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Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t running for reelection. The under-appreciated reason? School closures.

- September 20, 2018
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces he will not seek a third term in office at a news conference at City Hall in Chicago on Sept. 4. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/AP)

Two-term Mayor Rahm Emanuel shocked Chicagoans by announcing he would not run for reelection. The surprising announcement has been followed by widespread speculation about the reasons behind Emanuel’s decision, particularly given that there was no clear competitive contender to replace him.

Several articles cited Chicago’s increasing gun violence as an issue shaping Emanuel’s decision. Far less discussed, and understood, was the role of his controversial 2013 decision to close nearly 50 public schools — the most schools closed in one city in a single year in modern U.S. history.

Emanuel and then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett argued that closing schools would help solve the problem of underutilization, where there are more seats than students in each classroom.

But nearly 88 percent of the students affected by the closures were African American. And after the closures in 2015, Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme. As a result, thousands of community members, students and parents came together to protest the closure decision.

What were the political effects of these decisions?

When Emanuel first ran for mayor in 2011, 58 percent of black Chicagoans supported him. Once his administration announced the school closings in 2013, blacks were twice as likely to oppose public school closures as whites.

And black opposition to the school closings translated into a loss of black support for Emanuel in 2015. While support for Emanuel declined across the board, it declined the most among African Americans affected by the closures.

Here’s how I did my research

To start, I collected the addresses of every school closed in Chicago in 2013. I then linked these data to a representative citywide survey that asked Chicagoans about their attitudes toward school closings before engaging in a statistical analysis of the results by race. Then, my colleague Thomas Ogorzalek with the Chicago Democracy Project and I linked the location of school closings in Chicago to precinct level turnout data just before the closure wave (2011 and 2012) and just after it (2015). In both analyses, we account for other factors such as income and education, as well.

The mostly black neighborhoods where schools had been closed turned against Emanuel

We found that the closer a neighborhood was to the school closures, the more Emanuel’s support dropped. In particular, we saw that in the precincts within 1.5 miles of a closing — populated largely by African Americans — Emanuel’s support fell by approximately 13 percent. In the precincts farther from a closing, the drop was about 3 percent.

What’s more, combining Cooperative Congressional Election Study opinion data on Chicago with local election data, our analysis reveals that those who lived closest to areas where the local schools were closed — again, largely African Americans — became increasingly likely to attend a community meeting, to advocate for an elected school board, and to turn out to vote in 2015.

That same year, Chicago experienced its first competitive — meaning, the incumbent candidate actually had a chance of losing — election in decades when Emanuel failed to get more than 50 percent in the first round of mayoral voting and faced a runoff against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Chuy ran on a platform of electing a school board, rather than having board members appointed by the mayor, and for saving rather than closing local schools. As a result, the Chicago Teachers Union endorsed him, probably bringing him widespread support among anti-school closure supporters.

An exit poll conducted during the 2015 election asked voters what issue brought them out to the polls. Of those who said it was public schools or education, only 37 percent voted for Emanuel. When voters were asked whether they thought closing schools had been the “right decision,” over 60 percent of those who said “no” voted for Chuy.

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This year, the city closed more schools in black and brown neighborhoods

To be sure, the mass closure of schools occurred nearly five years ago; many other issues are boiling in Chicago politics. But the issue remains fresh. In 2017, the next Chicago Public Schools CEO, Forrest Claypool, resigned after the school inspector general charged him with ethics violations. In 2018, the city closed still more schools in black and brown communities. And in the spring, the University of Chicago released a report showing the closures had been poorly handled and that students from the closed schools fell behind in reading and math, with effects lasting for years.

Citizens often vote based on policies that shape their everyday lives. For many Americans, education is one of those policies. Similarly, politicians often choose to run for election or reelection based on how constituents respond to their signature policies. Education, for many local politicians, is one of those policies.

Emanuel may well have realized that communities that once supported him overwhelmingly were likely to turn elsewhere this time around.

Sally A. Nuamah (@sally_nuamah) is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and is completing a book on the political consequences of urban school closure.