Changes are sure to come to Chicago’s schools with the Tuesday night election of Lori Lightfoot, 56, the former federal prosecutor who achieved the improbable: going from a relative unknown to a landslide victory in the race to be Chicago’s next mayor.
With Lightfoot’s three-to-one victory over Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, she becomes the first black woman to take the fifth-floor office in City Hall and Chicago’s first openly gay mayor.
Lightfoot, who was previously appointed to lead several city police oversight agencies but has never held elected office, pledged throughout her campaign to bolster the city’s struggling neighborhoods, starting with strengthening public schools. She inherits governance of a school district that a decade ago topped 400,000 students but has since dropped nearly 12 percent to 361,000.
One of the first to declare her intention to run for mayor, Lightfoot out-campaigned the largest field of candidates in recent history — a group that once numbered 21 and included the brother of a former mayor, a former state school board president, and the state’s comptroller.
One of the few candidates to show up to nearly every forum, no matter the topic, Lightfoot said early and often on the campaign trail that she’d pave a path for a school board selected by voters, prioritize neighborhood school investments over expansion of competitive programs that require tests to get in, and freeze charter expansion — dramatic reversals from her predecessor Rahm Emanuel, under whose watch a parade of CEOs opened new charter schools and additional gifted and classical options.
“As a former public school kid myself, I remember how our school served as a community anchor and a source of pride,” the Ohio native said when unveiling her 15-point education plan in January. “When I look at the state of the public school system in Chicago, I don’t see nearly enough of these community anchors — these sources of pride in every neighborhood.”
“I see kids waiting at bus stops early every morning, setting off for a long journey in hopes of a decent education — somewhere else,” the latter phrase a reference to the 53 percent of district children who attend a school outside their designated zone.
Lightfoot, who has said she’d invest more in vocational education and find new uses for underutilized schools, admitted she was undecided about whether to retain schools chief Janice Jackson, a former teacher, principal, and administrator appointed to the top job by Emanuel.
“If I am fortunate enough to become the next mayor,” Lightfoot told Chalkbeat last month, “I will sit down with her and her team and in particular discuss some issues about which I have concerns. For now, we will continue to make the case to voters about the need for change.”
One issue Lightfoot said she’d prioritize would be the “start of a healing process” between parents and community leaders and the administration of Chicago Public Schools, which closed nearly 50 schools in 2013 and is blamed for further eroding neighborhoods that lacked public and private investment.
“I think we’ve got to respond to the anger and frustration of parents and teachers who feel like they’ve been shut out of critical decisions about how their children are going to be educated, what schools are going to be open, what resources are going to be put in those schools,” she said in a recent interview.
Lightfoot also spurred a backlash on social media when she suggested that one way to reuse closed and empty schools would be to open mini-police academies within them. She said so on the same day the City Council voted in favor of a $95 million police academy — a controversial decision that spurred protests in and around City Hall.
Here are eight big ideas and changes to expect under mayor-elect Lightfoot.
Overhaul the school board and pave a path for elections in her first term.
Lightfoot thinks it’s possible to overhaul the way the city’s seven-person school board is selected in her first term, but that the “devil is in the details” regarding the timing, the number of seats, and the process.
“We have to think about — what’s the right number [of seats], how will board members be elected, what kind of criteria and experience should they have?” she told WBEZ. “How are we going to fund elections? What I don’t want to do is have elections for school board be as expensive as elections for other office. I don’t want to exchange one broken system for another, so that if you’re clouted and have access to resources you have a seat at the table.”
One idea she has floated is a requirement that candidates for school board have experience serving on a Local School Council, those governing bodies unique to each district-run school.
Call for more transparency from that board.
Lightfoot has expressed concern with the length of time the school board spends in closed sessions. “Right now the board does all of its substantive work in executive session, behind closed doors,” Lightfoot said in January. “I think that’s a terrible mistake. I think it undermines confidence in the board’s decisions.”
Revisit a moratorium on school closings.
After closing nearly 50 schools, the district agreed to a five-year moratorium, which recently expired. It since has decided to closed four more high schools.
Lightfoot has acknowledged that dwindling enrollment is a serious challenge, but told Chalkbeat that “our first reaction should not be to close schools.” She said the school system needs to be more creative and more transparent. She has suggested finding additional uses for underutilized schools, such as early education centers, and said she’d halt school closings in the interim. She has not specified a length of time.
Introduce a racial equity council.
Lightfoot has spoken frequently about the gaps in achievement between black and brown students and their white counterparts and stressed the need to draft and enforce an equity policy that would “act as a north star for CPS staff and students alike.” She also said the district should weigh in on budgeting and how decisions impact students of different races before distributing new programs, such as International Baccalaureate or arts programming.
Lightfoot pointed toward the district’s response to the sexual abuse scandal as one instance when such a policy would have come in handy.
“No one has stepped back and said, what’s the impact on students of color?” she said.
The school district established an office of equity last year, but has yet to unveil any policies, initiatives, or an equity framework as detailed as Lightfoot’s.
Expand early learning.
Lightfoot, who said she encountered waitlists and other barriers when she tried to enroll her daughter in preschool several years ago, has said she’d continue on Emanuel’s path toward universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds. But she’d go a step further and identify “early education zones” of city-funded programs for infants and toddlers, ranging from in-home visitation to schools.
Tax ride-share drivers to fund free transit for students.
To provide free public transportation to needy students, Lightfoot proposed restoring a state subsidy for the transit authority and levying fees on ride-share drivers who don’t live in Chicago but operate within city limits.
Those out-of-city drivers put tens of thousands of vehicles on city streets, she said. “It’s adding to the wear and tear on our infrastructure. It’s adding to pollution concerns.”
Rethink the district’s “college or bust” culture and expand vocational education.
At a forum organized by several women’s organizations in February, Lightfoot was among those who pledged to rethink the district’s doubling-down on college-prep and selective enrollment programs. “The focus is so much on ‘college or bust’ and selective enrollment that we’ve gotten away from the core mission of making sure we have good quality schools everywhere,” said the former corporate lawyer, who pledged to bring more career-and-technical education programs to schools and set targets for female and minority participation.
Better support special education reforms in Chicago schools.
Lightfoot has said she would involve parents and advocates in revising the manual of guidelines for Chicago’s troubled special education program. She said in her education plan that she would lay out a path for parents with concerns about their children’s services to flag the district’s attention. She also said she would prod the state to appoint qualified monitors, as it had promised, to oversee the school district’s services.
Last year, the state established an independent monitor to oversee reform of the district’s special education program after a state probe found that Chicago was systematically delaying and denying educational services — guaranteed by federal law — to students with disabilities.