In the summer of 2015, Jitu Brown, president of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, led a 34-day hunger strike to pressure the Chicago Board of Education to reopen Dyett High School, one of 50 schools shut down during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term. As a result of the strike, Dyett is now operating as a neighborhood arts academy. But Brown and his fellow strikers had to starve themselves to get the attention of the school board.
Those seven board members were appointed by the mayor. But by 2027, for the first time in history, Chicago Public Schools is going to be run by an elected board. In June, the state legislature passed a bill to create a 21-member assembly that will include 20 representatives elected from districts and a president who will be voted upon citywide. The Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization has been campaigning for just such a board since 2006, but Brown says Emanuel’s “brazen” school closings “inflamed people” enough to actually make it happen. It won’t be so easy to close schools once every neighborhood is represented. “An elected school board will make it harder to move policies that are not in the interests of our children, and school closings is one of those policies,” Brown predicts.
Here are a few more things that proponents and opponents of an elected school board say we can expect.
■ A politicized school board When you create a new elected body, you create a new political battleground. The Civic Federation, which opposed an elected board, noted in a position paper that “in Los Angeles, a record $17.7 million was spent in the 2020 school board elections as teachers’ union and charter school-backed candidates battled for control of the board.” State senator Robert Martwick, a Chicago Democrat, says the 21-member board was created to make campaigns less expensive: “The smaller the number of voters, the more grassroots involvement.” The legislature is considering a bill to provide public financing for school board elections so low-income parents can afford to run. Still, Martwick acknowledges, “we can’t stop the Chicago Teachers Union or charter schools from spending money independently.”
■ More transparent hiring Barbara Byrd-Bennett, one of Emanuel’s handpicked school district CEOs, went to prison for accepting kickbacks on no-bid contracts. Another Emanuel CEO, Forrest Claypool, resigned after he was accused of lying during an ethics investigation. Samay Gheewala, assistant director for policy at Illinois Families for Public Schools, believes mayors prize insiders with elite credentials over leaders who will be accountable to the public: “The people who picked Barbara Byrd-Bennett want to go to the parties at the Commercial Club. That’s who they’re going to be hassled by. An elected school board member will be responsible to the neighborhood.”
■ A disconnect between city and schools Martwick thinks he’s doing mayors a favor by relieving them of responsibility for schools. “Shouldn’t the mayor be focused on the city government?” he asks. “I think [Emanuel] was a terrible head of schools, but he was a good mayor.” Could stripping the mayor of power over education damage the district’s finances, though? This fiscal year, the city provided $415 million to CPS to fund pensions of employees other than teachers, debt service funding, and capital projects. “If you create a situation where the mayor can wash their hands of a decision on schools, that absolves them of responsibility,” says Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First Chicago. Once CPS becomes independent, the Civic Federation noted, “it is not clear that the city would or should be obligated to fund CPS.” Amanda Kass, associate director of the Government Finance Research Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote in a blog post that she thinks the city will still be responsible for the pension payments, at least: “This isn’t something the mayor has discretion [over] and is choosing to do.”
■ Fewer charter schools More than 55,000 students attend CPS’s 115 charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Critics argue they rob funds from neighborhood schools but are no more effective. Gheewala thinks an elected board would approve fewer charters or even institute a moratorium: “There is the perception that charters are not providing a better education. When you’ve got seven people who are appointed, they’re easier to lobby. When you’re responsive to voters who understand that charters are not providing a service, you’ll see fewer of them.”
■ Board members knowing their communities Remember Derrion Albert? He was a student from Altgeld Gardens who was bused to Christian Fenger Academy High School after the housing project’s neighborhood school was turned into a military academy. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s board of ed didn’t know or didn’t care that the plan put members of rival gangs in the same school. Albert was beaten to death with a railroad tie during a gang brawl in 2009. “When that school exploded, they looked stupid,” Brown says. “If you want to say gang lines don’t matter, you make the investment in communities so it don’t matter.”
■ A better education for Chicago’s children? Fans of an appointed board point to the fact that CPS’s graduation rate has increased from below 50 percent to 80 percent since full mayoral control was instituted in 1995. Not even the strongest proponents of an elected school board promise it will improve classroom performance. “I never had any intentions or designs on what the system of education would look like,” Martwick says. “Is this going to bring us better student outcomes? Fix our finances? It’s about when people screw up, there’s accountability.” Florence Cox was president of the 15-member board of education in the early 1990s, before full mayoral control, and favors an elected board. “The board can be elected or appointed,” she says. “It’s not going to be any better than the people who serve.” Those who’ve been fighting for an elected board hope it will attract better people — or, at least, people who listen to what the parents want.