Chicago is the only school district in the state that has an appointed school board. The policy was put in place under former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995.
But on Thursday, the Illinois House overwhelmingly passed a measure that would allow voters to elect a 21-member school board. If passed by the Illinois Senate and signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the law would go into effect in 2023.
The sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Robert Martwick (D-Chicago) said many organizations have pushed for the change. “These groups have demanded democracy,” he said on the House floor before the bill was called. “There shall be no taxation without representation.”
House lawmakers voted 110-2 in support of the bill. But there is debate over whether the state Senate will vote on that bill or another with input from Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot who heads to Springfield this week.
Lightfoot told WBEZ that Martwick’s bill is a non-starter because a 21-member board would be “unwieldy.”
One of the biggest advocates for an elected school board is the Chicago Teachers Union, which supported Toni Preckwinkle in the mayoral runoff election.
In a statement issued after the House vote, the CTU said:
“This measure has long had the overwhelming support of the citizens of Chicago, and represents resistance to the austerity of neoliberals like Bruce Rauner and Rahm Emanuel, who worked hard to destroy schools in Black and Brown communities, fire Black and Brown teachers and defund our school district.”
Advocates like CTU say that an elected school board would not have permitted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close 50 schools in 2013 mostly on the city’s South and West Sides. They also argue that the scandal that enveloped former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett may have been prevented. She was convicted of taking kickbacks in return for a no-bid contract.
There are other sticking points in the current legislation including whether the Illinois legislature would draw the school district map; members would be elected from those geographic locations. Others suggest an independent body should draw the districts and some are advocating for the City Council to create the map.
Joining us for a discussion of the pros and cons of an elected school board: Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union; and Rufus Williams, former chair of the Chicago Board of Education who is now the president and CEO of BBF Family Services, formerly known as the Better Boys Foundation.