Elected school board bill passes House — but is it driven by policy or politics?

SHARE Elected school board bill passes House — but is it driven by policy or politics?
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, left,  and state Rep. Robert Martwick, right. File Photos.

Lori Lightfoot celebrates winning the mayoral race at the Hilton Chicago on Tuesday. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP; State Rep. Robert F. Martwick, right, D-Chicago, meets with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board last year. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Sun-Times file photos.

The Illinois House on Thursday cleared a measure to enact an elected school board in Chicago — an effort years in the making — even as the city’s newly elected mayor has made it clear there are more details to hammer out.

Was it a power play for the bill’s head sponsor state Rep. Rob Martwick, D-Chicago, who famously sparred with Lightfoot in February over turning the Cook County’s elected assessor into an appointed office? A kick out the door for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who fought tooth and nail against the measure?

Or simply a way to take advantage of momentum for what’s becoming a popular sentiment?

Whatever the case, the idea of stripping the mayor and future mayors of the ability to handpick members of the Chicago Board of Education, possibly as soon as 2023, has the dual support of its incoming mayor and governor. And that means it has legs.

It would also amount to a huge win for the Chicago Teachers Union, and by extension, other organized labor groups.

On the campaign trail, Lightfoot voiced her approval for an elected school board — but stressed the devil would be in the details, including the number of board members, how they’d be elected and how elections would be funded.

In an interview with WBEZ last week, Lightfoot said she was familiar with Martwick’s bill, but did not think a board of 20 members and a president was a good idea.

“Having a school board of 21 people is completely unwieldy,” Lightfoot told WBEZ. “That will be a recipe for disaster and chaos. It’s way too large.”

On Thursday, she tweeted that she was looking forward to working with legislators to pass a bill creating a “fully elected and representative school board.”

Martwick’s measure passed the Illinois House 110-2. It must still pass the Illinois Senate and be signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. But Martwick told the Sun-Times on Thursday that the governor has said he’ll sign the measure.

The governor’s office on Thursday said Pritzker is reviewing the legislation. And a spokesman for Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said the Democratic leader “looks forward to reviewing this proposal and working with the newly elected mayor on this issue.”

Under the proposal, the board would be comprised of 20 members elected in individual districts from around the city, compared to the seven appointed members currently on the Chicago Board of Education. And a board president would be elected citywide.

In 1995, Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of the broken school system and began directly appointing a school board whose members previously were proffered by a grassroots nominating commission.

There have been several proposals in the mix over the years, and the number of board members has fluctuated in those proposals. But Martwick brushed off criticism that the number may be too high, while stressing the number is still “subject to change in the future.”

“The balancing act is you’ve got school districts that have 5,000 residents in them and they have seven school board members. You’re talking about a substantially larger district representing millions,” Martwick said. “What you truly want is, what I want, is a representative school board that ensures that every unique, demographic of the city of Chicago, be it ethnic or racial or geographic or financial, that the diverse fabric of the city of every group [is] represented.”

If the bill is enacted into law, Chicago residents would vote on a school board in 2023. That means Lightfoot will still have to choose her own board members once in office — something the Chicago Teachers Union, which backed rival mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle, jumped on in a statement applauding the measure’s passage.

“Will her Chicago Board of Education be led by the same corporate interests that served Richard M. Daley and Emanuel, or will it be truly representative, with stakeholders who are the very people living in communities and neighborhoods that have lost the most under the racist influence of neoliberal school leadership?” the teachers union said in a statement.

Martwick — a Democratic committeeman who endorsed Preckwinkle’s mayoral run — also took a step back from his infamous Lightfoot feud at a crashed press conference, which some called a pivotal moment in her campaign.

“It was a moment that was driven by the politics of the time, not the policies,” Martwick said. “Listen, I would never under any circumstances attempt to undermine the mayor of the city of Chicago in helping my city. This is where I have my home and where my children live and where they’re going to go to school. I look forward to working with mayor-elect Lightfoot. Rahm Emanuel did not care very much for me because I pushed for the elected school board. I worked with him to secure funding for Chicago at every chance I could and you know, I’ll continue to do that with Mayor Lightfoot.”

Martwick called Emanuel a major roadblock in efforts to enact an elected school board. But the mayor’s office on Thursday credited the current system — and its current board setup — for helping students lead the nation in elementary school gains and in improving the high school graduation rate.

“That’s not a coincidence, it’s a reflection of strong leadership, innovative principals and committed teachers — and more time in the classroom. It’s also due to the work of our local school councils, which are democratically elected and directly connected to schools,” Emanuel spokesman Lauren Markowitz said in a statement.

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