An elected school board, it would appear, is headed for Chicago. As Capitol Fax reports, the Illinois House voted for the bill on Wednesday and passed it to Pritzker to sign. This bill would create a 20 seat bill, initially split between mayoral appointees and elected members, with a phase-in to a fully-elected board and a board president elected by the entire city.
Boards members would be elected from individual districts rather than at-large, which the bill’s supporters claim would help ensure that the candidates are people involved in the community rather than outsiders or special-interest-supported people (and in particular counter claims that the school board will be union-dominated in this way), but each board member would represent about 135,000 people, which is a number that’s far higher than that threshold (whatever it is) at which people are elected by being known in their community vs. being elected by gathering the funds for mailers. For reference, each state House representative represents about 110,000 people, and no one imagines they are elected by “communities” who choose that one person who most closely represents their concerns due to intimate knowledge of them. The reality is that when the Democrats were building their maps, they openly stated that their view of the election was “party first” — here’s Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego, per Capitol Fax: “The party is what connects with voters, represents the voters and therefore gets elected by the voters. That is the true essence of being an elected official.” And here, too, the General Assembly would draw those maps, presumably based similarly on, perhaps not partisan geographies, but concentrations of various ethnic minority groups. How precisely this all plays out — whether there are factions, parties, and slates even in a nominally non-partisan election, and how much power the board president has and which faction has the power to win that election, is yet to be seen, but in any case, the notion of a community sending as its representative a dedicated parent known and cherished by all, is a bit of a fantasy.
But nonetheless, supporters say that it’s a matter of having “an elected representative school board that is accountable to us,” according to Rep. Delia Ramirez of Chicago and a move towards “providing democracy and voice to students and their families,” according to the CTU’s statement.
Is it really?
Does the current school board structure lack democracy?
Not at all.
You’d think the Chicago Public Schools are run by outsiders, or by some sort of dictator, or maybe a billionaire or two has seized control. But in fact, it is the elected mayor of the city of Chicago who, at present, controls the schools, who has ultimate authority over key decisions such as union contract negotiations and the recent union negotiations over school reopening processes. And, frankly, that’s as it should be.
Schools, after all, do not exist in a vacuum. While they set their property tax revenues independently (more or less), the level of property tax levied is part of a larger picture, and schools cannot simply boost their revenues endlessly and expect the city to moderate its taxes to keep the overall tax burden in check. And at the same time, especially in a city like Chicago, schools and other governmental bodies work together to provide services: should schools be a source of healthcare for students? What about mental health treatment or referrals? Referral for other sorts of social services? Finally, there are aspects of CPS expenses which are funded by the city. (Don’t ask me for the details.) Especially when enhanced social services has been such a key part of Lightfoot’s promises to the community, it makes far more sense for these sorts of decisions are made by a single governmental body, rather than setting up clashes between the mayor and the board president.
So, yes, suburbs have elected school boards. But that’s more of a historical anomaly, due to the fact that school district borders do not generally pair with city borders, and that even unincorporated areas have school districts. And (yes, speaking from experience) an elected school board does not ensure community representation; all too often, it is the unions which, through their activism and their money, ensure their candidates win their seats. This is not a model to follow for a city where it is an uphill battle to ensure that poor students have a level of education that enables them to improve their lot in life.