Starting in January 2025, Chicago will move from a school board appointed by the mayor to an elected board. This shift is stirring great hopes and great fears – hopes this will create a more responsive education system and fears it will open the door to instability and a board mired in politics.
The move to an elected board is the realization of a dream for many organizers who have long argued that parents and communities are shut out of important decisions affecting their schools. They think an elected board will ensure that parent and community wishes and concerns will be heard.
But others worry the planned 21-member board is too big to be effective. They’re also concerned the elected members may not end up reflecting the racial makeup of the student body, which is majority Latino and Black.
Several key decisions still lay ahead before November 2024, when the first elections take place. They will set the foundation for how this board will actually function.
Why is Chicago moving to an elected school board?
Chicago was among the first big cities to move to a school board appointed by the mayor in 1995 as a way to give City Hall more control over the direction and finances of Chicago Public Schools.
But momentum to move to an elected board began heating up in the early 2010s. This came after a decade where then-Mayor Richard M. Daley opened dozens of publicly-funded, privately run charter schools and closed a slew of neighborhood schools as part of a school reform effort. Parents and activists would show up at board meetings to protest the closing of their schools, but be confronted with silent, stone-faced board members. Daley’s board members were primarily civic and corporate leaders who almost always voted in line with the mayor’s wishes.
Activists became convinced that the only way to be heard was through an elected board. This was new for Chicago, though between 1988 and 1995, a committee of parents and community members nominated members for the mayor to choose from.
In 2015, 90% of Chicago voters in 37 of 50 wards said they wanted an elected school board in response to a non-binding referendum. But it was not until 2021, once Illinois had a Democratic governor and state legislature, that a bill to create an elected school board was approved and signed.
What key questions are still up for debate?
Lawmakers are still hashing out some fundamental questions about how the elected school board will work. The plan is to start with a partially elected board in 2025, with 10 members elected and 11 appointed, and then move to a fully elected board in 2027.
The first issue relates to the voting districts. The law calls for the president of the board to be elected citywide, but the other 20 members to represent geographic areas, like alderpeople or state representatives. That map is supposed to be drawn up by state lawmakers, but that became so controversial this spring that the legislature pushed back the deadline from July to April 2024.
The main controversy centers around whether the districts should reflect the racial population of the city or the racial population of the school district. The city’s population is 33% white, 32% Latino, 29% Black and about 7% Asian. But the school district’s student population is more than 80% Latino and Black. Some 11% of students are white and 4% Asian.
Draft maps from legislative committees faced heavy criticism for creating districts that were more reflective of the city population than the school district’s enrollment.
Some CPS parents insist on voting districts with racial pluralities that will likely elect board board members that will look like Chicago’s students, said Daniel Anello, chief executive officer of Kids First Chicago, an advocacy organization. His group has done a number of focus groups with parents about the map.
“The people that are most proximal to these issues need to be the ones who are at least in the room to co-create the solutions,” he said. “Who’s got the most risk here? Well, students and their families. And if this thing does not work they’re the ones who are going to end up suffering.”
A newly formed organization, the Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting, contends that majority Black districts should have a slight advantage because majority Black schools have suffered the most disinvestment and Black students have the worst outcomes in CPS. Another group, Asian American Advancing Justice, wants to make sure Asian populations aren’t split between districts so they have a chance to wield as much power as possible.
Two other factors left unaddressed in the law also could impact who is elected and who can run, Anello and others say. The law has no campaign contribution limits and many people are pushing for them. They point to school boards, like in Los Angeles, where charter school operators and the teachers union donate to candidates and ultimately play a big role in who gets elected.
The law also offers no pay for school board members. There’s a push to pay them so working class and middle class Chicagoans can run and devote time to the job. Los Angeles board members work full time and make $127,500 a year, while other school districts provide members a stipend or a smaller salary.
How do you lay the foundation for success?
Experts say training, preparation and setting expectations for board members is crucial.
Most people who want to serve have good intentions, but they can get confused about who they are accountable to, said Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs, executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association. She served on the school board in Prince George County, Virginia for more than a decade.
The North Star must be outcomes for children, she said. Understanding that is more important than whether a board is appointed or elected. Professional development that emphasizes the roles and responsibilities of the board is essential and needs to be in place before the board is elected.
Boards also need a good onboarding process, said Michael R. Ford, associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. In a big, complex school district like Chicago, this is especially important.
“It’s really about creating the conditions where you have a foundation where folks are aligned on key concepts and are able to enter this new governing scenario with all the information, knowledge and expectations they need to be successful,” he said.
Ford stresses that board members need a real understanding of school finance in Illinois and what school boards can and cannot do. The board also should develop policy statements that define key concepts such as accountability, student success and the role of strategic planning, Ford said. And board members need to know what they are responsible for and what the district’s superintendent or CEO has final say over.
“Confusion that mixes up governance and operations is one of the classic ways a board can fail,” Ford said.
The members of the newly appointed Chicago Board of Education — the last one to be fully elected — say they are working to help their successors succeed. Last year, for example, they approved $10 million to renovate space to accommodate the board tripling in size. Board President Jianan Shi also said they are researching what staffing levels and supports are needed to help each board member make informed decisions.
In Los Angeles, each member has five staff and, in 2017, the board created an independent analysis unit to support members.
Shi said the current board also will leave a master facility plan and a strategic plan they hope will guide new members. But he concedes the coming board won’t be compelled to follow these guides.
This story is part of “The Democracy Solutions Project,” a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.