The seven members of Chicago’s Board of Education, along with CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, are, in theory, responsible for the governance of the city’s schools. In reality, they are only accountable to the man that appointed them—Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
As anyone who has ever witnessed a board hearing knows, members like Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker and former Northwestern President Henry Bienen, when they bother to show up at all, nod indifferently to public testimony, toy with their smart phones, and reliably vote in the interests of their boss. This past winter, after the board voted unanimously to close or turnaround 17 schools, frustrated parents burst into tears, and community members chanted “Rubber Stamp!” until CPS security escorted them out of the room.
Unwilling to accept such belligerent disregard for community input, education organizers and activists have launched a campaign for an elected, representative school board. Communities Organized for Democracy in Education (CODE), a coalition of education groups, circulated petitions this summer to put the question to Chicagoans in an advisory referendum: should the Board of Education be elected instead of appointed by the mayor?
CODE volunteers collected enough signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot in 204 precincts; Valerie Leonard, a long-time activist and community development professional, got enough signatures for an additional 50 precincts all by herself.
But advocates admit that a referendum would be only the first step in what will likely be a years-long campaign. Even if the majority of Chicagoans support an elected school board, the city doesn’t have the power to change the law. Ultimately, the Illinois General Assembly will have to re-write the Illinois School Code to change how the board is empowered. The referendum’s goal is to show that the campaign has citywide support, while CODE drafts legislation and lobbies Springfield to adopt it.
One proposal for how an elected school board would be structured would split the city into 13 districts, with one elected representative from each district. CPS and CTU would each get one representative as well.
“This is just the beginning of a discussion,” says Wendy Katten, co-founder of the parent group Raise Your Hand and a lead organizer for the campaign. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
So far, the response from the mayor’s office has suggested that the campaign will not go without intense opposition. Even the non-binding, advisory referendum “personally offended” the mayor, according to Ald. John Arena (45th Ward). In July, 10 alderman attempted to place the referendum on the ballots in their wards, but so-called progressive Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) intervened to thwart the effort on a legal technicality. Earlier in the summer, aldermen manuevered to block the referendum from appearing on ballots citywide by quickly filling up the three ballot lines reserved for such questions.
Chicago is one of just ten U.S. cities, and the only city in Illinois, with a mayor-appointed school board. Mayor Richard Daley finally won control of the board in 1995, following Boston (1991) and paving the way for similar grabs in New York City (2002) and Washington, D.C. (2007). Both supporters and critics typically cite the same motivation: that the mayor can pursue wide-sweeping educational changes without interference from a voting public.
That this corresponds with the decades of tried-and-failed corporate reforms—transformations, small schools, charters, turnarounds, and the like—should surprise no one. The privatizers, billionaires, and other politically connected appointees are so far removed from the daily realities of public schools that they neither see nor care about the ruinous effects of their policies.
This year’s board includes a banker, the former president of a private university, the 263rd richest person in America, a corporate executive, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, a communications and PR careerist, and rapper Common’s mom (who, incidentally, is the only one who has ever worked in a public school).
Critics, even those who support an elected board, acknowledge that elections are rife with their own problems, such as low voter turnout and the sway of special interests. But, given the unrepresentative composition of the board, could putting the seats up for a vote possibly make it worse?
By Joel Handley