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Chicago mayoral candidates Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot.

Chicago mayoral candidates Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot.

Chicago enters historic mayoral runoff between Lori Lightfoot and teachers union candidate Toni Preckwinkle

Chicago’s crowded mayor’s race is headed toward a runoff. Early returns show that former prosecutor Lori Lightfoot will face Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the election’s next round, scheduled for April 2. 

That means major changes are coming to Chicago’s schools. Wielding power through an appointed school board, outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel has expanded charter schools and closed district schools. Both Preckwinkle, the teachers union’s favored candidate, and Lightfoot say they want an elected school board and no more new charter schools.

The initial results of Tuesday’s election showed Lightfoot, who oversaw disciplinary cases as president of the Chicago Police Board, leading the pack of 14 candidates. She and Preckwinkle were separated by narrow percentages on Tuesday night, according to the city’s Board of Elections.

Related: Lori Lightfoot’s big education ideas for Chicago

The results are an upset for Bill Daley, the former U.S. Commerce secretary, who is the younger brother of longtime Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley and a son of the late Richard J. Daley, who led the city for more than two decades. Bill Daley out-fundraised the other 13 candidates and was considered a frontrunner in the last few weeks of the race.

When polls closed at 7 p.m., more than 500,000 voters had cast ballots in 2,000-plus precincts across the city for the next mayor, city clerk, city treasurer, and the aldermen who make up City Council.

Despite a strong early vote, Election Day turnout was low, particularly among the youngest voting demographic of 18- to 24-year-olds. On Tuesday morning, several voters outside polling places in three neighborhoods — West Austin on the city’s far West Side, Albany Park on the Northwest Side, and the South Loop — told Chalkbeat they were still undecided whom to back for mayor.

Rahm Emanuel’s announcement in September that he would not seek a third term sent Chicago into a political tailspin. An unprecedented number of candidates — 21 — jumped into the race. Ultimately, 14 ended up on the city’s ballot.

But the largest field of mayoral candidates in the city’s history — along with scores of candidates running for alderman — may have resulted in a particularly low turnout at the polls. According to early evening counts, just 26 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

The race has been unwieldy and unpredictable, with several candidates losing momentum after news stories surfaced their ties to a longtime ward alderman who is now under investigation by federal authorities. But faced with so many options, platforms, and promises from various candidates, some voters told Chalkbeat that the policy bonafides started to blend together, which led them to rely on their gut.

“A number of candidates are swimming in the same waters,” said Chris Heron, 62, who voted in the South Loop.

On education, an issue close to many voters’ hearts, there are some distinctions between the two candidates in the runoff, but they are fine. Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle said they would not support opening new charter schools, and both have called for an elected school board. 

Related: “Mrs. Preckwinkle” defends her history with charter schools

In a district that has been losing students, the issue of what to do with emptying schools will be a challenge facing the next mayor. A recent report labeled more than 200 schools “underutilized.”

Preckwinkle specifically called for a moratorium on closing underperforming schools, while Lightfoot stopped short of that pledge, telling Chalkbeat that a first reaction “should not be to close schools.” 

Lightfoot has said she would expand the city’s early education system to serve children from birth and would build upon high school apprenticeship programs. She’d also levy a tax on rideshare drivers to underwrite free transportation for Chicago students, create an equity council, and push for more transparency from the city’s board of education.

“Right now the board does all of its substantive work in executive session, behind closed doors,” Lightfoot told Chalkbeat Chicago in a January interview. “I think that’s a terrible mistake. I think it undermines confidence in the board’s decisions.”

Preckwinkle, whose campaign touted her one year of teaching in public schools, called for more social workers, nurses, and psychologists for schools and proposed converting empty school buildings into community centers. 

Use the tool below to compare Preckwinkle and Lightfoot’s answers to our January voters guide questionnaire.