Chicago mayoral hopeful Bill Daley is one of the few candidates who’s against letting city voters elect their school board, but he’s proposing an alternative: dozens of elected mini school boards in the neighborhoods.
Daley wants to create about 50 elected “Neighborhood School Councils,” with each overseeing groups of eight to 12 schools in roughly the same neighborhood. These new mini school boards would have the power to hire principals and approve budgets, as well as make decisions about enrollment, curriculum, and school closures and expansions in their districts.
In Chicago, the mayor currently gets to appoint all members of Chicago Board of Education, which makes district-wide decisions about budgeting and curriculum. But there are also 513 so-called local school councils, or LSCs, across the city that comprise about a dozen teachers, parents, and community residents at individual schools. Most LSCs have the authority to hire principals and approve school budgets.
Daley’s proposal would require a change to state law because it would eliminate the existing local school councils.
Daley says he worries having a fully elected school board would inject politics into education. But his plan represents a middle ground approach.
“The bottom line of this is stepping back from: ‘My school is all I care about,’” Daley said in an interview with WBEZ Wednesday. “As opposed to, ‘Our community has multiple schools, and we’ve all got to be in this together to try to figure out how to get our community schools better for the kids.’
Daley’s latest proposal comes amid a week in which he’s floating many government consolidation ideas, including reducing the number of aldermen from 50 to 15 and merging Chicago Public Schools with City Colleges of Chicago.
LSCs were created in 1988 under sweeping school reform legislation to give control of public schools back to communities. But over time, their influence has been inconsistent. Today, LSC elections are held every two years, and while many schools have very active councils, others have many vacancies and only advisory power.
Elisabeth Greer sits on the LSC at National Teachers Academy, which just won a battle with the school district to keep their school open.
“I don’t think it’s a very good idea at all,” Greer said of Daley’s proposal. “No one knows a school better than the parents who are intimately involved in the day-to-day functioning of that school.”
Greer said she’s not sure her school would have been able to save itself from the chopping block without a strong local council and parent community pushing back on the district’s plan.
She said Daley’s idea raises so many questions: Who would vote for the neighborhood miniboards? How many seats would each have, and how would CPS ensure there’s equity and a voice for all schools?
Daniel Kleinman, a community representative on the Walt Disney Magnet Elementary LSC, said he would not favor eliminating the current system, but liked the idea of elected neighborhood council members collaborating across neighborhoods.
Kleinman also advocates for using the existing LSC structure to create a representative-elected school board at the district level.
“Any democratic solution is better than what we have now,” he said.
But the Chicago Teachers Union rejected Daley’s proposal as “terrible” because it would eliminate the small amount of democracy that does exist in a city school system where all district-wide board members are appointed by the mayor.
“This proposal shows complete contempt for parents, educators, and neighborhood residents, and is cut from the same cloth as the autocratic control exercised by the last two mayors, to the enormous detriment of our neighborhood public schools and the black and Latinx neighborhoods they anchor,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey.
But Daley argues that by consolidating LSCs, there will be a stronger community voice to advocate for resources and school improvements within the bigger CPS system.
He also said these mini elected school boards would be better than a city-wide elected school board, because there won’t be expensive elections every four years with teachers unions and school reformers battling for control.
“That’s a political dynamic that I think doesn’t necessarily help the kids,” Daley said.
Daley’s proposal would also include a provision to pay the elected neighborhood council members a stipend to encourage participation. Right now, local school council members are volunteers.
Erica Nanton, a community representative on the LSC at Southside Occupational Academy High School, said LSCs are “precious, hyperlocal” forms of democracy that the next mayor should focus on protecting and strengthening.
Nanton worked with students at Robeson High School when the district decided to shut down that school and three others and build a new $85 million high school in Englewood. She said there’s a reason some communities lack strong LSCs.
“The schools set for closure already had weakened LSCs,” Nanton said. “I feel like the LSCs end up having a lot of issues that are reflective of the issues the communities are facing. In order for an LSC to function, you need community members. But in some places, people literally don’t live there anymore.”
Consolidating to a single mini school board for the whole area, Nanton fears, could create a system where “the haves” rule over the “have-nots.”