Illinois Issues: A Schooling in Democracy

May 5, 2016

State lawmakers are considering whether school board members in Chicago should be elected — as they are in all other Illinois school districts.

When parents in Elgin have a problem with their district’s board of education, they have the opportunity to vote elected members out of office. The same is true in Springfield, Decatur, St. Charles, Aurora, Peoria, Rockford, Bloomington, Evanston, Joliet, DeKalb and Wheaton. In fact, it is true in every Illinois school district except Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools is one of the few districts nationwide to have a school board composed of appointed members. Mayor Rahm Emanuel hand-picks the seven-member board, just like Mayor Richard M. Daley before him. If Chicago parents have a problem with the direction of the district, their only electoral recourse is voting out the mayor.

In 1995, the state legislature gave Daley complete power over the school district. Before that, the city council or the mayor appointed members with input from other committees. Community organizations used to make recommendations, but Chicago voters have never elected the governing board of the school district since CPS was founded in 1837. 

Democratic Rep. Robert Martwick, whose House District is based in the Jefferson Park neighborhood, calls himself a “democracy purist.” When community groups asked him if he supported an elected school board while he was first running for office in 2011, the answer, for him, was a no-brainer.

“I just feel like citizens, especially when you’re forced to pay taxes and the government that you’re forced to pay taxes to has such a large and dramatic effect on your life, we’re supposed to, in this country, have a say,” Martwick says.

Martwick wrote a bill that got near-unanimous support in the House of Representatives in March that would create a 21-member board of education, with 20 members elected from their respective districts and a final, at-large member elected as the board president. 

Democratic Rep. Robert Martwick is sponsoring a bill to established an elected Chicago school board.

While Martwick thinks 21 members is too small — he originally suggested 50, one per Chicago City Council ward — others argue it is too big and would invite dysfunction. The lone democrat to oppose the bill, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, also says a shorter ballot is better for democracy because voters are more likely to be well informed if there are fewer races. To this point, advocates of the appointed board say voters have enough say with the election of the mayor.

Rico Gutstein, a University of Illinois Chicago professor of mathematics education and a faculty associate at the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, has co-authored two reports reviewing the pros and cons of an elected representative school board in Chicago. He says other cities have reversed mayoral control over their school districts, but he does not know of a single one in which the change came following a “grassroots insurgency,” like Chicago is seeing now.

“The massive school closings, charter proliferation … People have experienced tremendous dislocation and this is what the education justice movement has grown out of,” Gutstein says.

On the side of an elected school board in Chicago is the Chicago Teachers Union, a number of community organizations, and, as it turns out, 110 members of the House of Representatives. Only four people voted against House Bill 0557.  

The legislative activity at the state level follows overwhelming support from voters in 37 Chicago wards who had the chance to weigh in on the concept in a non-binding referendum during the February election. Chicago’s remaining 13 wards did not have the question on their ballots.

The official stance of Chicago Public Schools, however, is that an elected board could jeopardize the futures of CPS students by injecting politics into the equation.

“The real solution to CPS’ challenges is fixing the state’s blatantly unequal education funding system that provides less than $3 to Chicago children for every $4 provided to children elsewhere and shortchanges low-income kids from Decatur to Taylorville to Aurora to Elgin to East Moline,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said via email.

“Until Springfield fixes the state school funding problems, there isn’t an elected school board big enough to get CPS in the black,” Bittner added. “In the meantime, anyone interested in fixing this inequality already has elected representation in their representative and senator."

Republican Rep. Joe Sosnowski voted against a bill to create an elected board, but he says the bipartisan support it found in the House indicates there is an appetite for change.

  While CPS turns the blame on the state, Rep. Joe Sosnowski, a Republican from Rockford, says the support in the House for an elected board represents frustration with poor performance, governance problems and mismanagement in Chicago Public Schools. Sosnowski was one of the four “no” votes, but he says the overwhelming support for the bill indicates the legislature is interested in change of some sort.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been among the strongest proponents of an elected school board and a move away from what is known as “mayoral control” of the district. Since Emanuel took office, he and the teachers union have been locked in a battle both sides claim holds the educations of nearly 400,000 children in the balance. 

The CTU argues the current board is too insulated from stakeholders. Some see that as protecting board members from the backlash unpopular but necessary decisions can bring. Proponents of the appointed school board use tax increases as an example. Fiscal conservatives argue against tax increases, but the school board has approved them every single year under mayoral control.

Kurt Hilgendorf, a CTU policy analyst, however, points to the largest mass school closing in history and repeated budget cuts.

“The so-called tough decisions end up being cut, cut, cut, cut, cut,” Hilgendorf says. “Cutting special education, counseling, librarians … not actually doing right by schools. Something that would never be accepted in any other district in the state but is somehow okay for Chicago.”

The board has long been criticized for being comprised of out-of-touch business leaders who do not reflect the demographics of the district, where the vast majority of students come from low-income families and only 9.4 percent are white. Three out of the seven members of the current board of education are black and one is Latino. The other three are white.

President Frank Clark is a retired CEO and chairman of ComEd, and Mark Furlong is the president and CEO of BMO Harris Bank. Neither has much experience in education. The careers of the other five members have been tied to education somehow — whether it is Catholic higher education, like Rev. Michael Garanzini, Chicago Public Schools, like Mahalia Hines and Gail Ward, or education-focused nonprofits, like Dominique Jordan Turner. Board Vice President Jaime Guzmán has worked for CPS, Teach for America and the City Colleges of Chicago. He is also a former member of the Illinois State Charter School Commission. 

The Chicago Teachers Union is a vocal proponent of an elected school board.
Credit flickr/ firedoglakedotcom

For Rosa Maria Antunez, the makeup of the current board is a problem. Antunez became a schools advocate about three years ago when her daughter transferred into the Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy on Chicago’s northwest side. She says her daughter, who is now in sixth grade, was forced to take classes with more than 60 other students in one room because of overcrowding. Antunez says she couldn’t believe the public schools could function so poorly in this first-world country she now calls home.

Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy has since been given mobile classrooms for additional space, but Antunez says she still thinks city and district officials are playing games with her child’s education. She has been active in pushing for an elected school board with Communities United. She wants a board full of and elected by parents, not politicians or wealthy individuals.

“They don’t know what we need or what the children need because they have their children in private schools,” Andunez says. “They’re not in public schools. They don’t know the realities of public schools. We, as parents, we understand what our children need.”

The two Chicago Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education reports by Gutstein and Pauline Lipman ultimately recommend an elected representative school board — meaning there would be subdistricts, rather than all at-large seats. Gutstein admits there is no conclusive evidence either way to say that elected boards or appointed boards are better for governance or student achievement. Both models have a range of outcomes nationwide.

But in Chicago, Gutstein says the appointed board has created a two-tiered education system where predominantly white, higher-income students go to high-performing magnet schools and lower income students of color stagnate in underperforming neighborhood schools. Parents have staged sit-ins and hunger strikes to be heard absent adequate opportunities during board meetings, which take place at 10 a.m. on Wednesday mornings, when many parents — and all teachers — are working. 

  Martwick adds to that the example of former schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who brought forth a proposal for a no-bid contract with her former employer, SUPES Academy, which the school board passed unanimously, with no public debate. Byrd-Bennett is facing potential jail time for accepting bribes in return for her part in the scheme, but school board members have not faced any consequences.

Peter Cunningham, executive director of national school reform organization Education Post, which is based in Chicago, does not think an elected school board is the answer. Education Post writes about the topic in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, which only recently converted to a seven-member elected school board. In L.A., candidates spend millions of dollars to sway an election that still has single-digit voter turnout. That’s partly why Cunningham, who has worked for CPS in the past, says voters have enough control over the schools through the election of the mayor. “In my view, you have more accountability when you have mayoral control. There’s one person who’s going to wear the jacket, no matter what,” he says.

He points to New York City, which also has mayoral control of its school district, but under progressive mayor Bill DeBlasio, little opposition to it. Under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, however, the teachers union and parent groups were clamoring for democracy. “I do think that there’s a little bit of an intellectual inconsistency. Many of the people who are pushing for an elected school board here in Chicago are not simultaneously pushing for an elected school board in New York,” he says. “If they had elected Garcia (as mayor) here in Chicago, would they have pushed just as hard for an elected school board? Or would they have said, ‘we’ve got our guy in there, so we’re not worried about that issue anymore?’” Supporters of an elected school board in Chicago say they would back the idea no matter who was in the mayor’s office. 

Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel has clashed with the Chicago Teachers Union throughout his time in office.

There are sure to be problems with an elected school board, and there are risks of radical slates of candidates getting enough support in low-turnout races. Still, Gutstein says that in Chicago, the elected school board is the best option.

“I don’t think anyone involved in this thinks an elected board is a silver bullet,” Gutstein says. “Democracy is messy. It’s contested. It’s complex. It’s slow — and it’s the best opportunity for people whose voices have been kept out of the public debate to have a modicum of input into what happens.”

According to Martwick, Senate President John Cullerton is open to moving CPS school board legislation through his chamber. But there are other issues to think about, including the funding formula CPS spokeswoman Bittner referred to. And the district is in the middle of a financial crisis the state could further contribute to solving — potentially to the tune of hundreds of millions more in funding dollars. The school board proposal’s path through the Senate, then, may be as part of a broader bill that address several issues at once. And whether that will doom its ultimate chances is an open question.

Though the bill has to make it through the Senate to go to the governor’s office, Gov. Bruce Rauner does support an elected school board for Chicago Public Schools, “alongside reforms to prevent conflicts of interest on the board,” according to his press secretary, Catherine Kelly. Another proposal, HB 4498, seeks to address both issues at once by prohibiting campaign contributions from teachers’ unions and businesses that have contracts with the district. As that bill remained in committee while the other one moved forward, it is unclear what Rauner would do should the Senate approve a bill that mirrors the House version.

But if Rauner has his way, it may not matter who is on the board of CPS.

The governor has commissioned an evaluation of Chicago Public Schools’ finances from the Illinois State Board of Education, a first step in a potential state takeover of operations. In that case, local school board members would lose all authority, whether they are elected by voters or appointed by the mayor.

The move would not be unprecedented. Detroit Public Schools is being run by an emergency manager, and here in Illinois, East St. Louis lost control of its schools in 2013. But current statute does not give Rauner this authority over CPS, and Democrats have vowed to keep it that way.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.