Here’s who Chicago mayoral candidates tap for education policy advice

With school quality looming as one of Chicagoans’ biggest concerns, several Chicago mayoral candidates are leaning on political insiders and experienced educators to help them approach the complicated question of how to steer city schools. 

Choosing an education adviser is a critical task for a campaign to get right. Just ask Roberto J. Rodríguez, a former education adviser to President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017 and CEO of Teach Plus.

“Having an adviser who is knowledgeable and can support a candidate’s vision on education is really important from the beginning of a campaign,” he said.

So, who do mayoral candidates lean on for education policy advice?

In response to a Chalkbeat questionnaire, 10 candidates named people or institutions. Some listed insiders from politics and education, while others named scholars, family and friends — or themselves.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a local Democratic Party leader endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union and other major unions, listed Jason Lee, former political director of United Working Families, a progressive political group whose membership includes the teachers union. Her other education adviser is third-term State Rep. Robert Martwick (D-Chicago), who supports an elected school board for Chicago and sits on the Illinois House’s Elementary and Secondary Education committee.

Bill Daley, a former White House chief of staff and U.S. commerce secretary, said his advisers include his communications director Peter Cunningham, founder of education opinion blog the Education Post. Cunningham also served as assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the U.S. Department of Education under then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan from 2009 to 2012.

Cunningham also helped handle communications for Duncan when he led the school district from 2001 to 2009 and when Daley’s brother, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, ran the city. That was during the Renaissance 2010 era, a time when Duncan and the mayor pledged to open 100 new schools — many of them charter or contract schools — and close poor-performing ones across the city, a turnaround effort that yielded mixed results.

Bill Daley also said he taps teachers in his family for advice; his three sisters Eleanor, Patricia and Mary Daley were all teachers, and his daughter Lauren was also a district teacher for five years.

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

Businessman Willie Wilson’s advisers on education policy include Karen Rooks-Dotson and Audrey Donaldson, both of the American College of Education, a for-profit online university. Rooks-Dotson authored a textbook for education doctorate students about identifying at-risk students that draws from her research at a South Side neighborhood school. Donaldson, who works in the department of leadership and administration, used to run the district’s Office of Teacher Recertification and Professional Standards.

La Shawn K. Ford named psychology Professor Bradley D. Olson of National Louis University, an expert on urban policy and community psychology.

Paul Vallas’ education policy advisers include former educators and administrators at various school districts, reflecting a career in education that has included leadership jobs in Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Connecticut. They include Cozette Buckney, CEO of the Institute for Education Services and Academic Achievement, a group of education consultants. Buckney was Vallas’ chief of staff when he led Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001, and a top administrator during Vallas’ stint leading the the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans from 2007 to 2011.

Vallas’ long list of advisers also includes Carlos Azcoitia, a former district principal who worked in the central office when Vallas was Chicago schools chief, and who was appointed to the school board in 2012 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as the city rolled out plans for mass school closings. Azcoitia was one of the board members replaced by the mayor in 2015, following the resignation of disgraced schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who took bribes in exchange for steering more than $20 million worth of no-bid contracts to her former employer — contracts the board approved unanimously.

Related: Chicagoans care about schools more than corruption and race relations, according to new poll

Some mayoral candidates declined to list their advisers.

Policy consultant Amara Enyia touted herself as an expert, citing her Ph.D. in educational policy, and links with unnamed academics and administrators. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza wrote only that she consults with various “policy experts and community stakeholders.” Attorney Jerry Joyce said he consults with educators and teachers. Former alderman Bob Fioretti didn’t list his advisers. Candidates Neal Sales-Griffin, John Kozlar, and Gery Chico didn’t answer the questionnaire.

Obama’s former education adviser Roberto Rodríguez said candidates should seek advisers with meaningful and deep connections to people in the education system, and knowledge of the merits or criticism behind various education policies, who can help them grasp “diverse perspectives around issues in education.”

Use the tool below to see candidates’ complete list of education policy advisers.