The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chicago voters send two black women to mayoral runoff. Both of them want to halt charter school expansion.

Former prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, left, was the top vote-getter in Chicago's crowded mayoral election Tuesday. Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County board president, came in second. Because neither candidate got 50 percent of the vote, they are headed to a runoff election in April. (Tyler LaRiviere; Ashlee Rezin/Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP; Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Chicago voters just sent two African American women into a mayoral runoff — defying some pundits’ predictions — and in the process delivered a setback for the charter school movement and a slap at the education policies pushed by outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

With 14 candidates to choose from — including one who is a former chief of Chicago’s schools and another who is both the brother and son of legendary Chicago mayors — voters selected former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to head to the April 2 election. Lightfoot has never held elected office.

The voting ensured Chicago will have its first black female mayor, and it marked another election in which education played a significant role.

Education was a pivotal issue in key races in November’s elections, including the ouster of Scott Walker (R) as governor of Wisconsin by Tony Evers (D), a state superintendent of education who opposed Walker’s school policies, including his support for charter schools and vouchers. And in Chicago, a number of candidates made education a key campaign issue.

Emanuel announced last fall he would not run again after two terms. Among the key reasons he had lost support: the growing unpopularity of his education policies. That included his decision to close some 50 traditional public schools, which affected mostly African American students. The move was slammed by critics who said the closures led to neighborhood destabilization.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, became controversial in the nation’s third-largest school system as Emanuel opened more and more. There are 121 charters in the city and 513 district-run schools, according to school system data, with 1 in 4 high school students in a charter and 1 in 10 elementary school students in a charter.

There’s a backlash against charter schools. What’s happening and why.

Traditional school administrators say they are losing resources and students to charters, which can operate outside the district bureaucracy. Enrollment in district and charter schools in Chicago has dropped, making it harder for officials to support opening new charters.

Few of the Chicago mayoral candidates showed much support for opening new charters. Lightfoot and Preckwinkle, who was endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, called for a halt to opening new charters and for an elected school board. Now, the mayor appoints members.

Charter supporters poured a lot of money into the race, most of it going to Bill Daley, the son of Richard J. Daley and brother of Richard M. Daley, both of whom spent decades as mayor of Chicago. Bill Daley served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama and was U.S. commerce secretary.

The Chicago Sun-Times, in a story about campaign donations, said Daley raised $8.65 million; a significant chunk of it appeared to come from charter backers. But he came in third, with 14.7 percent of the vote. Preckwinkle received the second-highest amount of campaign donations, with $4.5 million, and she came in second in the vote, with 16.1 percent. Lightfoot, who got the most votes, 17.4 percent, raised substantially less in donations than Daley and Preckwinkle: $1.54 million.

Paul Vallas, a former head of the Chicago school system who has supported charter schools, raised $1 million, according to the Sun-Times, and won 5.4 percent of the vote.

Across the country, the charter movement has recently encountered setbacks, with some newly elected governors vowing to concentrate on helping district schools and stopping the spread of charters. Nationally, the growth in charters — which enroll some 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren — has significantly slowed.

This year, there have already been strikes by teachers in Los Angeles, West Virginia and, currently, Oakland, Calif., and charter schools have emerged as a major issue in those walkouts. In Los Angeles and Oakland, charter schools have proliferated and the traditional school systems say they have lost millions of dollars of public funding each year that instead has been directed toward charter schools. West Virginia teachers went on strike after the legislature tried to link pay raises with measures including allowing the opening of charter schools.