Why Chicago school board needs more democracy

An elected board will not be perfect. But then neither is our Congress, General Assembly, City Council or any other school board.

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Members of the Grassroots Education Movement, which is composed of parents of Chicago Public Schools students and community leaders, gather outside City Hall on March 3 to demand Mayor Lori Lightfoot support an elected school board.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

When your system of government is broken, the answer every time is more democracy, not less.

That’s why the Illinois Senate recently voted to dump the mayoral-controlled, appointed Chicago school board system and replace it with an elected, representative school board.

For anyone who’s paid even a bit of attention, it’s obvious the governance of Chicago Public Schools is terribly broken.

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In many ways the problems began in 1995 when the then-Republican controlled General Assembly handed authoritarian control of the school system to the mayor of Chicago. The results have been disastrous.

Over 200 schools closed, primarily in minority, disadvantaged neighborhoods, depriving those communities of their primary community anchor. More than 50,000 students of color have left the school system.

Services were privatized through generous no-bid contracts and the finances have been run into the ground. Nowhere is this more evident than in retirement security. In the 1990s, the Chicago teachers’ pension fund was the model of responsible funding. Then then mayor’s appointed board skipped a decade of pension payments creating a massive unfunded liability and driving the districts credit rating to junk status. Now, because of those short-sighted actions, a generation of children must sacrifice classroom resources while Chicagoans deal with tax increases to pay back those debts.

The parade of horribles goes on.

Students have been sexually abused, special education services denied and successive school district CEOs have either left in disgrace or under indictment.

All the while, concerns raised by parents and advocates by an appointed board answering only to the mayor.

The truth is, City Hall has had 26 years to make the case for denying democracy in CPS. It has, by every measure, failed. 

More than six years ago, I introduced legislation for an elected, representative school board. Over the years, many legitimate concerns have been raised. I’ve worked to address them through compromise and negotiated changes.

A citywide elected board president will receive substantial media attention, which will serve to educate voters about the current issues. Board members elected from 20 representative districts will ensure that every community of interest has a seat at the table and that community involvement matters more than money. 

We added strict conflict of interest and revolving door prohibitions and eliminated pay for board members.

We gave a voice to the non-citizen community by creating an official advisory board and passing legislation to empower non-citizens in the process by strengthening Local School Councils.

Over the years, these provisions have been negotiated extensively with Democrats, Republicans and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Most recently, when concerns were raised that a sudden change might cause instability, more concessions were made. Half the board would first be elected in 2024 with the full board elected in 2026.

It’s a long time to wait for those who have been fighting more than a decade for the same access to democracy available in every other school district. But it gives ample time to sort out finances and ensure that changes in governance don’t hurt student outcomes.

An elected board will not be perfect. But then neither is our Congress, General Assembly, City Council or any other school board.

An elected Chicago school board does not guarantee better finances, enrollment or student outcomes.

It simply gives voters an opportunity to have a voice in the future of their system of education, and the assurance they can hold board members accountable.

The greatest gift of democracy is the ability to choose your government.

It’s time the voters of Chicago had that same gift.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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