Preckwinkle vs. Lightfoot: Differences emerge in how mayoral candidates would govern schools

When it comes to running the nation’s third-largest school district, the two candidates vying for Chicago mayor can sound eerily similar at first glance, whether they’re talking about freezing charter expansion or pledging to let voters take the wheel and choose school board members.

But there are subtle differences — and not-so-subtle ones, too — in how they’d make decisions for 361,000 Chicago students, most of whom are from low-income households.

The most visible point of divergence is whether to retain schools chief Janice Jackson, who has enjoyed broad support among educators since taking the top job in January 2018. Preckwinkle has praised Jackson’s homegrown experience as a Chicago Public Schools alum, teacher, principal and said she’d keep her — “I’m impressed by the fact that she’s a Chicago native” — while Lightfoot isn’t so sure.

“If I am fortunate enough to become the next mayor, I will sit down with her and her team and in particular discuss some issues about which I have concerns,” Lightfoot told Chalkbeat in early March. “For now, we will continue to make the case to voters about the need for change.”

But while neither woman has put forth a radical plan like some of their earlier challengers — for example, Bill Daley’s call to merge Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges to create a K-14 system or Gery Chico’s promise to oversee the city’s largest expansion of career technical education — there are subtle differences in what they propose. (Scroll down to see how each candidate answered six written questions on school policy from Chalkbeat.)

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson. (Vashon Jordan Jr. / Chicago Public Schools)

By saying she’d retain Jackson, Preckwinkle has signaled she’d continue on the district’s path of supporting neighborhood schools by bulking up academic programming and helping them compete with test-in schools. In conversation with Chalkbeat this week, she fell back often on her experience as a former teacher, despite the fact that she spent most of her education career in parochial schools. Click here to read our full interview.

“First of all, I’m a member of the tribe,” Preckwinkle said. “I’ve spent my public life trying to transform neighborhoods and institutions, and I think that’s something teachers can appreciate.”

One change she foreshadowed is how, if elected, she’d approach the intersection between the criminal justice system and schools. “We need security in schools,” she told Chalkbeat this week, “but I’m not sure about police officers.”

“When I was a teacher and things happened in the schools, kids got in fights or whatever, but internal challenges were always dealt with internally. We didn’t send kids into the criminal justice system for fighting in school. I think we have to be very careful about the presence of police officers in schools.”  

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Drawing on her experience balancing a half-billion deficit when she took the reins as Cook County Board President in 2010, Preckwinkle also said she’d take on the tough job of wringing more money for schools from the state — starting with incorporating Chicago teachers into the Illinois teacher pension program — and putting the district on a more sure-footed path to fiscal stability.

“There’s no magic solution or silver bullet, it’s just as lot of hard work — and it’s work that I’ve done before,” she said. “When I came into office, the county had a $487 million budget gap to close, and we looked first for efficiencies, told all the elected officials they had to cut their budgets by 15 percent, refinanced some of our debt, and laid off 1,500 people. We made very difficult decisions.”

While both women have spoken about their experiences growing up as one of only a few black students in a largely white school, Lightfoot has more clearly connected that experience to her approach to schools policy. She has said she’d conduct a “racial equity impact assessment,” similar to what’s used in some other school districts, to weigh how policies and decisions impact students of different races before new initiatives are embraced. She’d draft an equity policy plan and convene a districtwide council to oversee compliance.

In a January conversation with Chalkbeat, 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.

Like Preckwinkle, she has also identified the need to seek new sources of school revenue but has been vague on how she’d do that. She has said she’d try to tax ride-share drivers so she could fund free public transportation for students in Chicago, where high schoolers commute an average 3.3 miles to school, according to the a comprehensive school inventory and survey recently updated. It’s the latest version of the Annual Regional Analysis, produced  by Chicago Public Schools and the school choice group Kids First.

Chicago mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot, left, and Toni Preckwinkle engaged in their first runoff debate March 7, 2019. (NBC5)

In an attempt to draw a distinction between herself and Preckwinkle, Lightfoot has portrayed herself as the political outsider despite her appointments, by two mayors, to high-profile police oversight agencies.

It’s where that experience intersects with schools that has drawn one of her most notable moments in the runoff campaign: telling a crowd at a University of Chicago-sponsored criminal justice forum that some of the city’s vacant schools could be repurposed into mini-police academies in lieu of building a stand-alone $95 million training center — an idea that’s been controversial here.

After a social media firestorm, Lightfoot later clarified her comments to Chalkbeat saying that any police training facility — in a school or otherwise — “must only be created after an intensive community engagement and input process.” She said her idea to repurpose some closed schools for training reflected “the broader need to ensure officers can receive urgently needed training in or close to the communities where they work.”  

Lastly, she’s called for more transparency from Chicago’s school board, an issue that has already started to galvanize several parents’ organizations. Groups including Enlace and the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council staged an action outside of Wednesday’s monthly meeting of Chicago’s Board of Education to call for more transparency from the city’s next mayor in decision-making and investments.

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