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EDITORIAL: With a fully elected school board, the buck stops nowhere

In this 2016 file photo, Lorena Vargas of the Pilsen Alliance calls for action on an elected school board for Chicago. Previous bills died, but the Illinois House passed a proposal on April 4. The bill still needs Senate approval. | Jacob Wittich/For the Sun-Times

A vote in Springfield to create a 21-member elected board for the Chicago Public Schools came out of the blue on Thursday — and the bill deserves to run right into a big red stop sign.

We favor giving ordinary Chicagoans a stronger voice in the management of the public schools. It is their children who attend the schools, and their taxes that pay for the schools. There is a need for a counterweight to the power of a mayor — any mayor — when it comes to making the biggest decisions about public education, such as when to open a new school or close an existing one.

But hold on. A fully elected board, almost half the size of City Council?

That’s a terrible idea.

“Completely unwieldy,” as Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has said about HB 2267, which was sponsored by state Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago.

We favor a hybrid school board of seven or nine members, with a majority appointed by the mayor and a minority elected by the voters. A fully elected board is a gift to special interests with money and agendas.

Consider what happened in Los Angeles in 2017. Charter school supporters went on a $10 million campaign spending spree against the teachers union, which spent $5 million, and seized control of the city’s seven-member school board.

Imagine what kind of over-the-top spending we might see in Chicago, especially if 21 board seats were at stake, by charter school operators, unions and other interest groups. Imagine the potential for discord and gridlock at monthly board meetings.

And given the low voter turnout even for the high-profile April 2 mayoral election, does anybody believe voters would turn out in droves for a school board election?

The fortunate truth, though not widely appreciated, is that Chicago’s public schools have made impressive academic progress under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It would be foolish to put that at risk.

Test scores have risen consistently. Graduation rates and college attendance have improved. The number of Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate programs have increased, especially in low-income schools where students desperately need challenging coursework.

We all want to see even more progress, of course, and we agree there has not been enough community involvement in the making of big CPS decisions. But when it comes to running a massive, politicized bureaucracy that holds the future of tens of thousands of children in its hands, somebody must be held ultimately responsible. Somebody must own the job.

The buck stops at the mayor’s office — and it should.

Recent Chicago history makes the case for creating a school board that is not entirely appointed by the mayor.

Six years ago, a few independently elected members of the board might have blocked a rash decision by Emanuel to close 50 schools all at once. And three years ago, a few elected board members might have been more skeptical about a $20 million no-bid contract at the heart of a kickback scheme.

But many education experts, such as Shael Polakow-Suransky — president of Bank Street College of Education and a former deputy schools chancellor in New York City — have pointed out the drawbacks of fully elected boards overseeing large school systems.

Before the public schools in New York were brought under the control of the mayor’s office, Polakow-Suranksy told us, corruption was rampant.

“In the Bronx,” he said, “you had to bribe the local school board to get a job as a principal or assistant principal.”

It is also politically tougher, he said, for a large elected board to “go big” when major changes truly are necessary.

“It’s just hard to take forceful, bold steps,” he said.

A hybrid board maintains mayoral control, so that a school district can take those big and bold steps while allowing for much more community participation and robust debate. It offers built-in checks and balances.

Lightfoot is on record as favoring an elected school board. We urge her, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the state Legislature and others to consider a compromise — a hybrid board — that champions greater democracy without diluting the executive authority of a mayor to get the best things done.

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