The next mayor has a chance to revitalize public education in Chicago

Mayoral control over schools is on the way out. But as the city’s leader, the next mayor still has a duty to exercise his authority — and use the bully pulpit of City Hall — for their betterment.

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A young student arrives for the first day of school in August 2022 at Willa Cather Elementary in Garfield Park.

A young student arrives for the first day of school in August 2022 at Willa Cather Elementary in Garfield Park.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It’s no exaggeration to say Chicago Public Schools are facing a potential make-or-break point. A new mayor is about to be elected, with a window of opportunity to impact schools before mayoral control ends with a fully elected School Board taking office in 2027.

Meanwhile, enrollment continues to shrink, and massive budget deficits are looming once federal pandemic relief money runs out.

The challenges are real. And while the mayor will no longer enjoy near-unfettered control of public schools, he still has a duty, as the city’s leader, to use the bully pulpit of City Hall on their behalf.

Chicago’s young people need, and deserve, high-quality public schools that guide them to become well-informed, productive citizens. Working collaboratively to make that possible is a mayor’s responsibility, no matter the school system’s governance structure.

Editorial

Editorial

With that in mind, here are some ideas of how the next mayor can support public education:

Make smart choices for the new hybrid school board

The next mayor will have the power to appoint 11 of 21 members of the new board in 2024, including the board president (who must be approved by the City Council). The appointees will be in place until the fully elected board takes over.

Picking good people is essential — and by “good” we mean individuals who won’t hesitate to put students first, whatever adults might think. Appointees should have a track record of working to improve schools, especially for students of color; financial acumen to deal with the district’s budget woes; the ability to build consensus with others; and be free of political agendas or potential conflicts of interest.

This being Chicago, there will be politics enough in the school board elections. The next mayor should rise above that with his appointees.

Lobby in Springfield for full funding of the state’s Evidence-Based Formula

The EBF ties school funding directly to the costs of educational practices that research has proven will improve achievement. Created by legislators in fiscal year 2018, it has funneled $1.6 billion more to public schools since then, most of it going to the neediest schools across Illinois, and has provided money for property tax relief as well.

Problem is, the state has yet to fully fund the EBF; it’s underfunded by $3.6 billion.

Lobbying for full funding is a must to help the district deal with looming deficits of $628 million and up.

Recognize that crime and schools are intertwined

The future of public schools will be greatly impacted by whether or not the next mayor makes a dent in the city’s crime problem. It’s easy to make the connection, as one expert pointed out: Families have to feel confident their neighborhoods are safe places to live and for their children to attend school. If not, they’ll head for the suburbs. So the district, and the city, will pay the price if the mayor can’t curb violence.

Keep tackling “learning loss”

CPS has invested in intensive in-school tutoring to help students get back on track academically after the disruption of the pandemic. The next mayor and his board appointees should keep pushing that approach, and expand it as much as possible.

We also like the idea of offering tutoring on the weekends and during the summer, and paying some students to attend tutoring outside the school day. It’s a smart incentive for teens who might otherwise forgo tutoring because they need to work.

More tutoring, in fact, is a good strategy long-term, not just for “recovery” of learning loss. Intensive in-school tutoring can double or triple student learning over the course of a single year, according to research by the University of Chicago Education Lab and others.

Figure out a plan for students in hollowed-out schools

As enrollment has declined, some schools have dwindled to fewer than 100 students. There’s got to be a plan for serving these young people, whose schools can barely afford the basics, much less so-called “extras” like foreign language or Advanced Placement classes. We’ve heard the idea of turning schools into community hubs, which is a way to make use of the building — but what does that do for students in terms of getting a robust education?

Reach out to disengaged young people

In 2021, at least 25,000 school-aged youth in Chicago did not have a diploma and were not enrolled in school, and researchers told us that number has undoubtedly increased since the pandemic. Young people who are not in school are more likely to be victims of gun violence; 90% of young shooting victims were not in school at the time they were shot.

The next mayor should spearhead a major effort to re-engage those young people, who are entitled to free public education until age 21 (or age 24 if they have special needs). One example is the partnership between the Education Lab and CPS to provide academics, mental health support and more for disengaged young people in 15 community areas on the South and West sides. Initiatives like this should be supported and expanded.

The next mayor has a chance to revitalize public education, for the public good, in Chicago. He should seize the opportunity.

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