On a rainy day this past spring, about 100 mothers and some children gathered in Brighton Park on the city’s Southwest Side to protest teacher layoffs at their Chicago public schools.
Betzabel Laredo, a mother of a middle schooler, was among them, and worried the layoffs would inflict another wound on Chicago children’s already fractured education.
“How is it possible that, after living through a pandemic, living through traumas and losses, CPS, instead of supporting our children and improving the quality of the education, CPS cuts it?” Laredo said in Spanish.
Her son’s school, Shields Middle, faced a more than $400,000 cut to their budget and lost eight staff members, including five teachers.
Despite an influx of federal COVID relief funds, to the protesters, some of Chicago’s schools are undergoing a slow death by a thousand cuts. Meanwhile Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s appointed CEO argued these schools had fewer students and were overstaffed compared to other Chicago public schools. With a limited budget, the school district had little choice but to cut, he said.
Whoever becomes the next mayor will have to answer this among many questions about the future of Chicago public education — what should be done with under-enrolled schools as the district’s population shrinks?
Add to that these issues: Chicago’s next mayor will be responsible for relinquishing control to a partially elected school board. A state moratorium put in place in 2021 on school closings will lift in 2025. And many want City Hall to repair its relationship with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union after years of tumult.
While crime has dominated much of the conversation this election season, the next four years — and the person who leads Chicago — will be critically important to the future trajectory of CPS. Voters on Feb. 28 face a long list of candidates for Chicago mayor, some with vastly different views on public schools, and longstanding history, for better or worse, with the district.
Only one of the nine candidates for mayor is pitching drastic changes to CPS, that being former CPS CEO Paul Vallas. He’s pledging to boost publicly funded, privately-run charter schools. In recent years, charter schools have fallen out of favor with the mayor and the board of education and there’s staunch opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union.
“Charter schools may offer the only alternatives to often failing underperforming neighborhood schools,” Vallas said at a forum last month.
While Lightfoot grew up in Ohio, many of the candidates have deep ties to Chicago Public Schools. Vallas was chief executive officer of CPS from 1995 to 2001 and went on to run three other public school systems. Back in 2001, Jesús “Chuy” García, now a congressman, was running Enlace, a Little Village organization that led a hunger strike to compel Vallas to build a high school in the community.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson was a teacher and is a longtime organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, which has endorsed him. State Rep. Kam Buckner is a graduate of Morgan Park High School.
Ald. Sophia King, 4th Ward, was a private school teacher. Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, recalls serving on a local school council. Ja’Mal Green went to Chicago Public Schools and has kids there now.
The Chicago Public Schools system is shrinking — it’s lost more than 100,000 students over the past two decades — and it’s facing a budget deficit projected to be as much as $600 million starting in 2026.
As enrollment plummets, schools become smaller and buildings become emptier. This affects school quality and has budget implications.
Twenty-two high schools currently have fewer than 250 students — a disproportionately small size for schools that are trying to provide a robust curriculum with an array of subjects and activities.
But even more demonstrative of student population loss: 95 elementary schools have fewer than 250 students, up from 45 in 2019. (This does not include schools that re-enroll dropouts, preschools or schools that only serve children with disabilities.)
The number of schools considered underutilized by CPS has gone from 250 to more than 301.
Even before Lightfoot took office, there was a moratorium on school closings. But that expires in 2025, just as the first elected Board of Education members take office.
In response to a WBEZ/Chicago Sun-Times mayoral candidate questionnaire, Lightfoot said she’s open to closing schools, but only as a last resort and never in a mass or unilateral way. Garcia said he is open to it, but only when there are no other alternatives. Wilson, Vallas, Sawyer and King say they support closing severely under-enrolled schools.
Sawyer is most emphatic that school closings must happen.
“Our most severely under-enrolled schools simply can’t carry on at these zombie institutions,” said Sawyer, who pledged to work with parents and teachers to develop a plan to close schools. “What kind of experience are these children getting if their school doesn’t have a single sports program, a debate club, a theater club or any of the traditional extracurriculars that help kids develop lifelong passions and social skills?”
Vallas said he will make good use of the buildings that are vacated, such as for alternative schools, charter schools or for job training programs.
Buckner pushed for the moratorium at the state level as a way to give the school district more time to figure out how to support severely under-enrolled schools, and said he’s opposed to closing them upon the moratorium’s end.
Johnson and Green are both opposed to closing schools, too. Green said he would seek to reopen schools so that there are no education deserts. Johnson noted that, historically, closing schools has not saved much money.
“Instead, they only make public education options fewer and less convenient for those who need them most. In reality, smaller schools and smaller classes are proven across to provide better educations,” Johnson wrote in reply to the WBEZ/Sun-Times questionnaire.
King and other candidates stress that the real solution to dropping enrollment is to make neighborhoods more attractive, less crime-ridden, so families return. “We will seek to increase density, housing and bring quality education and schools to every community,” King said in response to the WBEZ/Sun-Times survey.
In addition to saying her administration has invested in facility improvements and new academic programming at neighborhood schools, Lightfoot added that her INVEST South/West program and affordable housing program can help turn the tide in areas losing population.
The school district faces a $600 million deficit starting in 2026 and most of it has to do with structural problems, such as inadequate state funding, rising pension costs and debt payments, according to a recent analysis. The situation has been made worse under Lightfoot, who has shifted some education costs traditionally covered by the city onto CPS.
In recent years, structural deficits have been masked by an influx of more than $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funding. Unlike most other school districts across the nation, CPS is using a lot of COVID-19 relief money to cover salaries, as it adds social workers and nurses, as well as other supports for struggling students. That money will dry up within two years.
Throughout this mayoral 2023 campaign season, most candidates said they will rely on an old method for trying to increase revenue: lobbying Springfield for more education funding.
By the state’s own formula, the city’s school district only has about 75% of what it needs to provide an “adequate education.”
“We’ve got to get more money from Springfield, bottom line,” Lightfoot said at a forum earlier this month. “We’ve got to make sure that every single state rep and every single senator understands that.”
Other candidates have said that Lightfoot is ill-equipped to do this lobbying — that she’s had tenuous relationships with Springfield lawmakers. García and Buckner said their experience as federal and state, respectively, lawmakers make them uniquely qualified.
“I know how the Legislature works, and I will be an effective negotiator for our city to bring more funds to CPS,” García said, promising a $350 million increase from the state, and that he’d seek philanthropy too.
Vallas said he wants to know why CPS’ large budget — more than $9 billion last year — isn’t providing adequate education.
“Where’s the money going? … Do you see it in the classroom?” Vallas said at a recent forum.
However, Johnson retorted that Vallas is partly to blame. Vallas was head of CPS when the city decided to put off paying into the teacher pension system, Johnson said, and CPS has spent years trying to catch up.
Reshaping the way schools get money
Many of the candidates also say they will change the way the school district doles out money to schools. They want to make sure the schools that need the most get the most.
Currently, about half of a school’s budget is based on the number of students enrolled in a school. Schools losing enrollment suffer under this approach, as it becomes more difficult to fund something like an art teacher or a librarian.
Under Lightfoot, student-based funding has continued, but more staff positions are provided to schools outside of this formula. For example, this year each school got an interventionist to help struggling learners.
Vallas said money should “follow the students” — doubling down on student-based budgeting as he believes it gives school communities the freedom to decide what their children need.
Buckner, Johnson and Green say they will have CPS shift to something similar to the state’s evidence-based formula, which ties funding to what schools need to provide an “adequate education.”
Buckner said he will not only change the way CPS funds schools, but will also advocate for the state to alter its formula to take into account how much trauma and violence a community has experienced. Studies have shown traumatized students need more support in order to focus on learning.
Shift to elected school board
Next year, Chicago voters will for the first time vote for 10 of 21 members to the Board of Education. Two years after that, they will get to elect the rest of the members.
Dan Anello, chief executive officer of Kids First, said the way the next mayor handles the shift will set the stage for either a smooth transition or a time of intense financial pressure and chaos.
“I don’t want us to wait ‘til the last minute to put the pieces in place,” said Anello, whose organization works with CPS to plan for the future.
But more than that, the mayor will decide whether the loss of control has to mean that financial entanglements between the school district and city must be severed.
Lightfoot has said the school district must become completely financially independent and has already started the cost shifting.
She is also the only mayoral candidate who hasn’t accepted that an elected school board will happen, saying she would still try to lobby Springfield for changes to the law. Though she said she supported an elected school board when she ran in 2019, Lightfoot now says an elected 21-member board is too big and the plan lacks campaign spending guardrails.
Most of the other candidates say, despite the loss of control, the mayor would still be responsible for the city’s school district, and they would ensure its solvency.
If elected mayor, Sawyer said he would look at floating bonds for CPS as it moves to more financial independence.
Relationship with the CTU
During Lightfoot’s term, many families in Chicago have become disillusioned by the discord between the mayor and the Chicago Teachers Union.
Just months after she took office, the union went on strike. Then, the union and Lightfoot’s administration were at odds over returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic and relevant safety issues.
When it comes to the CTU, Lightfoot has reiterated a common refrain that her “door is open” to work with them. She also said her administration is working on hiring a social worker and nurse for every school.
“We got to live up to, as we have been, our contractual obligation with the Chicago Teachers Union,” Lightfoot said at a forum earlier this month.
CTU President Stacy Davis Gates recently said she appreciates Lightfoot appointed CEO Pedro Martinez, who is making an effort to get along with the union. Yet she said the union still has many issues with the mayor.
For some, Johnson’s tight relationship with the CTU might be a liability. When asked about that relationship at a recent forum, he noted that the elected school board will also be negotiating with the union. Furthermore, as a father with children in the public school system, he said he has incentive to focus on quality education, above all else.
Buckner said he would engage in “hands-on, direct contract negotiations” with CTU — and personally negotiate the contract, “not by proxy, not from the podium and not by press release.”
Vallas may be the candidate who could face the most pushback from the CTU, given his history overseeing CPS in the past.
The CTU is staunchly against privatization of public education, for example, while Vallas said he would be amenable to opening more charter schools.
Read the candidates’ plans
Candidates are listed in the order in which they will appear on the Feb. 28 ballot. Click on their names to learn more about their plans. Several candidates have not released or made public their education plans.Sophia King
Read more of WBEZ’s coverage of Chicago Elections 2023.