Showing their work: Mayoral hopefuls offer plans to handle shrinking CPS enrollment, less control, union friction

Voters face a long list of candidates for Chicago mayor, some with vastly different views on public schools and long-standing history, for better or worse, with the district.

SHARE Showing their work: Mayoral hopefuls offer plans to handle shrinking CPS enrollment, less control, union friction
A crossing guard helps students and parents cross the street safely as they arrive at Willa Cather Elementary School in the East Garfield Park neighborhood in August.

A crossing guard helps students and parents cross the street safely as they arrive at Willa Cather Elementary School in the East Garfield Park neighborhood in August.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

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On a rainy day last 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.

“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 asked in Spanish.

Despite an influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds, to the protesters, some of Chicago’s schools are undergoing a 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 underenrolled schools as the district’s population shrinks?

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.

Voters on Feb. 28 face a long list of candidates for Chicago mayor, some with vastly different views on public schools and long-standing history, for better or worse, with the district.

Top row, left to right: Ja’Mal Green, Sophia King, Kam Buckner. Middle row, left to right: Willie Wilson, Brandon Johnson, Paul Vallas. Bottom row, left to right: Lori Lightfoot, Roderick Sawyer and Jesús “Chuy” García.

Top row, from left: Ja’Mal Green, Sophia King, Kam Buckner. Middle row, from left: Willie Wilson, Brandon Johnson, Paul Vallas. Bottom row, from left: Lori Lightfoot, Roderick Sawyer, Jesús “Chuy” García.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Only one of the nine candidates for mayor is pitching drastic changes to Chicago Public Schools, that being 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 opposition from the CTU.

Vallas was chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools in the late 1990s and then ran 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 CTU, which has endorsed him. State Rep. Kam Buckner is a CPS graduate.

Ald. Sophia King (4th) was a private school teacher. Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) recalls serving on a local school council. Community activist Ja’Mal Green attended Chicago Public Schools and has kids there now.

Underenrollment

The CPS system is shrinking — it’s lost more than 100,000 students over the last two decades — and it’s facing a budget deficit projected to be as much as $600 million starting in 2026.

Twenty-two high schools have fewer than 250 students. And 95 elementary schools have fewer than 250 students, up from 45 schools in 2019.

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 Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ mayoral candidate questionnaire, Lightfoot and Garcia said they’re open to closing schools, but only as a last resort. Businessman Willie Wilson, Vallas, Sawyer and King say they support closing severely underenrolled schools.

“Our most severely underenrolled schools simply can’t carry on at these zombie institutions,” said Sawyer. “What kind of experience are these children getting?”

Students put their coats in their lockers on the first day back to class at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the Southwest Side after a Chicago Teachers Union strike closed schools for 11 days in 2019.

Students put their coats in their lockers on the first day back to class at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the Southwest Side after a Chicago Teachers Union strike closed schools for 11 days in 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Buckner, Johnson and Green all oppose closing schools. Johnson said 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,” Johnson wrote in a reply to the Sun-Times/WBEZ questionnaire.

King and other candidates say the real solution is to make neighborhoods more attractive and less crime-ridden, so families return.

Lightfoot said her administration has invested in facility improvements and new academic programming at neighborhood schools and her Invest South/West community improvement initiative and affordable housing program can help turn the tide in areas losing population.

Budgetary issues

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 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, which CPS used to cover salaries, add social workers and nurses and other support for struggling students. That money will dry up within two years.

Rosa Camacho walks with her children at Disney II Magnet Elementary School in the Old Irving Park neighborhood on the first day back to school after the Chicago Teachers Union approved Chicago Public Schools’ pandemic reopening plan in 2021.

Rosa Camacho walks with her children at Disney II Magnet Elementary School in the Old Irving Park neighborhood on the first day back to school after the Chicago Teachers Union approved Chicago Public Schools’ pandemic reopening plan in 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Most mayoral candidates say they will go the traditional route and lobby 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.

Other candidates have said Lightfoot is ill-equipped to do this lobbying. García and Buckner said their experience as 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.

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 asked at a recent forum.

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.

Lightfoot has said in the future, the school district must become financially independent and has already started the cost-shifting. And 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. She says she would lobby to change the law.

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.

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 CTU went on strike. Then, the union and Lightfoot’s administration were at odds over returning to school during the pandemic.

Lightfoot has reiterated a common refrain that her “door is open” to work with the union.

CTU President Stacy Davis Gates recently said she appreciates that Lightfoot appointed CEO Pedro Martinez, who has made efforts, but she said the union still has many issues with the mayor.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez looks on as Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a news conference in August. 

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez looks on as Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a news conference in August.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

For some, Johnson’s tight relationship with the CTU might be a liability. When asked about that recently, he said the elected school board will also be negotiating with the union.

Vallas may be the candidate who could face the most pushback from the CTU. The union is staunchly against privatization of public education, for example, while Vallas said he would be amenable to opening more charter schools.

Sarah Karp is an education reporter at WBEZ. Mariah Woelfel is a politics reporter at WBEZ. You can follow them @SSKedreporter and @MariahWoelfel.

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