Will Chicago Get An Elected School Board?

WBEZ breaks down the two competing bills in Springfield, who’s on what side and the odds of any legislation actually passing.

Cassie Creswell, dressed as a bill, joined supporters of an elected school board for Chicago who rallied outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters in 2018. After years of failed attempts, momentum is growing in Springfield for legislators to move Chicago to an elected board. Bill Healy / WBEZ
Cassie Creswell, dressed as a bill, joined supporters of an elected school board for Chicago who rallied outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters in 2018. After years of failed attempts, momentum is growing in Springfield for legislators to move Chicago to an elected board. Bill Healy / WBEZ

Will Chicago Get An Elected School Board?

WBEZ breaks down the two competing bills in Springfield, who’s on what side and the odds of any legislation actually passing.

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As the Illinois legislative session nears an end, one of the big unanswered questions is whether state lawmakers will approve a bill to move Chicago from an appointed board of education to a fully elected one — or something in between.

After years of failed attempts, the odds look more promising than ever for passage before the legislative session ends May 31.

Supporters and opponents of an elected board are ramping up their lobbying efforts, sending flyers, buying commercials and holding rallies.

There’s a lot at stake. The Chicago school board, currently appointed by the mayor, passes a roughly $8 billion budget annually, votes on a CEO chosen by the mayor, as well as key contracts and policies that set the district’s academic course.

Supporters of an elected school board say the switch from an appointed board is about democracy. They say elected board members will represent the interests of city residents and will be accountable to the people they serve.

But opponents say a system where the mayor appoints the school board has produced results, including academic growth of students. This ultimately holds the mayor responsible for the quality of the school district, they say. Opponents also argue that campaign money and special interests could corrupt an elected school board, rendering it incapable of governing effectively or representing anyone’s interests well.

Ever wonder how we got to this point and how this all might end?

Keep on reading.

How did we get here?

Chicago is one of nine cities, including New York and Boston, where the mayor has the power to appoint the school board. The mayor gained control in Chicago in 1995, when Mayor Richard M. Daley was in power and the system was seen as troubled. The state legislature also gave Chicago more financial control. By giving the mayor’s office full authority, the legislature aimed to make it fully accountable. The school board has never been fully elected in Chicago, but at one point there was a community-led nomination process.

In the late 2000s, parents and grassroots advocates started aggressively questioning this structure. It was during this time that the appointed school board started opening many new privately-run, publicly-managed charter schools and closing neighborhood schools. Because board members were not elected, the advocates felt their concerns were being ignored.

What legislation is pending in Springfield?

There are two bills.

One would create 20 districts that would each elect a board member, plus a president elected at large. State Sen. Robert Martwick, a Chicago Democrat who introduced the bill, has argued that having distinct districts would ensure diversity and limit the money candidates would need to campaign. The first election would be held in 2023, and the legislature would have to extend the elected school board by 2029 or it would revert back to an appointed board. A version of this bill passed the House in 2017, 2019 and again this year. A different version passed the Senate in 2017. But as a way of killing it, the House and Senate bills were never reconciled.

The second bill was introduced this year by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford. The Maywood Democrat filed the bill as a gesture to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who strongly opposes the 21-member elected school board.

Lightford’s bill would create a hybrid bill that mixes elected and appointed members, but allows the mayor to continue to appoint the majority. Initially, it would include five appointed members and two elected. Eventually, it would become a 11-member board, with three elected. The bill also lays out eligibility guidelines, including requiring that elected members be former members of a Local School Council or a governing board of a charter school. Also, it allows noncitizens to run.

Because this bill puts the overwhelming power in the hands of the mayor, many believe Lightfoot is using it as a starting point for negotiations to try to find a compromise. Illinois Senate President Don Harmon has said he wants the two sides to come up with a proposal that starts with a hybrid board that eventually becomes fully elected.

Who opposes a fully elected school board?

The mayor’s office has long been the biggest opponent of moving to an elected school board. Recent mayors have argued that students are best served when an elected mayor is ultimately responsible for the performance of the school system.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel opposed it and the then-Senate president, an Emanuel ally, made sure it never came up for a vote. Lightfoot ran for mayor as a supporter of a fully elected school board, but now she’s an ardent opponent and standing in the way of passage.

She says it would open the door to special interest groups spending big money to get seats. Lightfoot also says the 21-member bill would be too big and unwieldy and doesn’t reserve seats for parents.

She also criticizes the bill because it wouldn’t allow noncitizens to run. But this week, the Illinois Latino Legislative Caucus and the City Council Latino Caucus bashed Lightfoot for using that as a reason to oppose a fully elected school board. They point out there is a separate bill to allow noncitizens to run for all school boards, though there has been no action on that bill this session. In a letter, the legislative caucus accuses Lightfoot of pitting families against each other with “disingenuous attacks.”

Yet Lightfoot is not alone in opposing a fully elected school board.

Outgoing Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson also is against it, saying she fears it won’t promote transparency and community voice in the way supporters want.

On Tuesday, the Civic Federation also came out against the 21-member bill. The watchdog group has many of the same concerns as Lightfoot. The group also noted that the city provides some subsidies for the school district, including pension contributions for some CPS employees. “Legally separating the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools raises questions about the ongoing financial responsibility of the City to the school district,” the Civic Federation said in a statement. “No other Illinois city has a financial responsibility for its school system.”

Two other organizations, Kids First Chicago and Stand for Children Illinois, have publicly come out with a neutral position, but the implication is that they support the mayor’s stance. Stand for Children, a statewide organization, launched a campaign that includes sending out mailers and a “six-figure” television buy to urge lawmakers to negotiate a compromise “on which all sides agree.”

Kids First held workshops and surveyed about 250 parents from 136 schools. It said they found that the majority of parents want a “balanced” board, with some appointed and some elected members. CEO Daniel Anello said parents felt as though their voices were being drowned out in the debate. “More than anything, from our standpoint, we want to make sure that parents who are not activists, that don’t have an ideology other than their children, are able to weigh in,” Anello said.

Calling for an elected school board at a protest outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters on June 27, 2018. Bill Healy / WBEZ

Who supports an elected school board?

This is a core issue for many progressive grassroots parent and community groups, including Raise Your Hand, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and the Pilsen Alliance. The most outspoken advocate is Jitu Brown, board president of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

Brown and others argue that Chicago’s status as the only Illinois municipality with an appointed board disenfranchises its residents, especially the parents of the majority Black and Latino students who go to Chicago schools. They argue that past appointed boards have taken sweeping action without real public input, such as the closing of 50 schools in 2013, and have allowed privatization, such as the opening of charter schools, to go forward unchecked, leading to the closure or shake-up of more than 200 schools over time.

“Privatization is about the removal of Black and brown families from urban spaces. It has nothing to do with what is in the best interest of children. Our tears tell that story,” said Brown to a rally in front of Harmon’s Oak Park office on Tuesday.

Brown also is highly critical of Kids First and Stand for Children, which are funded by some of the same philanthropists who have supported school privatization.

The Cook County Democratic Party approved a symbolic resolution supporting the fully elected school board earlier this year, and the Chicago Teachers Union also supports an elected board. Many believe that strong CTU support is one factor that has driven Lightfoot to turn against an elected school board. Though the mayor sees herself as aligned with the CTU on many issues, the union and the mayor have a highly contentious relationship. Lightfoot was furious that the union went on strike in 2019.

Will a fully elected school board bill pass this year?

As with anything in Springfield, it is always hard to say.

On one hand, it looks likely. Lightfoot doesn’t have as much sway in Springfield as some former mayors. This was evident earlier this year when the legislature passed a bill that gives the Chicago Teachers Union more power and the governor signed it, despite Lightfoot’s opposition.

On the other hand, reaching a compromise between the two sides seems unlikely. Sources tell WBEZ that the mayor may be open to reducing the number of appointed seats, but she will want to keep control in some way. Meanwhile, the coalition that supports a fully elected school board will be putting pressure on Rep. Martwick not to bend.

Harmon said he wants to bring a compromise bill to the Senate, but was less clear what he would do if a compromise can’t be reached.

He warned, though, “If the only option were the proposal or nothing, the Senate might very well pass it.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.