An elected school board is a big risk for Chicago

In the 26 years since Chicago’s mayor gained direct responsibility for the city’s public schools, academic performance and graduation rates have surged.

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The Chicago Civic Committee has been a long-time advocate for public education in Chicago and we feel compelled to speak up forcefully against a proposed law that calls for an elected Chicago school board with 21 members, starting in 2023.

This proposal could have negative consequences for the 350,000 public school children of Chicago, for homeowners and businesses, and for the economic future of our region and our state. Our specific areas of concern begin with student outcomes, but also include parent voice, board politics and finances. A little historical perspective might be helpful.

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Through the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Chicago Public Schools were in a state of perpetual educational, financial and management crisis. There were nine teacher strikes in 17 years between 1970 and 1987, graduation rates were below 50%, buildings were crumbling, parents were fleeing and the district was eventually placed under a School Finance Authority to oversee spending and operations.

The first wave of reforms in 1988 established locally elected school councils and increased principal autonomy, but failed to improve educational outcomes or stabilize finances.

But since 1995, when the mayor was given full authority to appoint the board, the Chicago Public Schools has become one of the fastest-improving school districts in the entire country.

  • Students’ academic growth from 3rd through 8th grade is greater than 96% of school districts in the country — despite a school population with more intense levels of need.
  • CPS has all but closed the gap between our high school graduation rate and the rest of the nation (moving from a below 50% graduation rate to roughly 80%), and
  • Chicago has dramatically increased the number of graduates enrolling in college.  

These improvements have been confirmed in multiple academic research studies and have garnered considerable attention in the national press, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and leading education journals. There is no evidence showing that elected school boards improve outcomes for students.

Advocates for an elected school board also insist it will empower parents, but will it? In Chicago, parents represent only a small slice of the electorate; and undocumented parents, of whom there are thousands in Chicago, cannot vote and would have no voice under this proposal. If giving parents a greater voice is the goal, an elected school board is no guarantee they will be heard, as the school reopening debate in San Francisco shows.

School board elections typically get very low turnout (often under 10%), which makes them especially vulnerable to special interest politics, whether that be teacher unions, charter school advocates or anyone else looking for a political platform. In Los Angeles, school board elections have become expensive, politicized races. Denver and Oakland are seeing the same trend.

Most school boards in America have fewer than 10 members but the proposal in Springfield calls for 21, with the board president elected citywide and the other 20 elected in newly-drawn districts. It is not a recipe for a success. Instead of a citywide board that is, in theory, looking out for all CPS students, we could have 20 “district” politicians fighting each other for resources for “their“ schools.

Mayoral leadership also plays an important role for state and city resources. The mayor is on the hook to make sure Springfield delivers on school funding. CPS also benefits from hundreds of millions in costs now covered by the city. And the mayor can make sure other city services, like parks, transit, libraries and health clinics, work for students.

CPS is unique in Illinois. It’s ten times larger than the next largest school district in the state. Its history of low performance, paralyzing teacher strikes and financial chaos require a steady hand. With mayoral accountability, voters know exactly who is responsible for the schools.

As our colleagues at Kids First Chicago have long argued, CPS can do a better job of listening to parents — and there are simpler, faster and more reliable ways to do it. For one, the mayor can put parents on the board. She can also tap into the reservoir of talent in the elected local school councils, whose members are elected by both U.S. citizens and undocumented residents.

It is always healthy to have debate about how best to govern Chicago’s public schools. But let’s at least recognize that there has been meaningful progress in the schools, and that mayoral accountability has been a critical foundation for that progress. We should not put that at risk.

Kelly R. Welsh is the president of the Civic Committee and of the Commercial Club of Chicago.

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