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If the Illinois Senate cares about Chicago kids, it’ll kill a terrible bill for an elected school board

It was a bad idea back in January and it’s a bad idea now. Listen to the warnings of a host of excellent nonprofit groups working to serve the poor and powerless.

Members of the Grassroots Education Movement, made up of parents of Chicago Public Schools students and community leaders, protest at City Hall on March 3 to demand that Mayor Lori Lightfoot support an elected school board.
Members of the Grassroots Education Movement, made up of parents of Chicago Public Schools students and community leaders, protest at City Hall on March 3 to demand that Mayor Lori Lightfoot support an elected school board.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Once again, legislation is making its way through Springfield that would radically change who runs the public schools in Chicago — and, once again, legislators should back off from making a big mistake.

The Illinois House did so in January, tabling a bill to create a 21-member elected board, which would strip Chicago’s mayor of control. The cock-eyed scheme effectively would hand control to the Chicago Teachers Union and billionaires keen on privatization.

It was a bad idea then, though it’s a pet cause in certain progressive circles and among Chicago Democrats who fear the wrath of the teachers’ union. And it’s a bad idea now, threatening to undo years of academic gains and deny a voice to low-income and non-citizen families.

But on Thursday, the full House voted in favor of the bill and kicked the issue over to the Senate.

The Senate has got to put on the brakes.

Also on Thursday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot put forth her own specific proposal for a hybrid school board — eight members to be appointed by the mayor and three to be elected — that would keep ultimate control of the board in the mayor’s hands.

We have long supported the creation of a hybrid board, in some fashion, as the best of both worlds. It would give the public a stronger say in how the schools are run while making sure that the buck stops somewhere when it comes to accountability. Chicago’s elected chief executive, the mayor, would continue to have that responsibility.

False claims of greater democracy

The mantra among some Chicago progressives is that a fully elected school board would become a noble grassroots collective, standing up for the interests of the voiceless and disenfranchised in Chicago. To which we — and now, it seems, an impressive lineup of leaders who are indisputably committed to the welfare of Chicago’s least powerful — disagree.

In an April 12 letter to the Legislature, the leaders of some of the most respected nonprofit organizations in Chicago formally stated that they are “neutral” on the merits of the proposed 21-member elected school board. But then, simply by laying out what they think any good reorganization plan should guard against, they eviscerated the current bill.

The writers of the letter made several excellent points:

  • Any new board should include representation of non-citizens and low-income parents and not be dominated by “special interests and money politics.” But a fully elected board would run a great risk of failing to do just that. Undocumented parents do not have the right to vote, while low-income parents lack the financial means to run in a costly, citywide election.

“These parents entrust their children and their children’s future to CPS,” the letter states. “They deserve a voice — and a vote — in any new governance structure.”

And who might be those “special interests and money politics?” The letter writers do not say, but you can bet it would be the CTU, as well as billionaire crusaders for charter schools, privatizing and even voucher systems. All of whom are probably champing at the bit to gain more power.

  • CPS, the letter writers point out, is the second biggest employer in Chicago, with an $8.7 billion operating budget. The school board must administer that budget and make decisions on levying additional property taxes. Not for nothing should the board include business and finance experts of the highest caliber. Any new school board model, the writers warn, must recognize “the importance of including expertise on the board.”
  • The writers of the letter state that they will support only a school board “model where the financial ability of school board members and their supporters does not determine the composition of the board.” And to understand just how much things could go wrong, the writers urge the Legislature to look no further than the failures of an elected school board in Los Angeles to represent the interests of the poor and non-citizens.

“In Los Angeles,” they write, “43% of school board members are white, even though only 28% of the city’s population is white,” the letter states. “Only one parent serves on the Los Angeles School Board. More money was spent on four school board races in last year’s election than on all city council races combined. The Los Angeles School Board election devolved into a proxy fight between the teachers’ union and so-called ‘corporate reformers.’

“The losers were parents and their children,” the letter concludes. “We cannot let this happen in Chicago.”

Listen to those who know best

And who were the signatories to the letter? Anti-union zealots? Toadies and apologists for mayors past and present?

No, they were in fact as strong a bunch of advocates for people who are up against it as you’ll find in this town. They were:

Tom Vanden Berk, CEO, UCAN

Karina Ayala-Bermejo, President & CEO, Instituto del Progreso Latino

Tasha Green Cruzat, Executive Director, Voices for Illinois Children

Ricardo Estrada, President & CEO, Metropolitan Family Services

Jim Hayes, President & CEO, YMCA Metropolitan Chicago

Dorri McWhorter, CEO, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago

Rev. James T. Meeks, Founder & Sr. Pastor, Salem Baptist Church

Sylvia Puente, President & CEO, Latino Policy Forum

Raul I. Raymundo, CEO, The Resurrection Project

Audra Wilson, President & CEO, Shriver Center for Poverty Law

Karen Freeman-Wilson, President & CEO, Chicago Urban League

Avert a disaster

A fully elected board could prove a disaster for Chicago’s public schools, putting at risk the significant academic progress that has been made in the past decade. High school graduation rates, college admission rates, test scores and enrollments in advanced courses all have improved during CPS’ years under mayoral control.

Our message to the Illinois Senate:

Kill a bad bill. Stand up, for real, for Chicago’s kids.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.