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Backlash To Rahm Emanuel’s Education Record Impacts Chicago Mayor’s Race

Chicago voters made history on February 26 by choosing two black women—former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President—as their top contenders for mayor.

Both candidates have pledged to reverse course on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education policy in Chicago, which not only propped up charter schools but also left neighborhood public schools sorely underfunded.

Lightfoot and Preckwinkle are against closing any more public schools as well as opposed to opening new charter schools.

That voters will choose between these two candidates signals a major shift in education policy in Chicago that has prioritized charter schools over public schools, which has had a detrimental effect on neighborhoods.

In Chicago elections, candidates must garner 50 percent plus one of the vote in order to win outright. No candidate was able to do this, however, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle managed to claim the top two positions, beating out 12 other candidates, including Bill Daley, the son and brother of two past Chicago mayors and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama.

The city will not only have its first black female mayor after Chicagoans head to the polls again in April, but they will also elect a mayor whose education policy starkly contrasts that of the outgoing mayor.

One of Emanuel’s most contentious relationships during his tenure has been with activists fighting for education justice.

Within two years of his election in 2011, Emanuel presided over the first teachers strike in 25 years, which was quickly followed by one of the largest closures of public schools in U.S. history.

Emanuel also aggressively pushed the expansion of charter schools in Chicago while allowing Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to fall into greater disrepair.

Organizers, activists, and union members fought Emanuel tooth and nail on the majority of his education policies, which they have long said perpetuate the same “tale of two cities” that Chicagoans have seen for decades—one that lifts up already rich and mostly white communities while disenfranchising marginalized communities of color.

In his typical demeanor, Emanuel was combative with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), as well as CPS parents, students, and education justice activists. During the teachers strike, he attempted to pit parents and students against each other.

“Think about it from your own experiences when a child is sick, just sick for a day, what that does to your schedule,” Emanuel stated. “Just think, any one of us, how you have to make all these arrangements. This is totally unnecessary.”

When CPS announced it would close at least 50 schools, Emanuel maintained “consolidating schools” was the “best way to make sure all of our city’s students get the resources they need to succeed in the classroom.” As the announcement was made and his statement to the press was sent, Emanuel was on a ski vacation.

A spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools, meanwhile, said the closures weren’t racist, despite the fact that the majority of the schools closed were in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of color.

Chicagoans have a long memory, and the initial school closures, which were followed by even more closures—some which occurred only one year ago—reverberated loudly when Emanuel ran for re-election in 2015.

The CTU, along with other organizations, endorsed Emanuel’s challenger Chuy Garcia, who managed to force Emanuel into a runoff. Ultimately, the opposition to Emanuel’s education policies had an impact on his decision to not seek a third term, said Jesse Sharkey, president of the CTU, which endorsed Preckwinkle.

“Rahm’s decision to get out of the race had a lot to do with the amount of opposition that the movement and a very small handful of unions put up to his administration,” added Sharkey. “He made a decision to close 50 schools, and he made that in the aftermath of the 2012 strike at the urging of people like Ken Griffin and that turned out to be a decision which really cemented public opinion against him in a big section of the population of Chicago.”

Griffin, a billionaire hedge fund manager, backed Bill Daley in the 2019 mayor’s race, donating $2 million to his campaign. Prior to the 2019 race for mayor, Griffin was former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s top donors, handing the Republican more than $36 million. He also backed Rahm Emanuel, donating more than $430,000 to his campaign. Griffin once told the Chicago Tribune, “I think (the ultra-wealthy) actually have an insufficient influence.”

Though Emanuel was re-elected, opposition to his education policy did not cease. When CPS announced that it would close Dyett High School on the city’s south side, activists held a hunger strike for 34 days to keep it open. One of those who participated, Jeanette Taylor, ran for City Council and qualified for a runoff in the 2019 election.

Cassie Cresswell of the group Raise Your Hand, an organization that advocates on behalf of students and parents in public schools, said that the movement for education justice helped organize opposition to Emanuel.

“The system as it stands now has got to change and a big chunk of the opposition over the years, since 2011, is in the education justice community. We want to see equity, real democracy, transparency, and accountability in the public school system,” Cresswell added.

On the campaign trail, both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle highlighted their opposition to more school closures and support for an elected school board.

Activists have long fought for an elected school board. Many view it as the first step towards building equity, democracy, and accountability for education in Chicago. The next largest hurdle is getting resources where they’re needed most, which has been a problem during the Emanuel administration thanks to a per student budgeting system.

Chicago is the only city in Illinois that has a body appointed by its mayor. In fact, ninety-four percent of school boards in the United States are elected, according to Raise Your Hand.

While the change would have to come at the state level, Cresswell said that having a mayor who supported an elected board would make it much easier to make the transition.

“It’s really been the leadership in the general assembly that has blocked getting Chicago an elected school board, and the key person behind that block has been Rahm,” according to Cresswell. “The first platform for improvements would be an elected school board, which would set the stage for the policies we’d like to see. It’s all tied together with the way resources are distributed across schools.”

“The mayor’s objection to an elected school board has been one of the big things stopping legislation,” declared Sharkey. “A big majority of the public supports that issue, and with a mayor endorsing it, it makes it a lot easier to provide a path.”

“The budgeting model which was created under Rahm has been a huge problem, and we’d like to see that disappear,” said Cresswell. “We’d like to see a model where dollars go to where they’re most needed.

“Because enrollment is tied to budgets and school ratings and resources, there’s been this really vicious cycle where, as you drop in enrollment, you drop in dollars, and then you drop in the programs you can offer, and services you can provide at your school. And then as you have fewer resources, you drop in enrollment.”

“Our schools are under-resourced,” said Sharkey. “They’re funded something in the order of 30 to 35 percent less than schools in New York City are funded at. They’re funded thousands of dollars per pupil per year less than what the state recommends.”

Sharkey contended “having a mayor who would commit to moving resources into schools” and “stop diverting tax dollars into for-profit developments” would be beneficial to young people, who are an “investment, too.”

“The legacy of school closings has been one of the animating forces behind privatization, and the loss of black teachers in Chicago,” said Sharkey. “A lot of the movements are motivated by the fact that we have this constant trauma where our neighborhoods are being thrown into chaos when the board comes in and closes schools. The person who sits in the mayor’s office will have a direct effect on important education justice issues.”

Aaron Cynic

Aaron Cynic

Aaron Cynic is an independent journalist and photographer based in Chicago. He is a co-founder of the website Visu.News, co-host of its podcast, and editor of Third Coast Today. His work has also appeared in Time, Chicago Magazine, Progress Illinois, In Justice Today, Alternet, Truthout, In These Times, Nation of Change, The Daily Line, Third Coast Review, Huffington Post, Shareable, Forces of Geek, and more.