DOWNTOWN — Signaling that a smart education plan could make or break Chicago mayoral hopefuls, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza seized her moment in front of an influential breakfast audience of Chicago business and civic leaders earlier this month to deliver a rescue plan for struggling neighborhood schools.
Mendoza’s 50 NEW Initiative — NEW stands for Neighborhood Education Works — would turn 50 underenrolled schools with empty classrooms into community hubs. Among the ways she described repurposing the schools: Using vacant space to house daycare centers, afterschool programming, English language sessions for adults, and evening job training sessions for parents that would double as free suppers for families.
“Instead of asking which 50 schools we should close next, I’ll be focused on which 50 of our underutilized schools we should be doubling down on, turning them into true community hubs and stronger academic centers,” said Mendoza, one of the most visible candidates in the mayoral race. She touted her record as a state legislator of supporting a free breakfast program for low-income schools. “I refuse to give up on our kids.”
Like other candidates who’ve connected the dots between schools, crime, and economic development, Mendoza’s urgency to release an education plan before unveiling a fiscal or economic development agenda is another sign of the prominence that public education will play in the heated contest.
With the power to appoint school board members, the mayor’s office possesses broad control over schools and education policy. In his first term, outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools, a decision that still reverberates today.
Among the questions that some voters regard as litmus tests: Would you close underperforming schools? Do you support an elected school board? And, educators and others who follow education policy closely, might add: Would you keep or replace the current schools chief and former principal Janice Jackson?
Mendoza is not the first candidate to release a detailed education plan. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — who already has secured the endorsement of the influential Chicago Teachers Union — and former Chicago schools superintendent Paul Vallas each have released detailed statements about how they’d improve schools and confront one of the district’s biggest problems: steep enrollment decline.
Candidates have also been pressed to declare where they stand on the issue of an elected school board, since Chicago doesn’t have one. There has been a growing grassroots call for an elected board, with the issue becoming a point of contention at a Chalkbeat Chicago-sponsored event last week.
Like Mendoza, Preckwinkle has said she supports an elected school board. Vallas has said he supports a hybrid board.
Even candidate Bill Daley — the younger brother of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who pushed for Chicago to regain mayoral control in 1995 — has weighed in on the issue. Daley said late Monday that he supports a “hybrid” school board — that is, a mix of appointed and elected candidates.
At Mendoza’s appearance at the City Club of Chicago breakfast on Tuesday, she stressed her views as a parent of a Chicago Public Schools kindergartener, citing such experiences as the 3:15 p.m. school pickup time that does not align with the typical work schedule.
“How do parents do it in this city? Why is no one talking about this?” she asked, in one of several lines that received enthusiastic applause.
The club of civic and business leaders is typically an early stop for mayoral candidates, with most appearances scheduled even before candidates deliver enough petitions to land on the ballot.
As for how she’d pay for her 50 NEW plan, Mendoza hedged. Funding would come in part, she said, from state funding augmented last year.
However, acknowledging that state money would not be enough, she said she’d also ask philanthropies and businesses to support the plan, taking a page out of Emanuel’s playbook of announcing a sweeping city initiative and then raising private dollars to pay for it.
Here’s what we know so far about where some of the other candidates stand:
Toni Preckwinkle: The former alderman and president of the Cook County Board, citing such board failures as skipping pension payments and issuing no-bid contracts, has said she’d support a “fully elected” school board. Preckwinkle has said she would put an end to school closings and, like Mendoza, work with public and private partners to repurpose previously shuttered schools in ways that tackle other community needs like senior services. She would also invest more in nurses, social workers, counselors and support staff like teachers aides, and would halt charter school expansion until a new school board is elected.
Amara Enyia: The public policy consultant, lawyer and community organizer who has been endorsed by Chance the Rapper proposes prioritizing investments in neighborhood schools, bolstering district support for Local School Councils, and strengthening accountability for charter schools. Enyia also supports an elected school board, and she has said she would expedite the process for creating one in Chicago.
Lori Lightfoot: A staunch police reform advocate who made her name overseeing disciplinary cases as chairperson of the Chicago Police Board, Lightfoot supports creating an elected school board and has said she would expand high school apprenticeship programs and oppose opening new charter schools.
Paul Vallas: One of the earliest candidates to enter the race, the former Chicago schools chief and city budget director proposes “a hybrid elected and appointed school board,” with nine members, four elected by the community, and five appointed by the mayor, including the chairperson. Vallas promised one of his appointees would be selected by the disability community, and the other recommended by the teachers union. His plan for improving the school district centers on improving the district’s long-term financial planning and boosting programs such as advanced placement, dual college credit, vocational courses and International Baccalaureate at neighborhood schools, which have been losing enrollment.
Bill Daley: Daley proposes a seven-member school board with four members, including the board president, appointed by the mayor. Three board members would be recommended by Local School Councils. Daley, like at least two other candidates, describes this approach as a “hybrid” elected school board, although it’s unclear how much power voters would have under his model. Daley’s campaign website said he would halt opening new schools given the district’s enrollment crisis, and “cut CPS bureaucracy” with savings allocated toward school-level investments in teachers, counselors and technology.
Gery Chico: The former chief of the state school board proposes “a hybrid elected-appointed school board,” where the majority of members would be appointed by the mayor, “so that the mayor is held accountable for the educational outcomes of the district throughout the city.” Chico, a lawyer by trade, was appointed as president of the school board by then-Mayor Daley in 1995, after the state legislature handed control of the board to the mayor’s office.
This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: chalkbeat.org/newsletter