Injecting a little democracy into Chicago’s schools

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Board President David Vitale presiding over a Chicago Board of Education meeting in September.

Chicago could use a more democratic school board.

Toward that end, we support a switch from an appointed school board to a “hybrid” board, one that would include a majority of members appointed by the mayor — as has been the practice since 1995 — but also members who are elected. The mayor would retain sole authority to appoint the schools’ CEO.


Since Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor in 2011, public anger over his school decisions has grown exponentially — be it over the longer school day, the rapid-fire openings of new charter schools, the teachers’ strike or the record closings of 50 elementary schools and programs.

Much of that anger has been stirred by the policies themselves, some of which we have supported and even called politically courageous. But some of that anger has been the result of how Emanuel and his appointed school board have made and executed decisions: without meaningful public input, and without any real vehicle for parents, teachers and community members to shape the final outcome.

This is not how you build a vibrant and successful school system. When big changes to people’s lives are decreed from downtown, it should surprise nobody that the folks in the schools who must implement those changes will do so grudgingly — and therefore often unsuccessfully.

A growing number of Chicagoans say the answer is a fully elected school board. A non-binding advisory question on the switch will appear on the ballot in 37 wards on Feb. 24, the results of a grass-roots petition drive. A majority of aldermanic candidates who completed a Chicago Sun-Times candidate questionnaire also support an appointed board or a hybrid option.

We opposed an elected board in 2012, arguing it likely would cause more problems than it solves. Voter turnout inevitably would be low and the influence of special-interest groups — beginning with the teachers union — would be disproportionately high. There’s a real risk that an elected board in Chicago would be utterly dysfunctional. Plus, there’s no evidence elected school boards lead to better schools. Nearly 95 percent of all school systems in the United States have elected boards, and we can safely say those schools are good, bad or something in between.

In that earlier editorial, though, we also acknowledged the merits of a hybrid elected school board, and events of the last couple of years — this growing sense of public disenfranchisement in the face of iron-fisted mayoral control — leads us to believe that a more democratic school system would be a more successful school system.

Consider the way City Hall handled the mass school closings of 2013. We were fully onboard with the decision to close a large number of schools, given low enrollments, but we were alarmed by how little the mayor and his appointed school board members listened to critics and refused to spare schools that deserved to remain open.

Of the 20 or so American cities where the mayor appoints the local school board (including most major cities except Los Angeles), Chicago is among the most autocratic. Not only does the mayor in Chicago choose the board members, he also names the schools CEO. Other cities allow a commission to recommend names to the mayor and/or the board appoints the schools superintendent.

Why a hybrid school board?

It would bring greater democracy to CPS while preserving the best feature of mayoral control: accountability. It is important that the one chief executive answerable to all the people of Chicago — the mayor — be at the helm and drive the district’s vision.

Under the hybrid model we favor, the mayor still would appoint a majority of seats on the board, possibly choosing names from a list compiled by an independent commission. Hartford, Ct. uses this model and Washington D.C. tried it in the last decade.

The other candidates would be elected, possibly from a pool of members of  Local School Councils, as proposed by an aldermanic candidate in the 33rd Ward, Annisa Wanat. The aim here is preserve a high degree of mayoral control while giving the public a greater direct voice.

Recent boards have tilted heavily toward the affluent and the powerful and have not included teachers and few or no current parents. It is a rare day when the board rejects or even tempers the mayor’s recommended policies.

Our schools teach kids about the wonders of democracy. If it’s good enough for the classroom, it’s good enough for the school board.

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