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9 People Are Running For Chicago Mayor. Here’s A Look At Their Education Records

All nine candidates have some tie to Chicago Public Schools and will face numerous challenges in the district if they are elected the city's next mayor.

Mayoral candidates (from top left): Kam Buckner, Jesus "Chuy" García, Ja'Mal Green, Brandon Johnson, Sophia King, Lori Lightfoot, Roderick Sawyer, Paul Vallas and Willie Wilson.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — A drop in test scores. Declining enrollment. The COVID pandemic’s impact on student mental health. The transition to a 21-member elected school board.

These are just a handful of the challenges facing Chicago’s next mayor.

Nine people, including incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, are running to lead the city for the next four years. All have some tie to Chicago Public Schools. Chalkbeat Chicago took a look at each mayoral hopeful’s track record on education. 

Here’s more information about each candidate and their records on education: 

Kam Buckner

Illinois State Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) represents a district that extends from Chicago’s Gold Coast to the South Shore. He cosponsored legislation to set a minimum salary for teachers, limit police in arresting or questioning students at school, and create an elected school board in Chicago

Buckner jumped into the mayor’s race last May and unveiled a sweeping education platform last fall outside a vacant elementary school in Garfield Park. 

Standing alongside former school board member Dwayne Truss, Buckner promised to expand universal preschool to 3-year-olds; hire at least one nurse, one librarian, and one social worker per school, and do an external audit of CPS special education practices to improve services. 

Buckner, the son of a school teacher and a police officer, also said he would recruit teachers from Chicago neighborhoods. 

Before being elected to the Illinois legislature,  Buckner sat on the board of trustees for Chicago State University and led World Sport Chicago, a nonprofit aimed at bringing Olympic sports to underserved youth in Chicago. According to WBEZ, he later oversaw the dissolution of the program in 2018. 

Jesús ‘Chuy’ García

U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, a Democrat who represents Illinois’ 4th congressional district, is well known in Chicago politics and education. He’s served as alderman, Cook County commissioner, and Illinois state senator.

In announcing his bid for mayor last November, Garcia said it was time for the city to “double down” on education.  

“Your ZIP code, race, and socioeconomic status should not determine your future,” he said.

Garcia also promised to support teachers, saying, “It’s time that we treat them with dignity and respect — and the value they have earned and deserve.”

Garcia forced former Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff election in 2015 after being nudged into the race by the late Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. This time, the teachers union has endorsed one of their own members, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, instead. 

But Garcia has a long history advocating for public schools. As a community organizer in Little Village, Garcia helped lead a 19-day hunger strike in 2001 to get a new high school built. Fellow mayoral hopeful Paul Vallas was the school district’s CEO at the time. The campus, Little Village Lawndale High School, opened in 2005 and has four schools: Infinity STEM, World Language, Social Justice, and Multicultural Arts.

Ja’Mal Green

After dropping out of the mayoral race in 2019, activist Ja’Mal Green will be listed at the top of the ballot in 2023. He also is the youngest candidate at age 27. 

In a campaign video, Green champions universal preschool for 3-year-olds — a promise also outlined in a sweeping $5 billion public safety plan he released last week. That plan also calls for creating 10,000 apprenticeships for Chicagoans ages 13 to 25. 

“I’m a father who loves Chicago and I want a better future for my kids and yours,” Green says in the video. He also opens up about being kicked out of nine schools that he said didn’t have the resources to meet his needs while growing up on the city’s South and West sides.     

Green rose to prominence as an activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, protesting throughout Chicago after a video recording showed police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. In 2016, Green faced felony charges after being accused of hitting a police officer during a protest at Taste of Chicago

Brandon Johnson

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson entered the mayoral race last fall with endorsements from the Chicago Teachers Union and other independent political organizations.

During a kickoff rally, Johnson recalled his time as a teacher at Jenner Academy and Westinghouse College Prep, detailing conversations with students displaced by the demolition of Cabrini Green high-rises. 

“I experienced the painful impact of disinvestment on my students and their families,” Johnson said.  “And this personal experience seeing children endure inequity fuels my commitment to building a stronger, safer, and more equitable Chicago.”

Johnson said in October the pathway to revitalizing the city is fully funding neighborhood schools, providing students health care services, and ensuring they have affordable housing.

He promises to expand “Sustainable Community Schools” from prekindergarten to city colleges, while also providing academic, health and social support beyond the school day, according to his campaign website.

Sophia King

Ald. Sophia King, 4th Ward, represents many of the same south lakefront neighborhoods as Buckner does on Chicago’s City Council. King was appointed to the seat in 2016 by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and went on to win reelection in 2019. 

As vice chair of the Committee on Education and Child Development, she recently pushed to have Chicago Public Schools officials appear before aldermen on a quarterly basis or risk losing city money that supports school construction projects. The measure failed on a split vote and came after Lightfoot declined to promote her to chair of the committee. 

Before entering politics, King helped found Ariel Community Academy, a public school created in 1996 under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley in partnership with Ariel Investments. According to her campaign, she taught at Latin School of Chicago in Lincoln Park. King has a master’s degree in education and social policy from Northwestern University.  

King has not yet released an education plan, but has outlined a public safety strategy on her campaign website that promises to invest more in schools in communities experiencing the most gun violence and vows to “enlist both public and private sector employers to hire more high school students, disconnected youth, young adults, and formerly incarcerated citizens.” 

Lori Lightfoot

Current Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2019 unveiled a 15-point education plan to transform Chicago Public Schools. It outlined her support for an elected school board; a nurse, social worker, and librarian at every school; and early childhood education zones to promote equity at public schools.

But in October 2019, just months into her tenure, union contract negotiations stalled and the Chicago Teachers Union led an 11-day strike. The two sides got stuck on teacher prep time and sick days, and also on the union’s push to discuss broader topics like affordable housing and an elected school board versus Lightfoot’s desire to focus on pay and benefits.   

After backing an elected school board on the campaign trail, Lightfoot pushed for a hybrid board, allowing for the mayor to continue to appoint some seats. Ultimately, the state legislature passed a bill allowing for a 21-member, fully elected school board. The mayor had raised concerns about the size of the board, representation for undocumented families, and campaign financing.  

Lightfoot finished the rollout of universal 4-year-old preschool promised by her predecessor and on her campaign website touts a continued rise in graduation rates during her first term.  

Last summer, Lightfoot unveiled a comprehensive blueprint for Chicago that included hubs for Lifelong Learning. It proposed an Office of Learning, which would transform shuttered school buildings into learning hubs in every neighborhood.  

The plan aims to increase education resources and coordinate existing programs across Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges of Chicago, Chicago Public Library, and other education-focused agencies and organizations. 

Roderick Sawyer

Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, has served for over a decade, after being elected in 2011 to represent South Side neighborhoods, including Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, and Auburn Gresham.

His campaign website does not outline a plan for the city’s public school system. On the City Council, Sawyer sponsored a proposal in 2020 to remove Chicago police from public schools, but it was thwarted by one of Mayor Lightfoot’s allies and did not pass.  

Sawyer’s father, Eugene, became mayor in 1987 after the sudden death of the city’s first Black mayor Harold Washington. Growing up, Sawyer attended private school, first at Howalton Day School, a now-shuttered unique school founded during the Black Renaissance. He graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep and DePaul University and is a licensed attorney. 

According to his aldermanic website, Sawyer served on the local school council at McDade Classical School, a public selective enrollment school. He also co-chairs a fundraiser to provide “financial assistance for disadvantaged African-Americans who attend his high school alma mater.”

Paul Vallas

Paul Vallas is a familiar name to Chicagoans — particularly those in education. Vallas ran Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001, taking the helm after the state legislature gave control of the school system to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. Vallas oversaw the system during an era characterized by more stringent academic accountability for students and schools and more stability with the teachers union, which had gone on strike repeatedly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Though he finished ninth in the crowded 2019 mayoral race, Vallas is running once again with a promise to make Chicago safer and expand school choice. As CPS CEO, he oversaw the early growth of charter schools and advocated for turning around so-called failing schools.  

Vallas’ political ambitions led to him stepping down from Chicago Public Schools to run for Illinois governor in 2002. After an unsuccessful bid, he was appointed as CEO of the School District of Philadelphia, where he implemented a standardized curriculum, created small high schools, sold district headquarters and updated aging buildings. After four years, he headed to New Orleans to lead the city’s new Recovery School District in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. His last job as a schools chief in Bridgeport, Connecticut ended in controversy when a state court ousted him for lacking the credentials needed to serve as a superintendent in Connecticut. 

He returned to Illinois and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor alongside Pat Quinn in 2014. In 2017, then-Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Vallas to turn around Chicago State University, but the institution cut its contract with Vallas after he confirmed plans to run for mayor in 2019. 

Willie Wilson

Willie Wilson, a high-profile businessman, launched his campaign for mayor last spring. His campaign focuses on rebuilding from the pandemic through “educational grants, trade and business recovery,” according to his campaign website. 

Wilson told the Chicago Crusader last fall that, if elected mayor, he wants to work with state legislators to bring back vocational education to high schools, churches, and Illinois prisons. He also wants to “establish a trade school at CTA bus terminals,” according to the publication. Current Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez has talked about revamping the district’s career and technical education programs in coming years.   

When running for mayor in 2019, Wilson promised to reopen all 50 Chicago Public Schools closed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, he called the mass closings a “racist move.”

“If I had closed 50 schools in the white community, they would have hung me on State and Madison upside down,” Wilson said at the time. He also ran unsuccessfully for Chicago mayor in 2015, for the presidency in 2016, and U.S. Senate in 2020.

We’re sending a questionnaire to the candidates at the end of this week. Tell us what you want to know before you cast your ballot on Feb. 28 by filling out the quick survey below.

Becky Vevea is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Becky at bvevea@chalkbeat.org.  

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.