A state proposal for a 21-member elected Chicago Public Schools board enjoys the support of local elected officials, though Gov. J.B. Pritzker says he supports an elected board in theory but declined to state support for that bill in particular and Mayor Lori Lightfoot is wavering on her previously stated support for an elected board.
"I will when we're ready," Lightfoot said on April 6 when asked to take a yes-or-no stance. "I'm spending time actually talking to people like parents, other stakeholders. That will happen on a timeline that makes sense, not the timeline that someone tries to dictate to me."
The proposal is by Northwest Side Sen. Robert Martwick (D-10th) and would create a 21-member board for Chicago Public Schools — 20 from single-member districts, one president elected at-large, with the districts initially drawn by the General Assembly and thereafter by the board itself — replacing a school board in which the mayor appoints members.
On April 7, the Cook County Democratic Party's central committee voted overwhelmingly to back a resolution urging the General Assembly to pass Martwick's bill.
House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch (7th) endorsed the bill at the meeting, where he spoke of being the product of a public education system run by an elected school board, said that that the Democratic Party was the party of letting people vote and added that having an elected school board in Chicago would allow the party to better build a bench of political candidates.
The committeewomen for the 4th, 5th and 20th wards, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (who also chairs the party), Ald. Leslie Hairston and state Sen. Mattie Hunter (3rd), who is co-sponsoring the legislation, voted for the party's resolution.
“The current system is not working, and I believe that an elected school board will be the proper change Chicago Public Schools need to see,” Hunter said in a statement. “Elected school boards are common in other districts across the U.S., and this model is strongly supported by many Chicagoans. Chicago residents deserve a say in who is over their children’s educational needs. This is an initiative that I strongly support and that I hope takes into effect very soon.”
Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) is also co-sponsoring the bill.
In an interview the next morning, Preckwinkle said her support for the legislation is merely in line with her longstanding position.
"There're 102 counties in the state of Illinois; I don't know how many school districts there are, but it's only in the city of Chicago that there's no elected school board. It's the only school district in the entire state which does not have an elected school board," she said. "My view is that if it's good enough for the rest of the state, it should be good enough for Chicago.
"The arguments against it, it seems to me, are fundamentally anti-democratic arguments. This is an argument about democracy, and if we have elected school boards in every other school district in the state, it seems to me if it's good enough for every place else in Chicago, it's good enough for us."
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), who cut her teeth in education activism and serves on City Council's Education Committee, is likewise strongly in favor of the current proposal, saying too much unchecked power in the mayor's hands. She noted that the Education Committee has only met five times since the 2019 elections "because the mayor does not want the City Council to have any say over CPS."
"There are thousands of young people who have never made it to remote learning, and (CPS) did nothing about it," Taylor said, suggesting a representative school board would be an accountable one. "And when Lori was running for office, she supported it, so what's the backtrack now?"
On Friday, however, Gov. J.B. Pritzker declined to say straight-out that he would support Sen. Markwick's proposal, though he reiterated that he supports an elected school board and said it is "something that may get addressed during spring session."
"I want to make sure that the mayor and the City Council in Chicago are weighing in on what they think is the best thing to do," Pritzker said. "It's a complex endeavor to put this in play, so all I'm saying is let's get the bill through the legislature, whatever that may be, and as you know, I have said — you can look back on the records here — that I'm in favor of an elected school board."
Asked if he would sign Martwick's bill into law if it came to his desk, he answered, "Again, I'm in favor of an elected school board. So I'm on the side of making sure that people are being represented in the school board that gets developed as a result of this bill."
While Chicago does not have one elected school board, democratic governance of individual Chicago Public Schools is delegated to Local School Councils; the Herald solicited feedback from representatives at public schools in Hyde Park-Kenwood.
"As an avid champion of democracy across spectrums, particularly in education, I undoubtedly appreciate the spirit of an elected school board for Chicago. Far too often the voice and viewpoints of parents are absent from key policy-making decisions," wrote Keiana Barrett with Kenwood Academy's LSC.
"However, we cannot deny the unfortunate reality of elections, in practice, frequently earning a failing grade due to the lack of access, fairness, transparency and accountability. Therefore, as efforts advance towards an elected school board, so must election safeguards to preserve the integrity of the electoral process and ensure equity for all CPS scholars."
Aiko Kojima Hibino, a member of Bret Harte's LSC, pointed out that the non-elected school board approved the closure of 50 schools in 2013 and that the mayor had previously worked to get Senate President Don Harmon (D-39th), from Oak Park, not to call the bill for a vote.
"FYI, Oak Park has an elected school board, unlike Chicago," she emailed. "No more nonsense."
Katie Gruber, a Ray School member, also lambasted Chicagoans' lack of representation compared to other Illinoisans, saying CPS parents "should have the same rights to elect the people who make the big decisions about their public schools."
"Electing the board members — all of the board members — means that they can replace those board members if their votes are not in alignment with CPS families' priorities," she wrote. "This is the bedrock of democracy and it has been missing here in Chicago."
Debra Martin Rojas, a Kenwood chemistry and physics teacher, spoke out in favor of the elected school board proposal on behalf of other faculty members and the Chicago Teachers Union, writing, "It is widely felt that, if democracy is built around institutional 'checks and balances,' then there are none with our current school board aside from those that impact the political career and agenda of our mayor."
And Kalaveeta Mitchell, a Bronzeville mother of two high schoolers with disabilities, came out strongly in support of the proposal.
"For the past 11 years, and most particularly for the past six years, I've had to battle with CPS for their education," she said. "It was always a battle getting the appropriate academic programming with them," specifically speech, social work and transportation services and school level and classroom placement.
She wants an elected school board because she thinks it would give parents a way to give more input, saying, "We are the ones who know these children best and what their needs are, and CPS is not supplying that," while decreasing the influence of special interests with stakes in the district's huge budget.
"They know the parents and the community groups want to remove the individuals who are there because they have not been doing anything for all the students, not just some of the students," she said.