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As 21-Person Elected School Board Bill Gains Momentum, Calls Grow In Chicago For Another Option

A key state House committee passed the bill this week, but opponents want to reduce the size of the board or seek a hybrid model with some members appointed and others elected.

Parents groups have lobbied for an elected Chicago school board, to give the community more voice in district decision-making.
Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — A union-backed bill to establish a 21-person elected school board in Chicago is regaining momentum in Springfield. But critics including business groups and the city’s mayor remain opposed. 

That hasn’t stopped the bill from passing a key committee this week and heading to the House floor. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s opposition, which some suggest helped derail previous versions of the bill, has encouraged opponents to push for a compromise proposal, to reduce the size of the elected board or seek a hybrid model with some members appointed and others elected.

Earlier this week, at a House Ethics and Elections Committee hearing, a Lightfoot deputy hinted at an alternate proposal in the works. When asked, her spokeswoman would not provide specifics.

“We are working toward some governance changes for the district,” said Patrick Hall, the deputy director of intergovernmental affairs. (Lightfoot campaigned on an elected school board but recently told the New York Times that reopening campuses amid the COVID-19 pandemic would not have been possible without mayoral control.) 

The debate over the makeup of the school board has taken on fresh urgency amid a contentious conversation over school reopening. Some people are calling for more accountability and oversight as the federal government promises to deliver Chicago schools another $1.8 billion in federal stimulus dollars, bringing the total of three surplus packages to nearly $3 billion. 

The nonprofit parents group Kids First, which has close ties to the school district, has organized seven parent workshops on different board options, such as a smaller elected board and a hybrid model. 

At a Kids First parent workshop last week over Zoom, most participants said they wanted Chicago to elect a school board with some rules on who could run and how much could be spent in campaigns. A few supported a hybrid board that would allow the mayor to handpick residents with certain areas of expertise, such as finance.    

Many wanted the board to include parents and grandparents, representing their neighborhoods.

“The community I live in is underserved and disadvantaged,” said Katrina Adams, an Avalon resident and mother of three, who participated in a workshop. “It is very important for parents to be on the school board. You need a voice.”

Other groups will lobby legislators this spring on alternatives to consider. An educators policy group argued for ensuring the board include at least one classroom teacher and establishing a school board watchdog. 

In focus groups, teachers said they wanted to see a bill with more accountability, said Stacy Moore, the executive director of Educators for Excellence in Chicago.

“You could change governance structure and not change the issues they saw as central to plaguing the board,” Moore said. “So you might change to an elected school board, but see some of the same problems.”

The 21-member board would make Chicago an outlier among the nation’s largest school districts. In New York City, the nation’s largest district, the mayor controls the public schools and appoints the majority of a 13-member board that oversees contracts, school closures and other policy changes. 

Los Angeles Unified and the Las Vegas-area Clark County, Nevada, voters elect seven school board members each representing a geographical district. A nine-person elected board oversees Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Elected school boards exist in 90 percent of school districts across the country, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study. That includes the other 851 districts in Illinois.

Supporters of the bill on Chicago’s board staunchly stand by its size. 

Roderick Wilson, who has been working on the legislation for a decade, said, “This is still a segregated city, and people need to have representation.” He recalled the pain of schools closing in Black neighborhoods and having no way to fight on the communities’ behalf. 

He said a smaller, elected board is not a palatable alternative. “Less members on the board means less representation,” said Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a community organization on Chicago’s South Side. 

Wilson acknowledged that the bill could enable unions, charters and other special interests to funnel money to candidates — “that’s the struggle we always have with elections,” he said. But he said those concerns should propel campaign finance reform, not stymie a bill that the majority of Chicago voters in a 2015 referendum said they’d support. 

In the House committee meeting this week, the bill passed 11 to 7, with several legislators pointing out the bill’s popularity with constituents. 

Only Rep. Ryan Spain asked particular questions, probing why the measure would give the state legislature and not an independent or city agency the power to draw school board district boundaries. He also warned that establishing an elected school board does necessarily mean parents win all the seats. 

“Where I live in Peoria and where we have an elected school board, our board is dominated by non-parent interests. Unfortunately that’s led to a really challenging situation over the last year as we’ve navigated our way through the pandemic,” Spain said. “It gives me a lot of pause with how to think about this bill.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.