There’s still time to fix a badly flawed bill for an elected Chicago school board

On an issue this significant for the third-largest public school district in the country, we must all work to find common ground and pass a workable plan, rather than jamming through a bill that has left too many key stakeholders without a voice.

SHARE There’s still time to fix a badly flawed bill for an elected Chicago school board

Members of the Grassroots Education Movement rally at City Hall for an elected School Board for Chicago Public Schools.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Two years ago, I was elected with a mandate to bring reform to our city, with a focus on creating more fairness, more equity, and more opportunity for those Chicagoans who had been excluded. I knew that would mean taking on tough fights, and not backing down until we reached a solution.

The latest of these thorny issues is reforming the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education to be fairer, more inclusive and more democratic, while still ensuring accountability for City Hall and stability for our kids and Illinois taxpayers.

We need a paradigmatic change in the governance of our school system. But the most consequential change in governance of the CPS Board of Education must be guided by important core values. 

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First, we must put our children first. Too often in this debate, the needs of our kids seem to come last. Any new governance structure must demonstrate how it is superior in addressing achievement gaps, impacts of COVID-19 on learning, and the myriad of other challenges facing our students.

Second, CPS parents, all of them, must have a fair shot to be at the table. We heard loud and clear from the 2019 strike, and in the effort to reopen schools this year, that parents want to have a direct and meaningful voice in their child’s education.

Lastly, taxpayers have a right to know what any change means for CPS finances. Today, City Hall is the only one in the state that is fiscally responsible for non-Chicago Teachers Union employees: a yearly obligation of $432 million in 2024, along with $150 million that the city provides to CPS for capital improvements to school infrastructure. That totals some $580 million annually, and it is growing. Any new governance structure must have a viable plan to secure the financial independence of CPS and protect taxpayers.

Too big, with unfair advantages

The current proposal that has passed through the state Senate, and soon faces the House, would elect an unwieldy 21 board members. Those 21 new elected officials would be elected through a process without adequate controls on campaign cash. That will mean the most monied candidates will have an unfair advantage. Also, these 21 new members would be the only school board members in the state who get to set their own salary or any compensation.

The last thing CPS needs is 21 more unchecked politicians; a new, costly layer of bureaucracy that can decide to put taxpayers on the hook for whatever decisions they make.

This would be the largest elected school board in the country by more than double. Even Los Angeles, with a larger school population than Chicago’s, only has seven elected members.

And what about ensuring parent participation? Several measures in the current proposal work against diversity in parent representation on the Board, particularly no limits on the costs of campaigns. A typical CPS parent cannot afford the millions of dollars that have been spent elsewhere on a single seat. We believe in uplifting the local school councils, which are selected through the largest democratically held elections in the country, here in Chicago. The current bill does not recognize them.

The current proposal disenfranchises undocumented and permanent legal resident parents, by imposing a citizenship requirement to be eligible to vote in a school board election or to sit on the Board, a requirement that local school councils elections do not have. After all that we have done to fight for the rights of our immigrant and refugee communities, who comprise 11% of the city, this is fundamentally wrong.

Compromise to fix flawed bill

Furthermore, if Springfield draws these 20 districts based on population, the true diversity of CPS could be under-represented on the Board. Under this construct, North Side CPS students would be twice as represented as South Side students, due to the recent population growth predominantly on the North Side. Here again, Los Angeles provides a cautionary tale: the Los Angeles school board is twice as white as its general population. 

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And what of the finances of CPS? Some advocates lobbying Springfield boldly stated that financial security of our school system was “not our problem.” Not long ago, CPS was on the brink of bankruptcy. The city has played a critical role in stewarding CPS to fiscal health, as it should have. That level of investment from the city should come not just with a full measure of accountability, but also with a voice at the governance table.

There is still time for Springfield to work with the city to fix the flawed legislation. I stand ready to find a compromise position. On an issue this significant for the third-largest public school district in the country, we must all work to find common ground and pass a workable plan, rather than jamming through a bill which has left too many key stakeholders without a voice. 

I know that together, we can get this done. Our kids’ lives and futures hang in the balance.

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