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Can Chicago Finally Get An Elected School Board? After Years Of Fighting, Advocates Push State Senators To Pass 2019 Bill

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on her support for an elected school board, but then said she needed more time to study the matter.

Members of an advocacy group who support an elected Chicago Public Schools board hold a rally outside the Thompson Center in Downtown on Jan. 5 2021.
Justin Laurence/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Nearly 50 supporters of an elected Chicago school board rallied outside the Thompson Center Tuesday, calling on the Illinois Senate to pass a bill this weekend that would take decision-making power for Chicago Public Schools away from the mayor.

The Grassroots Education Movement, supported by the education advocacy group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, renewed its call for an elected school board as the Illinois House of Representatives convened a lame-duck session this week and Senate leaders have signaled they may meet.

Rosa Esquivel, a parent of CPS students, said Tuesday the current mayoral-appointed seven-member Board of Education doesn’t understand her struggles as a mother. 

“We need to elect community members that know our issues, that suffered the same struggle as we do. People that are going to represent us with dignity, that’s what we need,” she said.

In 2019, the Illinois House of Representatives approved a bill — for the third time in three years — creating an elected board to oversee CPS, the nation’s third-largest school district. But the measure was never voted on by the Senate. 

If passed, the law would create a 20-member board elected from geographic areas initially decided by the state Legislature but later redrawn by the board. The law would not take effect until 2023.

Then-Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot tweeted her support for an elected school board, but she later criticized the bill as a “recipe for chaos and disaster” because of its size and asked for time to study the issue more. 

When she became mayor, Lightfoot disbanded the seven-member school board appointed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and appointed seven new members, including board President Miguel Del Valle, imparting her influence on the school district.

Moises Moreno, director of the Pilsen Alliance, said an appointed board isn’t responsive to community concerns.

“When the Board of Education is appointed by the mayor, it does not listen to the community,” Moreno said. “It shuts down schools, it shuts down communities, budget cut, they’re sending kids back into schools that are not safe. If we had an elected school board, perhaps communities would be respected.”

Rod Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, said Tuesday the grassroots group wants the 2019 bill to pass without amendments. 

“That’s what we’ve been working on; we don’t want anything else,” he said. “Let’s be clear, there’s no panacea for all of this, this is not a silver bullet. This is not perfect … but this is what we want right now.”

John Patterson, a spokesman for Senate President Don Harmon, told Block Club Harmon “is looking forward to hearing directly from the advocates and he plans to do so before session.”

The Senate has yet to schedule a lame-duck meeting ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration of a new state legislature, but senators have been told to be available from January 8-13 if a meeting is called.

The renewed push comes as Lightfoot and CPS chief Janice Jackson are at odds with the Chicago Teachers Union and a majority of City Council over the district’s plans to return students to in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

About half of the teachers scheduled to return to work Monday continued to work from home, Jackson said Tuesday. As students in kindergarten through eight grade prepare to return to school buildings in February, the teachers union has said it may vote to go on strike.

Lightfoot and Jackson defended the plan Tuesday, saying remote learning has created inequities, with Black and Latino students falling behind. The Chicago Department of Public Health has approved the reopening plan.

“We know that in-person learning is not the right option for every student, but it must be an option,” Jackson said.

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