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Five big questions about schools for the next mayor of Chicago

CPS is recommending closing Urban Prep West Campus, Kwame Nkrumah elementary, saying both "failed to provide students quality education they deserve."

Where does the next mayor of Chicago stand on public education? Here are five key questions for the candidates.

Chicago’s public school system is at a historic turning point. Student achievement is on the rise, but Chicago Public School enrollment is decreasing.

With the teachers union contract set to expire in June, our next mayor immediately will face complex challenges that, paradoxically, offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape education in Chicago for the coming decades.


This means that the public needs to know more than just each candidate’s talking points. What kind of educational vision will they bring to our schools? There are five key questions that every candidate for mayor should answer to give Chicagoans a firm grasp of where our school system will be headed.

Will you support an elected school board?

In 1995, at the behest of Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Illinois General Assembly returned control over CPS to City Hall. This means that all members of the Board of Education are picked by the mayor, making Chicago the only city in Illinois to not elect its own school board. While there are a handful of cities nationally that employ mayoral control over the school system, there is inconclusive evidence that this leads to better outcomes.

Many Chicagoans hope that an elected representative school board would be more responsive to communities when making high stakes decisions such as closing schools. There is also the expectation that an elected board would vigorously debate CPS’ planning and budget, thereby preventing another Barbara Byrd-Bennett-style kickback scandal. Will the next mayor lobby Springfield to pass the long stalled elected school board bill and cede control over the system?

How will you address CPS’ steadily declining enrollment?

The number of CPS students has dropped by 15 percent since 2000, down to roughly 360,000 students this year. And the district expects to lose another 20,000 over the next three years. More than 220,000 African-American residents have left Chicago since 2000, and Latinx immigration has slowed. The last two mayors focused on wooing middle class white families, which led to a highly stratified system with elite selective enrollment schools for the fortunate few and woefully under-resourced neighborhood schools for the rest.

How the next mayor encourages families to stay in the city, and in the school system, will fundamentally shape every other decision to be made about our schools.

How will you guarantee a fully resourced, high quality school option for every student?

Since the 2004 adoption of the “Renaissance 2010” plan, almost 20 years ago, Chicago has pursued a portfolio model, meaning that the district seeks to provide families with a range of school options to choose from. This has led to a generation of school openings, closures, turnarounds and other drastic measures that have destabilized the relationships between schools and their communities and disproportionately harmed African-American neighborhoods. Far too many families are left without high quality schools within reasonable distance of their homes.

The next mayor must craft a plan to ensure that every student has a great school to attend within her neighborhood.

How will you engage communities and prioritize racial equity in decision making?

The 2013 closure of 47 schools primarily impacted black neighborhoods and did not lead to promised improvements in student achievement. The recently resolved fight to save National Teacher’s Academy replayed many of the same dynamics: CPS officials decided to close an African-American school without engaging the community in the decision or considering how our most vulnerable youth would be affected. CPS can learn from Seattle Public Schools, which uses a racial equity lens and authentic public engagement to inform important decisions like these.

Chicago’s next mayor must also provide a principled perspective to the possible closure of CPS schools and the annual raft of new charter school applications.

Finally, how should we measure your education policy performance?

Each candidate needs to put down a marker and let the public know how we should assess his or her success with the school system four years from now. Is it about improving test scores overall or closing the 32.5 percent gap between white and African American students performing on grade-level? Is it about improving graduation and college attendance rates? For instance, more than one-third of African-American students do not graduate high school within five years, and of those that graduate, only half go on to attend a four-year college.

Or should the next mayor measure success as increasing enrollment?  Or creating more schools that are diverse and integrated?

The candidates’ answers to these five questions will tell us what we really need to know when we vote in February. As mayor, can this person realize a powerful, inclusive vision of education in Chicago commensurate to the problems and opportunity in front of us?

Charles Tocci is assistant professor of education at Loyola University Chicago and the father of four CPS students.  Alexios Rosario-Moore is the Policy and Programs Manager at Generation All.

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