Local School Council elections a true test for democracy in Chicago

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Local school council members from across the city in 2016 called on elected officials to find budget solutions for Chicago Public Schools. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

Democracy gets an important test this week in Chicago.

Unless you’re deeply involved in the school in your neighborhood, you might not realize that hundreds of public officials will be elected in the next two days.


On Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools will hold elections for local school council members at hundreds of elementary schools, and on Thursday at dozens of high schools.

The elections naturally will draw the most interest from school communities that get a chance every two years to choose parents, teachers and other school workers who will have a voice in how schools are run. But the elections are also for the city as a whole: Any Chicagoan can get involved in the democratic process here, by voting for community representatives at their local school.

And those interested in serving on an LSC — this is key, folks — still can file paperwork to be appointed to seats that remain open after the election is validated.

Unfortunately, Chicago hasn’t scored well so far on this test of civic engagement. Most schools don’t have enough candidates to fill all the vacant seats, much less to make the races truly competitive, except at a handful of schools. The shortage is greatest among parent candidates.

This is a far cry from three decades ago, when a landmark 1989 school reform law created LSCs and, in a wave of enthusiasm and grassroots involvement, sparked an election with more than 17,000 candidates and 312,000 voters.

Two years later, the energy and spirit of that first election already had plummeted. In 1991, 8,173 contenders ran and 161,000 people voted, according to data from the Chicago Reporter. The numbers have continued to decline since then.

It’s not surprising that interest has flagged, since LSCs have had their power over budgets and principal hiring curtailed bit by bit. And the grand notion of community-led school improvement has almost vanished in the rearview mirror of history, as CPS has turned to privately run charter schools and a more centralized — critics call it top-down — approach to academic progress.

Add to that picture the yearly financial crises, the revolving door of district CEOs, the shutdown of neighborhood schools, and it’s no mystery why the energy and enthusiasm of even the staunchest LSC advocates have waned.

But there’s no substitute for the role that LSCs play in CPS. They’re the one democratically elected institution keeping close tabs on how schools function. LSCs have had their power checked, but they’re the only check schools have, however limited, on the power of the CPS school board and City Hall.

That brings us to another point about democracy. The LSC elections give us a chance to reiterate our support for a partially elected, hybrid CPS school board. Mayor Rahm Emanuel hates the idea, as did Mayor Richard M. Daley before him. Legislators in Springfield would have to approve it, and they should do so. Chicago deserves some of the same power that other Illinois municipalities have, power it has never had because the school board here has always been appointed by the mayor.

LSCs should not be the sole democratic voice weighing in on how our public schools operate. We support a school board with members elected from across the city, but a majority appointed by the mayor.

Yes, that gives the mayor the lion’s share of the power, something that mayoral critics won’t like. But it also means the buck stops at City Hall, and gives more power to citizens who have little or none now.

As LSC elections get underway tomorrow, remember this: The district has done its job,  publicizing the elections on billboards and in community newspapers, and extending the deadline for candidates to file.

Making the election a success is now in our hands.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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