school closings would last five years. The candidates all shared their views with WBEZ in a questionnaire.
Many of the candidates say they will counter the enrollment drop with increased investment in schools. They say their goal is to create the high-quality schools that families will want.
Mendoza says she would rent empty classrooms to organizations at a reduced rate.
“We are going to repurpose those schools to make sure that what is today a vacant space will have wraparound services for kids to have after school programming, supper, and their parents to have access to job skills, job training and job placement,” she said at Fox 32 debate.
Candidate Willie Wilson says he wants to reopen some of the 50 schools closed by Emanuel and would create smaller schools that fit what each community needs.
Opening new schools
Over the last two decades, Chicago Public Schools has opened nearly 200 schools — almost as many as it has closed, a WBEZ analysis found.
That is because past mayors have been strong supporters of opening new schools, many of them privately run charter schools, to give parents more choice.
Daley, former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and attorney John Kozlar all support opening up more charter schools, but most of the candidates have not focused their campaigns on school choice or charter school expansion.
Even Vallas, who was the head of Chicago Public Schools when the first charter school opened in the city, is not saying he will open more.
He said it would be foolish to keep opening schools at a time of declining enrollment.
“We would be better off looking at putting magnet programs into neighborhood schools to make them more attractive,” Vallas said.
Other candidates, including Chico, former Ald. Bob Fioretti, attorney Jerry Joyce, Lightfoot, state Rep. La Shawn Ford and Mendoza, did not rule out opening new charter schools, but said they would only do it in limited circumstances.
Activist Amara Enyia said she doesn’t believe in charter schools while Preckwinkle said she would put a five-year moratorium on opening more.
Elected school board
Moving from an appointed school board to an elected one has been a popular idea for years, with bills creating an elected school board passing the House and the Senate in 2017. But without support from Emanuel, these bills have faltered.
Once again this legislative session, there have been bills introduced in the House and the Senate that would create an elected school board. But lawmakers may wait to see who is elected mayor before taking action.
In other words, the mayor’s view on the switch matters.
Preckwinkle, Lightfoot, Enyia and businessman Willie Wilson all say they are all for an elected school board.
Five other candidates want to appoint some members and elect others to a hybrid board. They say keeping some of the power with the mayor would ensure he or she is still accountable for the school system.
Daley, Vallas, Chico, Mendoza and McCarthy all support a hybrid board.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.