New momentum for an elected school board

Gala M. Pierce reports on an activist effort in Chicago to win an elected school board.

Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale at a board meetingChicago Board of Education President David Vitale at a board meeting

THE MESSAGE is clear: Residents of Chicago want more democracy when it comes to the public schools.

Activists for public education in Chicago campaigned this fall to get a referendum on the ballot for voters to choose between an elected school board or the current set-up, where board members are selected by Mayor Rahm "1 percent" Emanel.

Though the question was only voted on in a minority of precincts around the city, where it appeared on the ballot, the elected board was approved by 85 percent of voters, according to a WBEZ news report.

Supporters of the elected school board say this turnout has bolstered their campaign. "The quest to get some democracy on the school board in the city is not a sprint--it's a marathon," said Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, who was the main speaker at the kickoff event for the campaign in June. . "It's a race to demonstrate the people's will."

The initiative's supporters say an elected board would consider the interests of Chicago Public Schools employees, as well as the people and communities who are affected by actions such as school closings and turnarounds.

In the long-term, the elected school board struggle is part of the struggle for public education. "The bigger issue is the move to privatize our public schools," said Parents 4 Teachers member Erica Clark, a mother of two CPS students, including a daughter who recently graduated and a son who is a sophomore at Jones College Prep. "We need to put the public back in public education, and the only way to do that is with an elected school board. They don't listen because they aren't fundamentally committed to public education."

The nonbinding referendum appeared on ballots in 16 percent of the more than 2,000 precincts in Chicago--and in 35 of the city's 50 wards, from the 9th Ward on the far southwest side near Dolton to the 27th Ward on the near north side and the 41st Ward on the far northwest side.

The measure only got that far because of the commitment of volunteers who during eight weeks in the summer canvassed neighborhoods and collected signatures from at least 8 percent of registered voters in each precinct. In most cases, volunteers collected double that.

Groups such as KOCO, Parents 4 Teachers, Albany Park Neighborhood Council and Teachers for Social Justice came together for a coalition they called Communities Organized for Democracy in Education (CODE). Other organizations that took part in the campaign include People for Community Recovery, Raise Your Hand Coalition, Enlace, COFI or Community Organizing and Family Issues, PURE or Parents United for Responsible Education and 19th Ward Parents. The coalition is made up of parents, activists, retired teachers and members of the Chicago Teachers Union.

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CODE MEMBERS chose the arduous precinct route early on because it was the only way to ensure that the referendum wouldn't be kicked off the ballot, which is what happened when another coalition, led by Dr. Carmen Palmer and retired educators, attempted a citywide referendum.

"They only allow three citywide ballot initiatives," Clark said. "We knew [getting pushed off the ballot] could happen no matter what, so we decided to do the precinct-by-precinct route. Then, 10 aldermen tried to get it in their wards, but that was blocked also, so we were left with no options. It was very labor-intensive, a very difficult path, but we were able to collect 10,000 signatures. It was a great accomplishment."

On its website, CODE cites research to support the proposal. The appointed school board isn't the norm; Chicago is the only municipality in the state with an appointed school board; and appointed school boards exist in only 4 percent of U.S. school districts nationwide. The report also says an appointed board hasn't been shown to increase student achievement.

University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Pauline Lipman--of Teachers for Social Justice and one of the researchers of the study--talked about the board's "effectiveness" at an October 23 town hall meeting in favor of an elected school board. "If you look at this mayor-appointed board since 1995, the results have been disastrous," Lipman said. "There has been very little improvement in graduation rates, in dropout rates, in academic achievement, even as the board measures it, and the racial gaps have increased."

Moreover, the cycle of destabilizing schools, then disinvestment, followed by failure and closure is devastating. "These schools are anchors in these communities," Lipman said. "When you close a school, you destroy a community."

Brown also said that youth violence has skyrocketed, and there is a two-tiered school system: "Schools in some neighborhoods are well-resourced and have rich, vibrant curriculums, and in other schools, they rob Peter to pay Paul," he said. "All of this happened and has gotten worse under mayoral control."

As the coalition's name implies, CODE banded together to win more democracy in CPS education-related decisions. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who also was a panelist at the October town hall, talked about the lack of democracy under the current setup.

Not only is the board appointed, it doesn't listen to residents. People have to sign in two hours early for a downtown Wednesday morning board meeting to get the chance to speak for two minutes. Employees of the district have to take the day off with no pay. This is in contrast to most elected boards, which meet in the evening in the communities that are affected, set up task forces and host a series of public hearings for community input.

The five-member current board--made up of CEOs, bankers and real estate developers--is making decisions regarding schools they never set foot in, and without considering the views of residents who speak at public hearings. It's akin to making decisions in an air-conditioned ivory tower, Lewis said. "We feel that an elected school board is not only a step in the direction of accountability, but ultimately a better form of democracy," Lewis said.

Will Guzzardi, a former state senate candidate who moderated the town hall, noted that CODE is drafting legislation and will lobby state representatives and senators to change the law since the advisory referendum is merely an expression of the public's support of an elected school board.

"I don't think it's a cure-all," Guzzardi said at that forum. "I don't think anyone here would say that it is, but I think it's a vital first step toward having leadership in our schools that's more responsive to what our community really wants and ultimately having a school system that serves every child equally fairly, a school system that cares about children in every neighborhood."