Legislature will own Chicago’s school failures if a bad plan for an elected board prevails

We think most legislators, even those who voted for it, know a 21-member school board would be a joke. It almost certainly would be dominated by the Chicago Teachers Union,

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The Chicago Board of Education currently is made up of seven members appointed by the mayor.

The Chicago Board of Education currently is made up of seven members appointed by the mayor.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

If test scores fall in Chicago’s public schools, blame Illinois Senate President Don Harmon.

If enrollment declines further in the city’s schools, blame state Sen. Bob Martwick.

If property taxes go up to pay for the schools, blame those in the state Senate who voted Tuesday to create an absurdly unwieldy 21-member elected Chicago school board. And blame, as well, anybody in the House who votes later this summer for this slapped-together mockery of supposedly grassroots democracy.

In the future, they will own the performance of Chicago’s schools, which we fear will not go well. It will be on them.

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For a number of years now, we have argued against the creation of a fully elected Chicago school board, but if the city goes that route, it had better be done right. The problem with the elected school board scheme approved by the Senate this week is that it was done wrong, beginning obviously with board’s ridiculous size. At 21 members, all but one of whom would be elected from 10 districts rather than city-wide, it would be more than twice the size of the next two largest big-city school boards in the country — Houston and Miami’s nine-member boards.

Chicago would not have a school board. It would have a legislature.

There is no chance the average Chicago voter — already tasked with the crazy challenge of keeping track of dozens of aldermen, state senators and representatives, county board members, sewage district commissioners and the like — would have a clue who these 21 school board members are.

Nobody’s fooled

We think most state legislators, even the ones who voted for it, know a 21-member board would be a joke. We think they know it almost certainly would be dominated by the Chicago Teachers Union, which has the money and numbers to run a full slate of candidates and win. And we think they know it would not necessarily be in the best interest of Chicago’s children or taxpayers.

They’re just afraid of crossing the CTU and various other lefty activists.

When Martwick, chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, says a 21-member elected board will “ensure the city will have democracy over its schools,” we find it hard to believe he’s that naive.

A seven-member elected school board? Maybe so. You might even go to nine. But a 21-member board?

Martwick is a bright guy. He’s been around. He knows how a pretense of greater democracy can be a form of political judo, exploiting forward motion to flip a good thing on its head.

Still time to get it right

What, then, is the rush?

Why did the Senate choose to shove through this dramatic, game-changing elected school board scheme in the last overtime days of its spring legislative session? And why did the Senate tack on a bunch of extras, such as a moratorium on school closings or consolidations until 2025, without notice or debate?

So many issues remain unaddressed and unresolved.

It remains unclear whether the city could legally continue to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars into the school district’s budget each year. It remains an open question as to how the city — once formal ties with the school district are severed — would continue to offer a plethora of municipal services to the schools, such as library services, park district amenities, social services and even drinking water. New contractual relationships could be required.

And if non-citizens were allowed to run for school board seats and vote in school board elections, as some advocates are calling for, how would that work if school board elections were held on the same day as other city elections, where non-citizens cannot vote?

At the time the Senate voted for this elected school board concoction, the House already had adjourned. Various interest groups were busy at work negotiating a better bill. And nothing in the current bill is scheduled to go into effect until at least July of next year.

There is time to take a breath and get this right. There is time for Harmon and state House Speaker Chris Welch, both relatively new to their jobs, to take charge and produce a better plan that puts Chicago’s 340,000 public school children first.

Because what we fear we’re seeing in Springfield now, frankly, is a power vacuum being filled by interest groups.

If the House approves this Senate bill, they’ll own this bad thing too.

And they may well regret it.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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