Over the last four years, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education team has driven one of the bolder education reform agendas in the country. This includes a longer school day, introducing Common Core State Standards into the curriculum, opening 18 new charters, and implementing a teacher evaluation system based in part on student growth on standardized tests.
Reaction from the teacher’s union was swift—a seven-day teacher strike in 2012, the city’s first in 25 years that propelled Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to national prominence. Emanuel’s 2013 decision to close down 49 under-enrolled schools further prompted local and national teachers unions to recruit Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to challenge him after President Lewis bowed out due to health issues.
Teachers unions also backed Garcia with more than $1 million in contributions as did the Service Employees International Union. Voters nevertheless returned Mayor Emanuel to office by a healthy 56 to 44 margin.
But, the fact that a seasoned, national political veteran like Emanuel was forced into a runoff by Garcia, a career politician who has served at the municipal, county and state level, fed media speculation that the election was a referendum on reform.
According to the New York Times, schools, city finances and crime ranked equally as the top three issues. Given that most of the school closings were in the Black community, it is worth noting that Emanuel won the city’s 18 African-American-majority wards. He also won all but one of the majority-white wards and picked up about a third of the Hispanic vote.
Among Mayor Emanuel’s most tangible and undisputed accomplishments is a dramatic increase in the high school graduation rate, which is currently just under 70 percent today and on track to match the national average of 81 percent within three years. Twelve years ago, fewer than half of the public school students in Chicago graduated from high school.
Had Emanuel lost, opponents of reform would no doubt be claiming voters rejected his education agenda. Many suggest as much anyway, but the fact that he won by 12 points could just as easily suggest that the voters embrace reform. Some reform proponents may go even further and take Emanuel’s victory as a positive proof point in the increasingly acrimonious debate sweeping the country on issues like choice, standards, testing and accountability.
Today, Congress is debating an update of the No Child Left Behind law that almost certainly will weaken test-based accountability. Conservative lawmakers at the state and federal level continue to attack the Common Core State Standards as a threat to local control of schools and curriculum.
Teachers unions at the national, state and local level are openly rebelling against evaluation policies like the one in place in Chicago. Unions are also fueling the movement to opt out of statewide tests.
For all of the noise, however, the opt-out movement is largely limited to affluent pockets of New York, New Jersey and Colorado. Choice and high standards remain popular both among conservatives eager to shake up the educational sector and among the increasingly poor, black and brown users of the public schools.
Forty-three states and the District of Columbia allow charters. They currently serve more than 2.5 million students nearly half of which are low-income. The charter sector grew by 7 percent last year, and parent demand for choice remains high. As for the Common Core State Standards, they remain in place in 42 states and most efforts to repeal them have stalled or failed.
That said, Chicago, like New York, Los Angeles and other big cities, has been at the center of education reform battles and has been forced into a few tactical retreats. For example, Mayor Emanuel agreed to limit charter growth by denying new charters use of unoccupied school buildings.
Under pressure from parents, Emanuel’s leadership team at the Chicago Public Schools also flirted with opting out of the new Common Core-aligned test but they ultimately backed down under pressure from the state. The tests are going ahead on schedule.
Looking ahead, Mayor Emanuel has his work cut out for him with the current teacher contract expiring in June and Chicago facing a massive pension bill that could force layoffs and budget cuts while precluding salary hikes for teachers.
Either way, it is hard for anyone to argue that Chicago voters rejected the Mayor’s education agenda. A more reasonable conclusion is that they want the city to move forward.