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I voted for the first time in a school board election. Chicagoans deserve the same

For nearly 150 years, Chicago’s mayor has had a hand in picking the school board. If that doesn’t change, all the talk about equity and democracy rings hollow.

More than 100 members of the Chicago Teachers Union to march around City Hall and rally for an elected representative school board
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union march around City Hall at a rally for an elected school board in 2016. The CTU and others have been fighting for an elected board for years.
Sun-Times Media

I first began voting in Chicago elections as a junior at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I spent the past 20 years as a faithful Chicago voter. I always knew a lot about the candidates for alderman and mayor, as they were often on the nightly news.

But this spring, in the suburbs where I now live, I experienced something different. For the first time in my 21 years as a voter, I cast a ballot for three school boards — in the district my own children attend, the high school they will attend, and the local community college nearby.

I had to look up each candidate online to become informed enough to vote. But as I did so, I realized I never had this opportunity as a Chicago resident, a parent of school-age children or a Chicago Public Schools teacher.

Since 1872, nearly 150 years ago, Chicago’s mayor has had a hand in picking the school board. Mayoral control became complete under Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995. Now, CPS is the only school district in Illinois without an elected school board. And although other big urban school districts have boards hand-picked by the mayor, several — such as Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and Atlanta — have elected boards.

Due to its complicated history, an elected school board in Chicago can only come with legislation in Springfield. Getting such legislation is a long battle that may or may not be successful anytime soon.

This is a shame, for Chicago residents and Chicago students, as it represents a clear example of inequity that puts power in the hands of one person: the mayor.

Vested interests and connections

Oddly enough, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ran on a platform that included an elected board, something she now seemingly opposes. In essence, those who would deny Chicagoans the right to elect a school board believe that Chicagoans can’t be trusted to make the right decisions for their public schools — that only one powerful person should have that trust.

But just outside Chicago, in wealthy, middle class, working class, and poor suburbs and small towns, everyone else has that right to vote and to run for their local school board.

Most board members where I recently voted had vested interests in the district. The majority had children currently in the schools, the exception being the trustees of the community college. Yet even those candidates showed a high interest in or had connections to the college of which they hoped to become trustee.

More inequitable, I believe, is how Chicago’s school board operates compared to other school districts. Take something as simple as scheduling the meeting at an appropriate time. Chicago’s Board of Education only meets on Wednesday mornings, so if a parent wants to voice a concern, he or she must usually take time off from work. But look at most suburban districts, where boards hold their meetings at night so parents don’t have to take time off and can easily participate.

During this pandemic school year, school board decisions have been highly anticipated. Many parents, myself included, watched online as officials decided whether or not to send students back to school. As I watched, I recalled my years as a high school educator in Chicago, where I worked in intentionally under-funded schools in Roseland and Englewood.

I can’t name one school board member from those 17 years. None of them ever visited my schools to see how students from the South Side were forced to deal with overcrowded classrooms, inadequate technology, crumbling facilities, and a general lack of resources.

Those board members had the power to right those wrongs. Yet none of them had my back or my students’.

For Chicago’s sake, I hope some day Chicagoans will get to vote on their first school board.

CPS and the mayor can preach equity and democracy all they want, but if they don’t put it into practice for the sake of parents, students and better education in the city, then it will never ring true.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park and a Nationally Board Certified teacher. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva