In August of 2006, Roderick Wilson and his colleagues at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) on Chicago’s South Side fanned out amongst the crowd at the city’s legendary Bud Billiken Parade. They talked to parents about a massively unpopular wave of school closings under a plan called Renaissance 2010, spearheaded by then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan and implemented by a school board hand-picked and appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Parents were appalled that they had no power to choose the school board or hold them accountable, and said they wanted change.
Every other school district in Illinois and more than 90 percent of school districts nationwide have elected school boards, but Chicago has never had one. Now, that’s set to change, as Gov. JB Pritzker is expected to sign a bill establishing an elected board for Chicago’s public school system.
Experts and community leaders say the fact that Chicago and a relatively small number of other cities with predominantly Black and brown public school student bodies haven’t allowed their citizens to elect the board amounts to racism, plain and simple.
A grassroots push for an elected school board — led by KOCO and other community groups — formed around the time of that Bud Billiken parade 15 years ago, and has gained in momentum each year since. Multiple non-binding ballot referenda and public opinion polls have showed overwhelming support for the reform, and several bills to institute an elected school board in Chicago were introduced in the state legislature in 2013. But then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel was stridently opposed, and helped stall the legislation needed to make the change, experts said.
During Chicago’s 2019 mayoral election, advocacy by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and numerous parent and community groups made an elected school board a major campaign issue, and winner Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to support one. But since taking office, Lightfoot has been hostile to the vision for an elected school board put forward by community leaders and the CTU, which had backed her challenger, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
In June, over Lightfoot’s objections, the Illinois House and Senate passed a bill phasing in an all-elected school board for Chicago by 2027, with 20 members elected from individual districts citywide, plus a president elected at large. Some community leaders, including Wilson, are frustrated that it will take so long — and with the fact that the mayor will essentially maintain control through appointing 10 members and a president until then.
“Chicago voters have spoken over and over again, saying they want an elected school board, not a hybrid board,” said Wilson, now executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a South Side organization that successfully fought off the closing of local Mercy Hospital. “My daughter is in 5th grade, in six years she’ll be going into her senior year. All her educational life will be under a mayoral-controlled board.”
Nonetheless, the CTU and other proponents describe the bill as a major victory for grassroots organizing that could change the trajectory of the long-troubled school system. Some say they’re hopeful that amendments could still be passed to accelerate the transition to an all-elected board and institute other measures left out of the bill, including campaign finance provisions and assurances that undocumented immigrants can vote in board elections.
“The fact that they passed this bill is a reflection of the tremendous support that there is in the city for an elected school board,” said Pauline Lipman, director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and author of a 2015 report on Chicago’s school board. “But this is not the bill that parents and teachers have been fighting for. There’s been many attempts on the part of powerful interests in the city to try to co-opt this struggle.”
An historic change
The only major cities that don’t have elected school boards are, like Chicago, ones where the public school system is overwhelmingly made up of students of color, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Cleveland and Boston.
Wilson and others see mayoral control over the education system as a prime example of the paternalism and even white supremacy that has long characterized Chicago’s power structure.
“The only places you have appointed mayoral-controlled school boards are Black and brown communities across the country,” said Wilson. “In Illinois, it’s only in Chicago. It’s racist, and insulting, saying we can’t be held responsible for the education decisions for our children. We can’t make those decision but white families can?”
“It’s popular for all the corporate people and education reformers to talk about equity,” yet they resist giving people of color actual power over deciding how the schools are run, added Marc Kaplan of the organization Northside Action for Justice, part of the coalition that has long pushed for an elected board. “They would rather deal with a mayor that they can have much more influence with, because they have the bucks and they share the general vision of Chicago as a city whose policies are guided by what the corporate world needs and wants.”
Expanding privately-run, non-union charter schools has been a major priority of Chicago’s board over the years. Lipman’s study found that: “The Board’s privatization agenda has not generally improved education. Charter and contract schools are on the whole doing no better and are more punitive than neighborhood public schools. Privately operated schools are also further removed from public accountability. However, the Board turned over one-quarter of the district’s schools to private operators.”
A 2016 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts noted that of major cities studied, Boston, Cleveland and Chicago were the only places where the mayor has sole appointing power over the school board. In Baltimore, the mayor and governor appoint members, and in New York, the mayor shares the power with borough presidents.
Cleveland and Chicago were the only cities with appointed boards where the school districts tax local residents, Pew found. In other cities, schools are funded by the state rather than local taxes. Critics charge that taxing residents without allowing them a say in how those tax dollars are spent on schools is an affront to democracy.
An 1872 law created Chicago’s mayoral-appointed school board, according to a history compiled by Lipman. In 1988, state legislators passed a bill creating a new system that offered more community control: A commission made up of 23 parents or community members and five mayoral appointees nominated 45 potential school board members, and the mayor chose a 15-member board from that pool. City council needed to approve the mayor’s choices.
But in 1995, a state law backed by the Commercial Club of Chicago, a pro-business group, consolidated the mayor’s power further, removing the need for city council approval and the community nominating process. It also allowed then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to shrink the board’s size from 15 to five members. The New York Times noted at the time that it was the kind of policy that then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani craved.
“It was really the right-wing fever dream for what school governance would look like,” said Kurt Hilgendorf, political director for the Chicago Teachers Union. “This [recent bill] is a repudiation of that model at the ground zero where it started. That’s pretty significant.”
The new legislation reintroduces city council approval over the mayor’s school board picks in the period before the board becomes entirely elected, a measure that’s more meaningful now than in Daley’s time since the city council is more independent, and includes a 5-member democratic socialist caucus. The legislation also ensures a moratorium on school closings until the all-elected board is in place.
Lipman noted that “until very recently, almost every member of the board came from banking, investment banking, corporate heads, real estate developers, representing the interests of capital.” Lightfoot appointed a board with more background in diverse communities and education, led by Miguel del Valle, long considered a progressive, as well as a psychology professor and bilingual education expert; a former teacher; and a coach and community leader.
But critics say that a “better” board is beside the point, as it still denies residents power over their schools. While Lipman is deeply unsatisfied with the bill, she thinks it will nonetheless have an impact on other cities with appointed boards.
“Nationally there’s a demand for more democracy in education so there can be more say on the part of Black and brown parents over these policies,” she said. “To implement policies that are more just and that actually are about education and not about business. I would expect Chicago’s movement will have an impact nationally.”
Obstacles and influence
Critics of an elected school board have argued that it could make the board vulnerable to influence from outside interests — like private charter school proponents — infusing cash into campaigns. They point to Los Angeles, where charter school proponents spent over $13 million on the 2020 race and residents were deluged with misleading ads funded by independent expenditures. Charter proponents, who spent about four times as much as the teachers’ union and its allies, ended up with a majority on the board.
Advocates, meanwhile, say that it’s disingenuous to invoke outside influence as an argument against an elected board. They note that past Mayors Emanuel and Daley were avid proponents of privatizing education and replacing regular public schools with non-unionized charters. The Renaissance 2010 plan pushed through by Daley’s school board and Duncan — who later became President Obama’s education secretary — relied heavily on closing public schools and replacing them with charters. (Studies showed no tangible performance benefits to students, with many of them ending up in other so-called “low-performing” schools while charters were often seen as serving newcomers in gentrifying neighborhoods.)
The structure of Chicago’s elected school board is meant to avoid moneyed influence. The large number of seats makes it harder for interest groups to “buy” the election, proponents say, and the fact that the members come from relatively small geographic districts, rather than at-large, means a candidate’s standing in the community and grassroots campaigning can be more important than ads and other campaign tactics that cost money.
Illinois State Sen. Robert Martwick noted that the size of the districts was modeled on the legislative districts used to elect state representatives. He had proposed 24 members plus a president, and said the district size in the final bill is “about as big as it can get where your community involvement and grassroots organizing skills still matter more than what you spend on an election.”
Lightfoot called the proposed 21-member board “unwieldy.” Most big-city school boards have seven to nine members, according to Pew. Chicago’s appointed school board currently has five members plus the president and vice president. Martwick, the CTU and others scoffed at criticism of the 21-member size. “That is the biggest red herring in the world,” said Martwick.
Mayor Lightfoot’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Martwick noted that the city council has 50 members and the state House and Senate have 118 and 59 members, respectively. Martwick, State Rep. Delia Ramirez and others pushed for an all-elected school board without a phase-in, but Martwick said “compromise” seemed necessary to get the legislation to the finish line after years of attempts. State Senate President Don Harmon demanded the hybrid phase-in, while Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford sponsored a bill favored by Mayor Lightfoot that would add a few elected seats to an otherwise-appointed board.
Chicago voters overwhelmingly voiced support for an elected school board in 2012 and 2015 ballot referenda. Emanuel’s administration successfully fought to keep those referenda off the citywide ballot, but the CTU gathered enough signatures to get the question on the ballot in a number of precincts.
“The bottom line is the people who want an elected school board, the people who deserve an elected school board, who are entitled to an elected school board are everyday average citizens,” said Martwick. “The people opposed are power-brokers and moneyed interests. Those people used their power, money and influence to stymie this movement and slow it down. Ultimately, that we were able to achieve this is a real testament to the power of the people. In a democracy if you want something you just don’t get it, you have to fight for it and have the power and persistence and stomach for a long fight.”
A process, not a panacea
The CTU’s Hilgendorf described the legacy of Chicago’s appointed school boards as “a series of terrible governance decisions,” including, “dozens and dozens of school closures, massive expansion of charter schools, laying off roughly half of Black educators, cutting special ed funding that resulted in the imposition of an oversight monitor, approving no-bid contracts that landed a CEO [Emanuel appointee Barbara Byrd-Bennett] in federal prison, and approving a building maintenance and operations contract that resulted in filthy schools and has been overturned.”
Would an elected school board have avoided these debacles? Would it have kept open the nearly 200 Chicago schools closed over the past two decades, including the 49 shuttered by Emanuel in 2013? Would it have prevented the waves of teacher layoffs and devastating budget cuts, including the system of “student-based budgeting,” that has forced principals to decide between keeping teachers and buying basic supplies?
Community leaders say there’s no way to know, and that an elected board will not be a “panacea” for the budget crises, crumbling infrastructure and other problems that plague Chicago’s schools.
But, they say, an elected school board means parents, students and communities will have the power to tackle the thorny challenges themselves, electing who they want to run the schools and holding them accountable. Kaplan said activists will continue to push for improvements, like phasing in the all-elected board more quickly and instituting public financing, to make it easier for anyone to run for a board seat.
“I can run for school board if I choose to, or my wife can or someone else in the community,” said Wilson. “If I don’t like the decisions my school board representatives have made, I know I can vote them out. It’s about having some accountability to the public we didn’t have before, it’s about having that voice, having that opportunity to be part of it.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.