About a half of eligible voters do not know Chicago Public Schools is on the precipice of electing school board members for the first time, according to a poll of eligible voters commissioned by Kids First Chicago, a nonprofit education advocacy organization.
“Awareness is not extremely high, even among parents who had kids in public schools,” said José Pacas, chief of data science and research for Kids First.
The results of the citywide poll, which asked about a range of issues related to the elected school board, are being released at a critical time.
The first election for half of the 21-member board is set to take place in just one year — November 2024. The remaining members will continue to be appointed by the mayor. Then, two years later, the entire board will be elected, with 20 members representing geographic areas and the president elected at large.
But the state legislature is still in the process of drawing a map of voting districts. The Illinois Senate Special Committee on the Chicago Elected Representative School Board will hold an online hearing at 5 p.m. Thursday.
The committee is tackling several fundamental questions, including how to transition from 10 members representing geographic regions to 20. Potential options include drawing two completely separate maps or creating 10 districts for the 2024 election and then splitting those 10 districts in half for elections starting in 2026.
After failing to meet a spring deadline to draw the map last spring, legislators gave themselves until April 1, 2024. However, there is speculation they will try to get it done during the fall veto session, which starts on Oct. 24.
“Changes of this magnitude are complex, and we are still gathering public input about the best way to transition to a fully-elected school board,” the chair of the senate committee, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, said in a statement.
In the spring, the legislative committees released proposed maps, but they were criticized by many groups. Many were concerned the map would lead to a board that reflected the racial makeup of the city, and not the racial makeup of the school district. Chicago’s population is about a third white while the school district is only 11% white.
Kids First has been pushing an agenda they say is based on input from parents interviewed in focus groups. The poll was designed to test whether that agenda was supported by the public.
The poll of 723 eligible votes had more Black respondents (40%) than there are in the city (29%), and white and Latino residents were slightly under-represented. About 37% were Chicago Public Schools parents.
As with the parents in the Kids First focus groups, three out of four poll respondents said they want the school board to reflect the racial makeup of the student population, not the city. They want parents on the board as well. The majority also think any Chicago adult, whether they are citizens or not, should be able to vote and serve on the school board.
The respondents also supported strict limits on donations to school board candidates and stipends or pay for members. These elements are not included in the law and there has been a push to get them added.
Pacas said there was little variation among the respondents based on race or whether they have children attending CPS.
Hal Woods, chief of policy for Kids First, said legislators have told them some of these issues are difficult to tackle because of legal and other election restrictions.
He also said it would be difficult to reserve seats for parents. However, if members are compensated, and if there are campaign donations limits or public campaign financing, parents would be much more likely to run and potentially be elected, he said.