Friday, June 18, 2021

I want an elected school board but this bill stinks

House lawmakers passed the Chicago elected school board bill Wednesday, dealing a blow to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, even as enough potential flaws in the measure were identified that a trailer bill with substantive changes is already in the works.
-- IL Playbook

As my readers know, I've been an active supporter of an elected representative school board for Chicago for many years. Here's a piece I wrote in Crain's back in 2015 and another I wrote in Huffington Post in 2011. There were many more.

Now after 26 years of mayoral control, Chicago Public Schools is on the verge of monumental change as it looks ahead to an elected board. In 1995, a Republican-controlled state legislature gave then-Mayor Daley full authority over the schools, including the appointment of the board members who would hire the district's CEO. 

Almost a decade has passed since 87% of 80,000 Chicago residents voted in a non-binding referendum in 13% of the city’s precincts in favor of an elected school board. If surveys were taken today, support for an elected board probably wouldn't be quite that high. That's because the current board, hand-picked by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, is a far cry from the ones chosen by Daley and Rahm Emanuel in that it's not loaded with wealthy cronies, campaign donors, school closers, and privatizers. It is undoubtedly the most progressive and uncorrupt school board we've ever had in Chitown. It's also been almost a decade since a mayor hand-picked a schools chief who ended up in the penitentiary

But still, I think it's about time that invested parents and community members have more of a direct voice in running their schools. Chicago is currently the only district in the entire state that doesn't elect its school board. 

After all the years of failed attempts, I still favor an elected board but I'm not jumping for joy over the apparent passage of the current ERSB bill. In simple language, the bill sucks and I doubt it will fly for very long in its current form. 

First and foremost, it sucks because once passed, it won't take effect until 2025. Then in the 2026 general election, the 10 spots on the Board that were previously appointed by the mayor would be up for election to four-year terms beginning in January 2027, at which point the board would become fully elected. 

2027! That's long after many of our current pols and political players will even be around to be held accountable. State reps serve two-year terms in IL while state senators serve for four years.

This recalls the passage of the state's $15/hour minimum wage bill passed in 2019 with a six-year ramp-up. Hungry families and their children can't wait that long to put food on the table. 

So much can change in six years. Who knows what new crises or political splits will arise between now and then, or even if our vulnerable system of public education will remain intact in post-pandemic Chicago? 

It also sucks because a 21-member board, coming from 21 politically defined districts, is much too unwieldy, too politicized (in the bad sense of the word), and bureaucratic. Its size makes it too easy for big-monied, reactionary, anti-public-school political interests to influence the outcomes of small-turnout elections, as they are now doing in state after state. 

The bill sucks because it disenfranchises the thousands of immigrants who have children in CPS but are living here without official documentation. They won't be allowed to vote under the current bill. This in contrast to Chicago Local School Council elections where all parents, teachers, and community members are allowed to vote regardless of immigration status. In the current bill, teachers are forbidden to run for the board. On LSCs, they are guaranteed two seats on the council. 

There are lots more flaws in the current bill, and the funny thing is, everybody involved in the drafting and passage of the bill seems to recognize its shortcomings. Gov. J.B. Pritzker says he will sign the bill into law even while admitting that he favored a smaller board. 

Veteran progressive political activist Miguel del Valle, the current president of the Chicago Board of Education, said he’d campaigned publicly for an elected school board for a decade but couldn’t support a 21-person body. “We can’t have a school board that is twice as large as the largest elected school board in the country. Down the road, I could see dysfunction, stalemates, all kinds of issues."

Rep. Bob Rita voiced what some lawmakers were thinking: 

“I’m hoping that we’re not going to go forward and that this is going to be something that, down the line, we’re going to say our intentions were right and we did it wrong."

Lightfoot still sees "a path forward” after sponsor Rep. Delia Ramirez put a hold on the measure. Her procedural move temporarily prevents the bill from going to Gov. Pritzker’s desk, protects it from meddling opponents, and allows Lightfoot some time to talk with lawmakers about her concerns. 

House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch says the bill could be on hold for a few weeks while the mayor works with lawmakers.

So why was there such a rush to pass it in its current dismal form? The answer, in short, is that the bill was originally drafted by the mayor's sworn political enemies like State Rep. Rob Martwick and the leaders of the CTU, who have never gotten over Lightfoot's landslide election victory over their chosen candidate, Toni Prechwinkle. For them, the important thing was dealing a political blow to the mayor. 

Reporters are referring to the bill's passage as "a defeat for the mayor." I don't see it that way. In the end, the bill will be the result of a compromise. The perception of the bill as being mainly a political football, rather than a benefit for the schools, speaks for itself. But no bill is going to succeed without negotiations and compromises with the mayor. 

The mayor's opponents may be jumping for joy right now, but I'm not. 

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