Coming together in a rare moment of bipartisan support, the Illinois House overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday to replace the Board of Education appointed by Chicago’s mayor with one that’s elected.

If the legislation makes it through the Senate — and that’s still a giant “if” considering that its president is hammering out a solution to the state’s stalled budget — Chicago’s Public Schools would be overseen by 21 democratically elected members of the public rather than the seven the mayor alone chooses.

Senate President John Cullerton’s staff would say only that the legislation, which passed the House 110-4, is under review.

The bill would partition the city into 20 local districts and a 21st board member would be elected at large as president. Each would serve an initial five-year term if elected on March 20, 2018, then four years each to coincide with municipal elections.

The legislation also addresses a few regular criticisms of the appointed board by pushing at least half of the elected board’s meetings until after hours so working parents and community members can attend.

Lead sponsor Rep. Rob Martwick, D-Chicago, said he aimed to put Chicago’s school board in line with the rest in the state as much as possible.
Meanwhile, Emanuel’s handpicked board would continue to oversee the city’s cash-strapped public schools.

Emanuel wouldn’t specifically defend his appointed board Thursday, as he has in the past, on grounds that another elected body would inject more politics into the school system and impede some of the educational progress Emanuel claims at CPS during his tenure.

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He has contended, as he repeated Thursday, that Chicago already has elected school leaders in the Local School Councils that oversee individual school budgets and principals on a school level. He did not mention that the LSC’s have no central authority.

“Look, the real challenge is, as you know, the state of Illinois is dead last in funding education when you look at all 50 states,” Emanuel said. “The formula, the way the state funds education, school districts with poor kids are penalized and the system is rigged against them.

“That legislation doesn’t address all these inequities and that’s what I’m focused on addressing,” he added.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has complained for years that the appointed board rarely listens to teachers and families when imposing decisions — or it wouldn’t have closed 50 schools or rubber-stamped a no-bid contract deal that since ousted the CEO and might land her in prison.

“Nearly one year ago, 90 percent of Chicago voters expressed their support for an elected school board, and now, the city’s students and their families are closer to ending the devastation of mayoral control and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked Board of Education,” Lewis said. “The CTU now calls on the Senate to pass this bill and give the voters what is long overdue — democracy in our education.”

During Thursday’s debate, questions surfaced including one about the qualifications of and restrictions placed on those who could serve on elected CPS board.

For instance, the CTU president would not be eligible to run. Nor could employees of Chicago Public Schools or contractors doing any business with the school district. The bill says nothing about prohibiting charter school employees, who aren’t technically employed by the Board of Education, but Martwick said he would add that in.

An elected school board “is certainly not a panacea. Elections and the democratic process don’t fix everything,” said Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, before casting her yes vote. “But the appointed board isn’t working.”

But in the end, many Republicans joined Martwick in an effort to give Chicago taxpayers the same kind of representative school board as every other district in the state.

Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, ticked off financial problems that have increased over the past 15 years under mayoral control: debt has doubled, several pension holidays landed CPS in major pension trouble, and the city’s taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.

“If an appointed school board can do all that, I suggest we elect second-graders from the Chicago Public School system because they could not do any worse,” Harris said, urging his colleagues to join him.

As notable as the 110-4 vote, legislators said, was the process by which the proposal gained support from both parties, who are otherwise gridlocked on the state’s budget.

Rep. Jaime Andrade, D-Chicago, said “this bill has brought faith back to the Illinois General Assembly House, faith to me that we can work together.”

And Rep. Robert W. Pritchard, R-Sycamore, praised Martwick for incorporating some Republican suggestions into his final bill — such as removing pay and adding ethical protections.

“Perhaps you can perform another miracle and get us a budget and you do it in the same way where both sides of the aisle have input, and we build the best bill that we can.”