Although Tuesday’s Chicago mayoral election saw a record low voter turnout, education policy stood out as a key issue for voters.
Tuesday did not bring any closure to the race as Mayor Rahm Emanuel failed to obtain the necessary 50 percent plus one votes for an outright victory. Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia will face a runoff election on April 7.
Emanuel has run into trouble with city education as far back as fall, 2012 when the Chicago Teachers Union held its first strike in 25 years. The strike resulted in more than a week of cancelled classes for Chicago public schools and sent a strong message to Emanuel that the union was a force to be reckoned with.
Emanuel’s next run-in with schools was in spring of 2013. Facing severe budget shortages and half-used schools, Emanuel closed nearly 50 public schools, causing outrage among the affected communities that still hasn’t subsided.
Then there is the issue of the Chicago School Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor. A non-binding ballot measure for an elected school board saw overwhelming support, reaching above 85 percent in most wards. Any change to the board has to come from the Illinois General Assembly.
Candidates like 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti sought to take advantage of the unpopularity of the school closing, using his campaign to emphasize the need for kids to attend schools close to home.
Fioretti proposed the city expand or renovate existing school buildings to enhance enrollment, rather than putting more substantial funding in selective enrollment high schools in areas where they already exist.
Garcia holds similar views, frequently touting his plans to help families of all income by putting a stop to school closings and reducing selective testing.
Now that the election has gone to a runoff, both Emanuel and Garcia will be looking to poach supporters from the losing candidates.
Gerard O’Toole of Rogers Park, who voted for Fioretti, may vote for Garcia in the April runoff.
“I believe Rahm may still win the election, but he will have to earn it,” O’Toole said.
For O’Toole, the election results and earlier teacher’s strike may have taught Emanuel a lesson on how to handle the average Chicagoan’s concerns.
Chicago public elementary school teacher, Courtney Matarese, said Emanuel’s support of more charter schools is not beneficial to city neighborhoods. Matarese said Garcia has the vision to help their communities.
“Garcia still needs to elicit straight-forward plans to improve public schools, but he speaks with passion and shows honesty to working on answering the community’s needs,” said Matarese.
John Jacoby, a litigation attorney in South Loop, said there’s a gap between the mayor’s policies and voter interests.
“Rahm has shown that he is not comfortable amongst his own voters, doing private photo-ops rather than releasing which areas he will be in and when,” Jacoby said.
“That contributes to why voters may feel there is no longer trust in their mayor.”