Supporters of Karen Lewis want one of her key issues, an elected school board, to be on the ballot. [Flickr/photo by Bob Simon]

Much remains uncertain in the wake of Karen Lewis’ withdrawal from the mayoral race, but a few things are clear.

One is that the news of Lewis’ illness hit Chicago progressives hard in two ways. There’s personal distress over the health crisis of one of the rare leaders who could be called beloved. And there’s political distress over the withdrawal of the strongest challenger to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election.

Open questions include: Will Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) now have a shot at raising the money he needs to take on Emanuel, and will his longstanding relationships with the black community pay off in votes? Will another challenger emerge from the pack of current small-scale candidates or from the political establishment? And how will progressive candidates running against “rubber-stamp” aldermen fare without Lewis at the head of an electoral movement?

There is something else that’s immediately clear. One solid outgrowth of Lewis’ candidacy is the drive to put the question of an elected school board before voters in as many wards as possible.

Last week, the City Council Rules Committee blocked a citywide referendum through the expedient of loading the ballot with three other issues, which is the maximum allowed by law. It’s the third time Emanuel allies have kept the question off the citywide ballot — though in 2012, community groups passed petitions to get the question on the ballot in 327 precincts across the city, and 87 percent of voters supported an elected school board.

But community and labor activists, including supporters of Lewis and independent aldermanic candidates, are now passing petitions with the goal of placing an advisory referendum on ward ballots next February. The goal is to have it on the ballot in all 50 wards. (Referenda can be put on the ballot citywide or by ward or precinct.)

It’s a crucial question. Mayoral control, embodied in the sole power to appoint the school board, is what enabled Emanuel to close 50 schools despite an outpouring of community opposition, and to expand charters despite their impact on neighborhood schools. This policy — shifting resources from publicly operated neighborhood schools governed by local school councils to charters managed by unaccountable private entities — is the top item on Emanuel’s neoliberal agenda for Chicago. And Lewis’ tenacious opposition to this policy was the basis of her widespread support.

Recent news about charter schools has not been good. Chicago’s largest charter chain, UNO, has been reorganized in the wake of a conflict-of-interest scandal that involved penalties and monitoring by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The nation’s largest charter operator, Concept Schools, is under investigation by the FBI for similar corruption; they continue to open new campuses in Chicago.

And yet another study looks at the numbers and demonstrates that charters do not outperform neighborhood schools. The rhetoric about “high-quality options” is just that: rhetoric.

Chicago Public Schools recently announced that it won’t approve any new charters for next year, and that for a second year it will back off additional budget cuts at schools when enrollment is below projections.

This came as Emanuel was unveiling a series of policy shifts intended to counter his image as mayor of the 1 percent: a new city minimum wage, drug-sentencing reform, an ordinance to protect SRO tenants and brand-new support for immigrant rights. Along with the CPS announcements, these were clearly in response to the threat of a Lewis candidacy. They were not flip-flops as much as pirouettes — a flurry of spin which leaves the dancer in the basically same place.

On charters, for example, expansions already approved by CPS — including new campuses for UNO and Concept — will go ahead next year. The district is on track to open nearly 40 new charters in Emanuel’s first term, while closing 50 neighborhood schools due to an alleged “underutilization crisis.” Meanwhile, Raise Your Hand reports that there are 10,000 “empty seats” in the city’s charter schools.

And while a second round of cuts based on tenth-day enrollment numbers are suspended, neighborhood schools will continue to see their budgets decimated by student-based budgeting, under which the basics of a well-rounded education are no longer provided to each school. The number of librarians in CPS schools, for example, is down from 454 two years ago to 254 this year, WBEZ recently reported.

If Emanuel had to face voters in a fair and free election focused on his school policies, he’d lose. With unlimited support from the city’s multimillionaires, he may be able to tilt the scales and avoid that kind of contest.

But if the Karen Lewis movement has anything to say about it, voters will have an opportunity to be heard on the direction of the city’s schools.

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Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.