Lori Lightfoot And Toni Preckwinkle Want An Elected School Board — But The Similarities End There

Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle
Lori Lightfoot, left, and Toni Preckwinkle. Jason Marck/WBEZ
Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle
Lori Lightfoot, left, and Toni Preckwinkle. Jason Marck/WBEZ

Lori Lightfoot And Toni Preckwinkle Want An Elected School Board — But The Similarities End There

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Mayoral candidates Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot both want to get rid of the city’s appointed school board, but there are stark differences in how they would transition to an elected one.

That is just one of ways the candidates differ when it comes to schools. 

In far-reaching interviews about Chicago Public Schools with WBEZ, the candidates also revealed that, though they both support a moratorium on school closing, they would ultimately allow schools to close on their watch. Preckwinkle said she would wait until an elected school board was in place before considering any school closures, while Lightfoot refused to specify when her moratorium on closing schools would end.

The two women also insist they are fervent supporters of public education, as well as products of it. 

But, for elementary school, their children did not attend public schools. Lightfoot’s 11-year-old daughter attends a parochial school. Preckwinkle’s grown children also went to a private elementary school, but did go to a Chicago public high school.

Because both women support a fully elected school board for Chicago, there’s been little attention paid to the ways in which their views differ on how that board would operate.

Preckwinkle told WBEZ she understands an elected school board could wind up being fractured, or have members who disagree with her vision of the school system. For example, the school board could be dominated with charter school proponents, whereas she is critical of charter school expansion in the city.

That, she said, is the gamble of democracy. 

“It could be argued that the most efficient government is dictatorship,” she said. “I am not sure that is what we want … is it?”

But Lightfoot preached a more deliberate approach to designing an elected school board to ensure that parents and others with “skin in the game” are represented, perhaps even requiring that board members first serve on local school councils. A variation of that idea was floated by other candidates before the Feb. 26 mayoral election.

“I want to make sure that parents truly have a seat at the table,” Lightfoot said. “I don’t want to change one broken system for another that is a system that, if you are clouted and you have access to resources, then you have a seat at the table. I think that would be taking us in exactly the wrong direction. So those details really matter.”

Lightfoot also said she’s planning significant changes to the makeup of the existing appointed board of education in the interim period before the city can move to an elected board.

The two candidates also argued that, though they share many opinions, they are different in fundamental ways

Preckwinkle emphasized her background as a high school teacher and her experience as alderman working with parents and others to improve schools. Preckwinkle has committed to keeping CPS CEO Janice Jackson. She said the turnover in administration over the past eight years has been a problem.

Lightfoot won’t say if she’d keep Jackson and said she would insist the school district leadership work to rebuild trust with the community before moving forward. 

“The first thing, and I say this loudly and publicly enough so that Janice Jackson is listening, is that there has got to be a reconciliation process and a healing process,” Lightfoot said. “Parents and teachers and other stakeholders in the education system are still badly wounded and damaged and skeptical and a lot of other emotions because of the way that education policy has played out in the last seven years and particularly around the very difficult issue of school closures.” 

Despite their differences, Preckwinkle and Lightfoot both want to bring more staff and resources into schools. Like Mayor Rahm Emanuel, they want to look to Springfield for more support. Preckwinkle said she would push to combine the pension system for Chicago teachers with the one that covers all other Illinois teachers. Lightfoot said she would focus on improving the school district’s credit rating so she could restructure debt and free up some money. 

Neither mayoral candidate is particularly pleased with Emanuel’s recent moves to commit CPS money for next year. Emanuel committed $32 million for specialty programs, such as International Baccalaureate and fine and performing arts, as well as $28 million for preschool expansion

“On your way out, to kind of hamstringing your successor, doesn’t seem to me to be an appropriate response,” Preckwinkle said.

If elected, Lightfoot said she would have a conversation with Emanuel to make sure he understands she won’t have her vision tied up. 

“I am not criticizing things going on right now, but I want to make sure that he understands there must be a transition and that a new kind of leadership, both in style and substance,” is coming, she said. 

Below are highlights from WBEZ’s interview with Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot.

On the timing of a move to an elected school board and keeping the mayor accountable 

Lori Lightfoot: For me, it is not a question of timing. It is more a question of the details of what that would look like. We have to think about, What is the right number [of board members]? How will board members be elected? What kind of criteria and experience should they have? How are we going to fund elections?… I am aware of the fact that the bill from Rep. Martwick has been moved through at least one chamber of the General Assembly, but I don’t think that these kinds of issues are part of that bill or part of the discussion … As mayor, I am going to be fundamentally responsible for making sure that we have an education system that is going to be the ladder up for kids all over the city, like it was for me.

Toni Preckwinkle: I want to make sure that there is an appropriate transition and that this goes smoothly. I am not sure we could manage it in one year. It is important to understand that this is the only school district in the state that doesn’t have an elected school board. So in every other city, town and village, there is an elected school board and a mayor or a village manager or whatever. I don’t see any reason why Chicago should be different. I think [accountability] should be in the hands of an elected school board, but I think the mayor should work closely with the elected school board.

On what to do about severely underenrolled schools, such as 26 high schools with fewer than 250 students

Lightfoot: Closure should be the absolute last resort, after a process of engagement with people who are stakeholders around that particular school. Nobody benefits from a school that is severely under-enrolled. We are not going to have enough programming. The offerings for the students are going to be diminished as compared to other fully populated schools. But we have to be much more transparent about the demographics and the trends and engage the parents and the teachers and other stakeholders around that school and what the future looks like. We have to come up with a process in which we think creatively about how to further enrich that school. Now, if at the end of the day the population continues to dwindle, then that is a problem we have to reckon with.

Preckwinkle: You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. What is the reason for the decline in enrollment? … Are there possibilities of enhancing enrollment through additional programming or changing school boundaries? There are a variety of options that you might pursue. Schools are neighborhood anchors, in addition to being educational institutions, and we should be very, very cautious about closing them. I am in favor of a moratorium on school closing and a moratorium on charter schools. That doesn’t mean we would never close schools. I am in favor of a moratorium now because the school district, prior to five years ago when it closed 50 schools in one year, was closing 10 to 12 schools a year and able to manage that. But what they did in that one year, closing 50 schools, they clearly were not able to manage very well. I think your reporters have said 38 of those 50 schools are still vacant.

On negotiating with the Chicago Teachers Union, whose contract expires June 30 (the union endorsed Preckwinkle)

Lightfoot: We have to engage the CTU as early as possible. I have jokingly said, ‘I am not going to lead with my middle finger in dealing with them.’ The CTU is an important institution in our city, not just in city government. Hats off to [former CTU President] Karen Lewis and her leadership team for really remaking that union in a way that is important to the conversation around education … My primary interest and concern about is making sure the classroom, is the best, most nurturing and safe environment possible. Obviously, teachers have to be a part of that equation, as well as looking to provide other supports for our kids, whether it is nurses, whether it is school counselors, whether it is librarians. Those are things I think are critically important to making sure that the education experience for kids is as fulsome as possible so we set them up for success. That is the mindset I will take into negotiations. It doesn’t matter to me that they supported a different candidate. This is not about them and it is not about me. It is about our kids.

They [union leadership] recognize that there will be limits on what we can offer them. They are very smart and sophisticated people. They are doing what you do, you put out your wish list and then you winnow from there. They know this is going to be a negotiation process.

Preckwinkle: I am not going to go [say where my policies differ from the CTU]. I am a teacher by profession and I believe in the good work that teachers do. I know how hard their job is so I am sympathetic to teachers. It has nothing to do with support from the CTU. But as mayor of the city, it is your responsibility to negotiate fair contracts with your workers and to be sure that the taxpayers’ interests are protected and that is what I would do.

You have to make the tough decisions that are in the interest of the taxpayers and meet your fiscal responsibilities. You have to be a good fiscal steward, regardless of where your political support came from. When I was elected president of the county board our first budget had a $487 million shortfall. We cut expenses and refinanced some of our debt. We laid off 1,500 people. I did that because that was what was required in order to balance the budget, despite the fact that I had gotten considerable union support to be elected to the office.

On where they sent their children to school

Lightfoot: Both my wife and I are public school kids. She grew up in western Illinois. I grew up in Ohio. We always thought our daughter would go to public school. When she was a three-year-old, we went to sign her up for public school preschool. We were told essentially there is no room at the inn, that the waiting list for families of means was so long that the likelihood we would be able to get her in was slim to none. So we had to look for some alternatives. We ended up going to the school that she is in now [a parochial school]. Once you are in a school that is a welcoming environment, it is hard to think of changing out on that environment. We thought about having her test in for kindergarten. But she is happy and she is thriving so we are not going to change. But I want to make sure that parents like me who are really are committed to public education have a space and an opportunity to connect up with a good neighborhood school.

Preckwinkle: My former husband was a teacher at one of the neighborhood private schools and my children went there for elementary school. Then they went to the public neighborhood high school. My grandchildren have gone to public schools from the very beginning of schooling. I believe in our neighborhood public schools. We live in a neighborhood where we have great neighborhood public schools so it was an easy decision for me personally and for my son and daughter-in-law to send their kids to neighborhood public schools.

On the growing number of graduates getting diplomas from alternative schools

Lightfoot: That so many of our children are in alternative schools by whatever route they got there is a red flag that we have to think about. We have to dig into why it is that is happening. A lot of these alternative schools are run by private vendors. I am concerned about that and what the economic incentive is to feed kids to those kinds of schools. So those are questions that I think we have to dig into with the CPS leadership.

I was skeptical of the graduation rates. I had education experts really dig into the numbers. The numbers are real. But what we know is that when we go beyond the percentage and we look at, who is thriving, who is making progress … we know that we still have significant progress to make, particularly when it comes to black and brown children and particularly young black boys. So I am very focused on that and digging into those numbers.

Preckwinkle: We have got to be sure that our neighborhood public high schools are serving young people well so we are not pushing them into alternative schools. I worked closely over time with the Alternative Schools Network and I know that there are good alternative high schools out there so I am not disparaging them. I am just saying our focus really should be on strengthening our neighborhood high schools because of the breadth of programming that is there and the richness of the classroom experience. I think that it is important that we provide people with a good education and not simply the diploma … I mean, is the goal to try to see if they read well, they can do math well, that they have exposure to a broad curriculum or is it just to get them a diploma and get them out the door. Then, how much is that diploma really worth to them?

These interviews by reporter Sarah Karp and senior editor Kate Grossman have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.