Lightfoot campaign facing scrutiny for emailing teachers to recruit student volunteers

A group of men and women stand in front of a an elementary school on the first day of the new school year.
The Chicago Teachers Union said a Lightfoot campaign staffer emailed teachers asking them tell students the campaign is “looking for enthusiastic, curious and hard-working young people” to volunteer 12 hours per week. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign asked public school teachers to recruit student volunteers to “help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring,” a possible violation of the district’s code of ethics.

According to the Chicago Teachers Union, a Lightfoot campaign staffer sent an email to teachers on their work emails ending in cps.edu asking them tell students the campaign is “looking for enthusiastic, curious and hard-working young people” to volunteer 12 hours per week and said students would be “eligible to earn class credit.” 

It’s not clear how many teachers received the email. 

Guidance on political activity issued by the school district last April said campaigns “should not be using the CPS email system to solicit volunteers and donations” and asked staff to report that behavior to the school board’s ethics adviser. 

In a statement, Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the district “does not coordinate with any political candidates or campaigns. It has not done so to date and will not be doing so.”

A Lightfoot campaign spokesperson initially issued a statement characterizing its efforts to involve young people as a “common practice that has been utilized in city, state, and federal level campaigns for decades.”

Later, the campaign issued another statement saying its staff has been alerted that a “solid wall must exist between campaign and official activities.” The statement said contacting “city of Chicago, or other sister agency employees, including CPS employees, even through publicly available sources is off limits. Period.”

Lightfoot’s challengers swiftly condemned the move shortly after Chicago’s local public television station WTTW first reported the news.  

Alderman Sophia King, who represents the 4th Ward on the South side, called it “pay to play except with unsuspecting and vulnerable victims.”

“As a teacher, I’d give her an F,” King, who previously taught at Latin School of Chicago, wrote on Twitter. “Actually she’d be expelled.” 

State Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, and former CPS CEO Paul Vallas demanded investigations by the City’s Inspector General, the Board of Elections, and Chicago Public Schools’ Inspector General. 

“The manipulation of teachers and children is unspeakable,” Vallas wrote in an email. “Mayor Lightfoot should be ashamed of herself for allowing her campaign to violate her own ethics policy by contacting city government employees on their official email accounts for political purposes.”

Alderman Roderick Sawyer, of the 6th Ward on the South side, said it was a “hypocritical contradiction” to her campaign promise of better government. 

“I don’t know what kind of lesson Lightfoot believes she is teaching, but the extra credit must be in government corruption,” he said in a statement. 

Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson both said on Twitter the mayor should be more focused on fully funding schools, not recruiting from them. 

Ja’Mal Green, the youngest candidate in the race, tweeted: “Young people aren’t going to vote for you with class credits, gas cards, or anything else.” 

Some non-profit organizations in Chicago, including Mikva Challenge, encourage students to get involved in politics and work closely with high school teachers. In Chicago, high school students work the polls on election day, as well. But there are rules for elected officials to keep their political activities and government duties separate.

Over the summer, the Chicago Board of Education voted against a district recommendation to fire two teachers at Washington High School on the city’s Southeast side for offering students incentives to protest General Iron’s plan to move its metal scrapping operations to their neighborhood.

The current head of Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, Troy LaRaviere, also came under scrutiny in 2016 for possibly violating district policy on political activity in 2016 when he appeared in a campaign ad for Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential bid. 

In 2015, a high school teacher running for 33rd Ward alderman was also reprimanded for offering students credit for volunteering on his campaign or others. 

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

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