Chicago education advocates landed long-sought legislation in 2021 to create the city’s first-ever elected school board. But with the first elections now a year away, many details of this new board are still unresolved — including even a few settled points that now appear open to negotiation once again.
Springfield lawmakers opened up the structure and timeline of the school board elections during the veto session last week that featured dueling proposals and boiling frustration.
The statehouse will be back in session in January in hopes of hammering out details in time for a smooth election next November. Here’s a primer on the issues and where things stand today.
Election schedule (still in flux)
The 2021 legislation created a 21-member school board. The first 10 board members would be elected in November 2024, with the remaining 11 seats appointed by the mayor. Another 10 seats would then be up for election in November 2026, plus an at-large board president.
That schedule has long been set in stone — until last week.
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, threw a wrench in those plans by proposing to move elections for all board members to next fall. His reasoning? It’s too difficult to create a racially representative voting map that adheres to voting rights laws with only half the districts. He believes every model for transitioning from a partially elected to fully elected board has “glaring shortcomings.”
“If you are going to take 20 districts and consolidate them into 10, you really lose the ability to ensure people are represented in all corners of the city,” Harmon said, referring to a House plan for voting next fall. “The way to avoid litigation over disenfranchisement is to elect all members in 2024.”
Lawmakers traded several proposals last week in an effort to find a solution.
The Chicago Teachers Union, the leading proponent of a fully elected school board, hasn’t immediately jumped on board with Harmon’s plan and has even criticized it, surprising some.
But after the initial shock, the CTU and key lawmakers have expressed some willingness to listen, though they worry about a dramatic change so close to the election. Other players, including the advocacy group Kids First Chicago and the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, have yet to take a position.
Jen Johnson, deputy mayor of education under Brandon Johnson, said the mayor wants to stick with starting with a hybrid board as laid out in the law. She said, as an organizer for the CTU, the mayor worked to pass the law, which took a lot of advocacy, pressure and compromise.
“Interjecting change at this stage is not super helpful,” she said.
In an interview, CTU President Stacy Davis Gates said the union isn’t opposed to all members being elected next year, but Harmon needs to answer how he thinks that’s now possible when he previously argued it would be too complicated.
“The Senate president dropped this on everyone’s head without the benefit of stakeholder input or even understanding,” Davis Gates said. “So, no, the implications of this haven’t been weighed yet. We’re still trying to understand what just happened.”
Though the house passed a bill on the last day of its session last week that called for a hybrid bill, Democratic State Rep. Ann Williams, isn’t opposed to moving all the elections to next year, but she said time is needed to consider it. She noted Harmon made the proposal late Tuesday, just two days before the end of the session and less than a year before the elections.
Community activist Dwayne Truss and the group the Illinois African Americans For Equitable Redistricting group, favors moving all 20 elections to next year. Truss, a former Board of Education member under Lightfoot, said he’s suspicious of the CTU’s reasons for not supporting immediate elections.
“It’s no big secret that they went all in on Brandon Johnson’s [mayoral] campaign,” Truss said. “So they’re not politically financially in a position to run 20 candidates [next year]. So, you know, that could be an issue.”
Davis Gates said she has no doubts the CTU will be prepared if all the elections are next year.
“That’s never the question,” she said. “You’re asking an organizing union, is it prepared to organize? Well, that’s kind of what we do.”
Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said his organization is fine with either election schedule but he urged lawmakers to “get the process finalized.”
“Either way, we’re preparing to run candidates and support candidates who have a reform orientation and who see our member schools as part of the tapestry of Chicago and an important part of dealing with the achievement gap,” he said.
State Sen. Robert Martwick, a Democrat who has been pushing for an elected board for years, said every version had pros and cons.
“Give me a model and I will tell you the good and bad,” Martwick said. “It is frustrating because we can’t seem to reach an agreement. Let’s just pick one.”
Election map (approved)
After punting on a deadline to get a voting map finished last spring, lawmakers finally seem to have found a deal this fall. Williams said it was a “big hurdle to overcome” after disagreements about racial representation.
The new map features seven districts where the majority of voting age adults are Black residents, six majority Latino districts and five white districts. Two remaining North Side districts have a white plurality, with one including a Latino population of nearly equal size.
But there are still concerns that Latino students, who make up nearly half of CPS’s enrollment, will be underrepresented. Kids First Chicago said focus groups with parents and a poll show that most people want the board to reflect the makeup of the student body — almost 90% kids of color — more than the city, which is about one-third white.
In a letter last week to the General Assembly, MALDEF, the nation’s leading Latino civil rights organization, said the citizen voting age population, rather than the population overall or the voting age, should determine the majority in a district. With that methodology, MALDEF said only two of 20 districts in the proposed map are majority Latino, and only one of the 10 districts in the House proposal. The group warned that disparity could lead to future litigation.
Non-citizen voting eligibility (no progress)
Advocates across the board support allowing non-citizens to vote in Chicago’s school board elections to give those communities representation. But to some chagrin, lawmakers didn’t find a solution in the original 2021 legislation.
State Sen. Celina Villanueva, a Chicago Democrat, introduced a bill last year to allow non-citizens to vote, but it has never come up for a vote.
“It is important for a school district with a growing Latinx population and with community members that have been here for 20 or 30 years to have a say over their children’s education,” Villanueva said.
Harmon said he is sensitive to this issue, but that there are constitutional concerns. Several other state legislatures have tried to allow non-citizens to vote but have faced lawsuits. And even before litigation, few non-citizens have registered to vote for fear their information would end up in the hands of federal authorities.
Villanueva said she knew this would be difficult but she said she’s not giving up.
Ethics rules (approved)
Dueling ethics proposals last week caused a small, but ultimately temporary disagreement.
In the end, the Senate and House seemed to find agreement on new ethics language that would prohibit people from serving on the board if they had an ownership interest in a company or organization with a CPS contract. But workers at those places would be allowed to run and serve.
These would match the conflict of interest provisions for other school districts in the state.
There had been concerns some proposals opened the door for potential corruption, while others versions would have shut out working parents who are employed by an organization that does business with CPS but wouldn’t personally see any financial gain.
Board member compensation (no progress/non-starter)
Serving as a Chicago Board of Education member is an unpaid job that can be time-consuming and historically has been filled by retirees or those with full-time jobs whose companies see a civic benefit in having them serve.
Martwick and many advocates strongly believe members should be paid and proposed a bill allowing for it. They worry leaving them as volunteers will mean only rich people or those with flexible jobs will be able to run or serve. It would be difficult for working parents to find the time required.
“It defies logic that people do not want to lift economic barriers to running,” Martwick said.
But there has been no traction on this topic. Martwick said there’s concern from lawmakers that suburban or downstate districts will want to be paid.
Campaign finance rules (no progress/non-starter)
There appear to be no efforts to create campaign finance rules.
Harmon points to the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision that the First Amendment prohibits government from limiting individual or corporate contributions to candidates. He said other case law has established that this ruling applies to local elections.
Some have suggested that public financing would help level the playing field, but no bill has been floated for Chicago school board elections.
Insiders have also said state lawmakers won’t buy into campaign finance rules for school board races because that would create a slippery slope for local and state elections.
Nader Issa covers education for the Chicago Sun-Times.