The battle for an elected school board

08/15/2012 10:00 PM


6 Comments - Add Your Comment

On July 23, 10 aldermen tried to help some educational reform groups. They wanted to get a non-binding referendum on the upcoming November 6 ballot in which voters would be asked whether Chicago should switch to an elected school board.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th), chairman of the City Councilís Committee on Human Relations, ruled that this legislation was submitted three minutes too late to allow the vote.

Since then the two organizations, Raise Your Hand and Communities Organized for Democracy in Education, have submitted petitions separately to the Board of Elections to put the question on the ballot in some wards.

Leaving aside the battle to get the referendum on the ballot in the first place, the greater issue is whether having an elected school board is a good idea.

As Moore wrote to Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, ďItís no secret the idea of an elected school board is an anathema to the Mayor.Ē It would certainly be a political embarrassment for the mayor to have the voters repudiate his ironclad control over school policy.

Yet every other local school board in Illinois is elected, and those elections can be vigorous when citizens and parents are upset with local school policies.

In America, we treasure representative democracy as a way to solve policy questions. However, if all were well with the Chicago Public Schools and parents and citizens were happy with them, there would be no sudden interest in an elected school board. It is a way to express opposition to Mayor Emanuelís total control, gang violence in and near the schools, low test scores and high school graduates who require extensive remedial coursework in order to make it in community colleges or universities.

In a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times published Aug. 1, two University of Illinois at Chicago faculty members give reasons to support an elected school board. Research supports parent and community involvement as essential to improve schools. Democratic, public accountability is a necessary precondition for school transformation. And 17 years of mayoral control since 1995 havenít yielded much improvement in test scores while the racial gaps in achievement have increased.

An elected school board would get the voice of citizens between the near dictatorial control of Mayor Emanuel and opposition by the Chicago Teacherís Union. We citizens pay for the school system and we parents depend upon the system to educate our children. We should have a voice separate from the mayorís that can provide a check and balance to both the mayor and the union.

However, there are problems. First, if we held school board elections citywide rather than by district, we could end up with racial imbalance. Ninety percent of the students in the system are black and Hispanic but most of the elected board could be white. Second, with more than 600 schools to supervise, it is unclear how much any school board ó appointed or elected ó can do to really govern the system. Third, when we had elections of other local agencies like Model Cities, the political machine controlled the outcome in order to control the patronage jobs. The Democratic Party could control the outcome of school board elections as well.

David Vitale, president of the current school board, points out in his Sun-Times op-ed from Aug. 8 that the current appointed board regarding the longer school day was able to ďachieve an outcome that not only met the mayorís objective, but one that the vast majority of our constituencies could agree with. We collectively proved that we could put the interest of Chicagoís children ahead of the self-interest of adults.Ē In short, the appointed board is doing just fine.

My conclusion: Even though it isnít a panacea, we should move to an elected school board. Therefore, if the referendum gets on the ballot in your ward, vote for it. If it doesnít, push your state legislators to change the law in Springfield. More democratic control is better than none.

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By WestLooper from West Loop
Posted: 08/17/2012 3:45 PM

An elected school board would be a disaster in my view. Committee governance is a mess. We need a strong hand in charge of schools, and accountability to the Mayor.

By Marilyn from Lakeview
Posted: 08/16/2012 11:47 PM

It's time for the people of Chicago to be like have an elected school board, just like every other district in the state. The current system where the school board is accountable only to the Mayor is not working. It's time for decisions to be made by local people who are accountable to the people in their communities. Further, one school board for the entire city is not adequate. There should be three: one for the North, West, and South sides to allow for true local participation.

By Chicago dad from N. Side
Posted: 08/16/2012 9:01 PM

Saying that any election will be compromised is false, IF we decide to exclude the influence of money and cronyism. LSC elections do it! The people want it this way. The 1st amendment must be made a starting point, not a limiting factor. A strict format for candidate statements and exclusion of outside comments would be a good path to a high signal to noise ration taking place on a level playing field. If we can't yell fire in a crowded theater then politicians and lobbyists can't either.

By Valerie F. Leonard from North Lawndale
Posted: 08/16/2012 1:29 PM

It is worth noting that in all, over 15,000 Chicago voters signed petitions to put advisory referenda on the ballot for an elected school board. As Wendy Katten mentioned, CODE submitted nearly 9,800 signatures from 204 precincts in 26 wards in Chicago. Another coalition, the Chicago Community Coalition for an Elected School Board (CCC4ESB), collected over 4,000 signatures to put the question on the ballot citywide. The Lawndale Alliance collected nearly 1,200 signatures in the 24th Ward.

By Valerie F. Leonard from North Lawndale
Posted: 08/16/2012 1:01 PM

This is a great article, and thanks for writing it! I think the school board can be structured in such a way as to build on the business, public finance and legal acumen of corporate leaders; educational experience of local educators while tapping into the diversity and knowledge of representatives from local communities. One way to address the issue is for the corporate types to run citywide, while regional candidates would only appear on the ballots in the regions they would represent.

By Wendy Katten
Posted: 08/16/2012 10:29 AM

Thank you for writing this. FYI, Raise Your Hand is part of the CODE coalition and we worked together to collect signatures and submit petitions in 204 precincts of the city in 26 different wards.