A pandemic is no time for Legislature to vote on an elected Chicago school board and union rights

Schools are struggling to reopen as it is. It is simply impossible during a hurried lame-duck session for the Legislature to fairly consider the merits of bills to create an elected board and revise union bargaining rights.

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Nearly 150 employees have been shut out CPS Google Classroom accounts, after failing to return to classrooms this week.

Some CPS schools are scheduled to reopen Monday, as legislators in Springfield consider two bills that would dramatically impact schools.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Legislation is rushing through Springfield that would dramatically change how Chicago’s public schools are run — and not for the better.

Lawmakers absolutely must hit the pause button.

In fairness to Chicago’s schoolchildren, parents and teachers — and out of respect for an honest and open legislative process — the Illinois Senate should postpone votes on House Bill 2267, which would create a 21-member elected School Board, and HB 2275, which would repeal a law limiting the bargaining rights of the Chicago Teachers Union.

What exactly is the rush?

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Right now, during a brief, busy and chaotic lame-duck session of the Illinois Legislature — and in the midst of a public health crisis that threatens the reopening of the schools this week and has emotions running high — is utterly the wrong time to decide on such sweeping legislation.

Both bills have passed in the House and are pending in the Senate.

The public, and most especially the families of Chicago schoolchildren, deserve a full and open debate on the two bills, not a last-minute political power play that would have a potentially profound impact on the quality of education for thousands of children.

Chicago’s public schools have made significant academic progress in recent years, as the leaders of the Chicago Urban League, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club and five other civic and education organizations pointed out in a letter sent to the state Senate on Sunday. It would be irresponsible to put that progress at risk by moving too quickly — in the slap-dash turmoil of a lame-duck session — to approve legislation dramatically altering the governance structure of CPS.

The writers of the letter, like this editorial page, have urged lawmakers to postpone votes on both bills.

“Thanks in part to Chicago’s progress in improving schools, our city has become an engine of economic growth,” the letter stated. “Given the once-a-century pandemic and its impact on the students and their families, as well as our economy, we cannot afford to go backwards.”

Pros and cons

The bill to repeal limits on Chicago Teachers Union bargaining rights would throw a wrench in CPS’ plans to reopen schools. It would come at a time when the union and administrators are, as it is, in a toxic stalemate over a reopening.

Current limits on CTU bargaining rights, included as part of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, are a key reason the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board twice has ruled against CTU in its bid to stop CPS from reopening schools on Monday. The issues the union wants to negotiate, the labor board has ruled, are not mandatory subjects of bargaining.

There’s a credible argument that CTU, like other Illinois teachers unions, ought to be able to negotiate with management on such matters as class sizes and staff assignments. There also are credible arguments on both sides of the debate as to whether Chicago should move to an elected, rather than mayor-appointed, school board.

Our own long-standing position is that a hybrid board, with some members elected but the majority appointed, would offer the best of both worlds. It would result in more robust debate and public input on the board while leaving ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of Chicago’s schools where it belongs, with the mayor.

The buck must stop somewhere.

Does anybody honestly believe Chicago needs 21 more elected officials? Does anybody honestly feel confident that those newly elected board members would not be put up and controlled by the teachers union on the left and conservative anti-government ideologues on the right? A fully elected school board would be, in our view, a gift to deep-pocket special interests on all sides.

But what matters most in this moment is that there is a fair and open debate — a deliberate airing of all arguments in complete sunshine — not a rushed vote with masks on in the last murky days of a lame-duck legislative session.

We call on the Illinois Senate to take no vote this week on either bill.

Do this right.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

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