Aldermen push for city-wide referendum on elected school board
BY FRAN SPIELMAN AND ROSALIND ROSSI Staff Reporters November 8, 2012 Chicago Sun Times
Independent Chicago aldermen vowed Thursday to push for a citywide referendum on an elected school board opposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, emboldened by 86 percent support from voters in parts of 35 wards.
Despite a parliamentary maneuver by a mayoral ally that blocked referenda in 10 Chicago wards, education activists in 327 precincts went door-to-door to gather the signatures needed to put the elected school board question on the ballot. The results were overwhelming. By an 86.6 percent margin, 65,763 Chicagoans said they would prefer an elected school board to the current system of seven mayoral appointees confirmed by the City Council.
Chicago has the only school district in the state that does not have an elected school board.
Only the state General Assembly could make the switch to an elected board. But, overwhelming approval of a citywide referendum would give momentum to the grass-roots movement by voters fed up with the “top-down” decisions made by Emanuel’s handpicked Board of Education.
“What happened this cycle is like a focus group. Out of upwards of 2,500 precincts in Chicago, it was only on the ballot in 327 precincts. With 327 precincts voting overwhelmingly in support of the elected school board, it’s clear we need a citywide referendum” in March, 2014, said Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd).
“People want transparency. People want accountability. People want to have input into how their schools are run and administered. This is a key issue on how to get neighborhoods involved in their schools.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) attributed the 86 percent vote to “anger and animosity” generated by the teachers strike and to the parliamentary maneuver that forced proponents to go door-to-door.
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Eighty-seven percent of the 65,763 Chicago voters who weighed in on the matter said ‘yes’ to a non-binding referendum on whether the city should have an elected, instead of mayor-appointed, school board.
An effort by the city council’s progressive caucus this summer, with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union, to get the referendum on ballots across the city failed. So only voters in select polling precincts were asked to consider the measure.
“Can you imagine the whole city of Chicago saying the same thing and the momentum that would have rolled from that,” asked Stacey Davis Gates, legislative policy director for CTU.
But even a citywide referendum would have been purely symbolic because, like so much else that governs the Chicago Public Schools, the selection of school board members is a matter of state, not city, law.
With that in mind, State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago) has introduced legislation that would create a task force to study how to best select school board members.
“We have to collect data and all the information on what is best for the students of Chicago and not just do an elected school board because you are upset with the outcome of this school board,” Ford says.
Ford anticipates that “most likely” he will try to get the measure through the state legislature when the newly configured General Assembly convenes in January.
The idea of a task force to study the measure may sound like the blandest of ideas.
But the truth is that there has been little scrutiny of what is more effective – a politically-appointed or popularly-elected school board. A study last year by two University of Illinois Chicago professors that CTU partly commissioned, and that advocated for an elected school board, even acknowledged that nationwide evidence is “limited and inconclusive” on how to best pick the board.
About 96 percent of school boards across the country are elected, according to the UIC study. However, Chicago has had an appointed school board for the city’s entire existence “from before the city of Chicago was incorporated and in fact before Illinois became a state,” notes Rod Estvan, education policy analyst for the Chicago-based disability rights groups Access Living.
Prior to a 1995 state law, the city council appointed the school board. The landmark state education legislation empowered the mayor to appoint the head of CPS and its school board. The idea then, as it is now, is that there is more accountability in the system if Chicago’s high-profile mayor must ultimately take the credit or blame for the schools. (Messages to CPS were not returned by a late afternoon deadline).
According to a 1995 article in Catalyst Chicago, the teachers union at the time went along with switching appointment powers to the mayor. But since December 2010, CTU has called for an elected school board.
Gates of CTU argues that, “I don’t even think that’s an issue” that there is not well-documented evidence that an elected urban school board performs better.
“The issue is not to prove it,” Gates says. “The issue is these are my children and I need my say.”
In the run-up to the referendum, the call for an elected school board, by both CTU and neighborhood groups, increasingly focused on possible plans from CPS to close 80 to 120 neighborhood schools. The school board must sign off on any school closings proposed by the CPS Chief Executive Officer.
“People are sick of policymakers who don’t live in their neighborhoods and aren’t impacted by the school actions that they do,” Gates says.
Ford agrees, elected school board or not, there could be a lot more community involvement from the current board.
“They should have school board meetings in communities,” says the West Side Chicago lawmaker. “And the school board meetings are held during the time parents are at work.”
Board of Education meetings typically take place at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays, once a month, and always happen at downtown CPS headquarters.