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Education Is a Key Factor in Chicago Mayor's Race

Chicagoans head to the polls today to elect a mayor and also the person who would shape the city's public education for the next four years.

Tuesday's election is largely a referendum on the tenure and education policies of incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the hard-charging former chief-of-staff to President Barack Obama, who left the White House in 2010 to run for mayor of his hometown.

Emanuel—who has amassed a war chest of more than $13 million, dwarfing all of his opponents'—faces challenges from Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia; Willie Wilson, a businessman; Bob Fioretti, an attorney and alderman; and William "Dock" Walls, a perennial candidate.

The most recent poll, the Ogden & Fry Poll, conducted just two days before the election on Feb. 22, puts Emanuel at the front of the pack with 48.3 percent of the votes, with Garcia at 26.5 percent. Wilson pulls in 15.2 percent; Fioretti 6.8 percent; and Walls 3.3 percent.

Emanuel needs more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off in April. That he is fighting to break that barrier while outspending his opponents and enlisting a visit from President Obama is demonstration that many in Chicago are unhappy with some of the mayor's education policies, said Pauline Lipman, a professor of educational policy studies and director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, which published a paper last week recommending an elected school board, and not one appointed by the mayor to run the city's schools.

Voters in 37 of Chicago's 50 wards will also get to cast ballots Tuesday on whether the members of the school board should be elected or appointed. The question is non-binding. Only the state legislature can make that change, but an overwhelming affirmative vote on Tuesday could add momentum to that call, and the other candidates in the mayor's race have said that they support an elected school board.

Emanuel was endorsed by The Chicago Sun-Times and The Chicago Tribune, which touted employment growth under the mayor, a balanced budget every four years, an increase in businesses moving to downtown Chicago, and improvement in Chicago public education and the expansion of school choice on his watch.

The city's public school system, the third largest in the country, has experienced record-high graduation rates, with a 69 percent graduation rate in the 2013-14 school year, up from 65 percent in 2012-13. Attendance also increased to 93 percent in 2013-14. College-going rates also rose.

Emanuel's education platform has highlighted all of the above, along with plans to add more STEM teachers and triple the number of students with STEM credentials by the end of 2018. He's also expanded full-day kindergarten, and has committed to providing free prekindergarten to all low-income 4-year-olds by the 2015-16 school year.

Despite those accomplishments, Emanuel is still haunted by the closure of nearly 50 schools in predominantly minority neighborhoods in the city's South and West sides in 2013 and the teachers' union strike of 2012, the first in a quarter of a century. He has said that the decision to close the schools was an extremely difficult one.

"But I did not want to be the mayor who says kids should have a better school and relegate them to under-enrolled, underperforming schools because it was easier for me and harder for them the rest of their lives," Emanuel told The New York Times.

A study released last month by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research showed that the majority of students affected by the closures were African-American children, and while the vast majority of those ended up in schools that were some better than the ones that were closed, more students than CPS expected ended up in lower-rated schools than education officials hoped would have been the case.

Garcia, the closest to Emanuel in polls though still trailing by a huge margin, opposes new school closings (CPS's CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has declared a moratorium on school closures). He supports a moratorium on new charter schools, class size reductions, an increase in school nurses, counselors and social workers. He opposes an "overuse" of standardized testing.

According to WBEZ Chicago, Garcia's education plans ring similar to the Chicago Teachers' Union's blueprint called "The Schools Chicago Children Deserve." This is not surprising since Garcia was encouraged to run by CTU's president Karen Lewis and is backed by the local and national teachers' unions.

Many were gearing up for a showdown between Emanuel and Lewis, who shepherded the 2012 teachers' union strike and was in the midst of exploring a challenge to Emanuel when a cancer diagnosis prompted her to step aside. 

Among the other candidates, Wilson supports reopening the closed schools with input from the community and administrators and an expansion of trade schools.  

Fioretti, the progressive alderman, also wants a moratorium on charter expansion until there a facilities plan in place; investment in nurses, social workers, librarian and less spending on standardized tests; neighborhood preference boundaries for selective enrollment high schools; and an expansion of universal pre-K.

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