Polls suggest that a majority of Chicagoans favor an elected school board or some hybrid version of elected and appointed members.
Both candidates for mayor, Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle, also have expressed a preference for one of these alternatives instead of a board fully appointed by the mayor.
I’d like to make the case that abandoning mayoral control would be a mistake, one with significant consequences for students.
Those who favor an elected or hybrid school board seem to want greater representation and accountability. When decisions like school closings are on the docket, people want to feel that their concerns are being considered. And when a school district chief commits fraud, or questions arise about how special education is being handled, we want accountability.
I not only understand those emotions and objectives, I share them. That said, it is clear to me that mayoral control is by far the better approach — not just for true accountability, but as means to accomplish what we all really want — schools that serve our children well.
First, concerns about the role of money and politics infiltrating our schools are real — more than $17 million was spent on recent school board elections in Los Angeles, and turnout for school board elections tends to be less than 10 percent. That may be why Chicago has never had an elected school board — it has always used some version of an appointment process.
The result of the appointment process is more accountability, not less. There is no question that Chicagoans know exactly who to blame or thank for school performance. Voters understand that whomever they elect will pick a school team they judge capable of overseeing the third-largest district in the country — a complex and critical undertaking that requires significant financial and educational savvy, as well as managerial sophistication and an understanding of the role schools play in their communities.
And if that team handles issues poorly or makes decisions families fundamentally disagree with, they know exactly what to do: vote for a different mayor. Does anyone believe a team appointed by either mayoral finalist will look the same as one appointed by Mayor Emanuel?
But the real value of mayoral control goes beyond more direct accountability. It lies in the fact that the mayor is uniquely positioned to organize all aspects of city government and services in support of schools — libraries, parks, early childhood, health, and more. The ability to coordinate all the resources of a city behind our young people is essential and powerful, and is possible in entirely different ways when there is a tight connection between the schools and city government.
That is likely why mayors as different as Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg both fought for mayoral control in New York City.
Of course, this potential only matters if we are realizing it. And the evidence in Chicago is clear and compelling. According to Stanford researchers, CPS is outperforming 96 percent of districts across the nation in terms of academic growth. You read that right — between 3rd and 8th grade, Chicago students are making six years of gains in five years. That beats virtually every other district in the country, including those with much greater wealth and far fewer at-risk students.
Other studies show that Chicago’s low-income and minority students are learning more than their peers in districts throughout Illinois.
There’s more. When mayoral control began back in 1995, graduation rates were below 50 percent. Fewer than half of Chicago Public Schools students were graduating from high school. Today, the graduation rate is 75 percent and growing. On top of that, we are at an all-time high for college enrollment, which has nearly tripled in the past 20 years.
These gains reflect steady gains over a long period of time. That consistency is invaluable.
As former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I would be the first to recognize that CPS is far from perfect, and the first to say that despite stellar progress, we have a lot more work to do. But the system we have allows us to bring all our resources together for children. It allows us to stay the course. And right now, we are getting best-in-nation results.
Arne Duncan was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2009. He was U.S. Secretary of Education, under President Barack Obama, from 2009 to 2015. He is managing partner of Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Destiny), a social impact organization focused on the problem of gun violence.
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