The Battle for an Elected School Board

This column originally appeared in the "Chicago Journal."

On July 23, 10 aldermen tried to help some educational reform groups. They wanted to get a non-binding referendum on the upcoming November 6 ballot in which voters would be asked whether Chicago should switch to an elected school board.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th), chairman of the City Council's Committee on Human Relations, ruled that this legislation was submitted three minutes too late to allow the vote.

Since then the two organizations, Raise Your Hand and Communities Organized for Democracy in Education, have submitted petitions separately to the Board of Elections to put the question on the ballot in some wards.

Leaving aside the battle to get the referendum on the ballot in the first place, the greater issue is whether having an elected school board is a good idea.

As Moore wrote to Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, "It's no secret the idea of an elected school board is an anathema to the mayor." It would certainly be a political embarrassment for the mayor to have the voters repudiate his ironclad control over school policy.

Yet every other local school board in Illinois is elected, and those elections can be vigorous when citizens and parents are upset with local school policies.

In America, we treasure representative democracy as a way to solve policy questions. However, if all were well with the Chicago Public Schools and parents and citizens were happy with them, there would be no sudden interest in an elected school board. It is a way to express opposition to Mayor Emanuel's total control, gang violence in and near the schools, low test scores and high school graduates who require extensive remedial coursework in order to make it in community colleges or universities.

In a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times published Aug. 1, two University of Illinois at Chicago faculty members give reasons to support an elected school board. Research supports parent and community involvement as essential to improve schools. Democratic, public accountability is a necessary precondition for school transformation. And 17 years of mayoral control since 1995 haven't yielded much improvement in test scores while the racial gaps in achievement have increased.

An elected school board would get the voice of citizens between the near dictatorial control of Mayor Emanuel and opposition by the Chicago Teacher's Union. We citizens pay for the school system and we parents depend upon the system to educate our children. We should have a voice separate from the mayor's that can provide a check and balance to both the mayor and the union.

However, there are problems. First, if we held school board elections citywide rather than by district, we could end up with racial imbalance. Ninety percent of the students in the system are black and Hispanic but most of the elected board could be white. Second, with more than 600 schools to supervise, it is unclear how much any school board -- appointed or elected -- can do to really govern the system. Third, when we had elections of other local agencies like Model Cities, the political machine controlled the outcome in order to control the patronage jobs. The Democratic Party could control the outcome of school board elections as well.

David Vitale, president of the current school board, points out in his Sun-Times op-ed from Aug. 8 that the current appointed board regarding the longer school day was able to "achieve an outcome that not only met the mayor's objective, but one that the vast majority of our constituencies could agree with. We collectively proved that we could put the interest of Chicago's children ahead of the self-interest of adults." In short, the appointed board is doing just fine.

My conclusion: Even though it isn't a panacea, we should move to an elected school board. Therefore, if the referendum gets on the ballot in your ward, vote for it. If it doesn't, push your state legislators to change the law in Springfield. More democratic control is better than none.

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