With the watershed news of the HB 2908 passing the Illinois House and Senate, Chicago Public Schools are on the way to a bitterly fought-for fully elected school board. Education activists, teachers, and parents have been pushing for an elected school board in Chicago for decades, and the win is a sign of power redistribution in Springfield and City Hall, as well as a testament to the tireless work of the Chicago Teachers Union.
HB 2908 introduces the elected school board gradually, with half of the board running for election in the 2023 primary elections for a four-year term beginning in 2024. The other half of the board will run in 2027, for another four-year term. It also includes a moratorium on school closings until the new partially elected school board takes office in 2025.
The Mayor will get to continue picking the School Board President, but the choice will now need to be confirmed by the full City Council, adding another layer of democratic checkpoints to the process.
Advocates hope that an elected school board will democratize the formerly inscrutable decision-making at the heart of CPS, and allow for more equitable funding models to be put into place, evening the playing board when it comes to school resourcing.
How Chicagoans Lost All Control Of CPS And How It’s Hurt Our Students
Passed by the Illinois Legislature in 1995, the Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act got rid of the Elected School Superintendent who was in charge of CPS, and replaced the position with a CEO. The CEO would be appointed by the Mayor of Chicago, who also appointed the school board and CPS regional officials.
The CSRAA also allowed the Mayor to put any school they considered to be struggling on “probation”. If a school was on probation, the Mayor could fire all teachers, and staff, or even close the school at their will. This bill was Springfield’s gift to Mayor Daley, getting rid of any democratic control of CPS and consolidating the Mayor of Chicago’s power, all in a tidy legislative package. Chicago became the only school district of Illinois’ 892 to have an unelected school board.
The CSRAA was also part of a larger thrust when it comes to American public school policy, a movement towards corporate education reform. This collection of policies that works to commodify public education was eagerly championed by business interests and land developers in Chicago throughout the later Mayor Daley’s reign and the mayorship of Rahm Emmanuel.
In Chicago it’s led to the creation of uniform learning standards, expanding charter schools, slashing budgets, reducing job security for teachers, and basing assessments of teachers, schools, and students on standardized testing.
Decades of an unelected school board in Chicago have wreaked havoc on whole neighborhoods and communities. The 2013 school closings and the ten years of less high profile closings that proceeded them can be directly traced to the lack of democratic control.
Indeed, by many metrics segregation today is worse in CPS than it was in 1970, in the years before the federal Consent Decree that tried to legally force Chicago schools to integrate. The structure of CPS and the standardized evaluation mechanisms for schools and teachers means that the cycle of under resourcing, disinvestment, and under-performance is constantly renewed.
Educational segregation keeps white, black, and Latinx students apart, eroding the possibilities for a rich and multicultural educational experience. It also sticks non-white students with the burden of an underfunded and under resourced education, meaning that they have to work harder to reach the same benchmarks as their white counterparts. This vicious cycle needs interruption, and that’s what many hope this elected school board will be.
CTU’s Revival and The Changing Power Structures In Chicago Politics
The passage of HB 2908 seemed impossible even a decade ago, when the balance of political power in Chicago was stacked firmly in the Mayor’s favor. The fact that it seems a certainty now points to the ideological and structural changes in the Chicago Teachers Union and changes in the City Council and Springfield’s attitude towards the Mayor.
The mobilization and radicalization of CTU started in the late 2000s when school closures, turnarounds, and the rise of charter schools in Chicago was in full swing. After decades of a weak union and refusal to use collective power to bargain, rank and file teachers had had enough. Through grassroots organizing and education, the tide began to turn, culminating in the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike.
Thanks to the work of folks like the late Karen Lewis and current CTU president Jesse Sharkey, teachers unions in this city and across the country have been reminded of their power, tools, and ability to strike when their bargaining demands are being ignored. They’ve worked tirelessly to bring the issue of the school board to the forefront of policy and discourse when it comes to CPS.
In a June 18th press statement, CTU said, “[HB 2908] is the culmination of a generation of work by parents, rank-and-file educators and activists, who recognized the shortcomings of mayoral control of our schools and demanded better for our children. This is their legacy. This is Karen’s legacy.”
Relationships are changing in the City Council and Springfield as well. Usually known as a rubber stamp city, where policy passes through without a second glance from aldermen, the new generation of progressives have been exerting pressure on Mayor Lightfoot. In Springfield, Governor Pritzker and the Legislature also seem less beholden to the Mayor, going against her in public statements, and passing bills she has come out against.
Chicago, generally seen as a city with singularly mayoral control, has a changing political landscape to contend with, one where citizens, parents, legislators, and union members have much more of a say. We can only hope that this trend holds through the 2023 elections, and leaves us with a Mayor who is more friendly to educators and public education.
Why Democratizing CPS Is Our Only Hope
Chicago is the only school district in the state and one of the few in the country to have a non elected school board, a trait shared with other majority nonwhite school districts in major cities. The repercussions have been severe: the closure of majority nonwhite schools, the firing of over half of the city’s black teachers, and allowing the city’s funding to be stacked in favor of magnet schools on the Northside.
A fully elected school board obviously won’t be able to turn back the clock on any of these decisions, but they’ll be able to make future choices more equitable and make reparations to underfunded and overburdened schools.
With large public school districts all around the country being run into the ground, and then slowly privatized, democratic control of CPS is an existential issue. The Mayor-appointed school boards have always been dominated by people with a vested interest in real estate, development, and charter schools. They’ve been hollowing out schools on the Southside and Westside, closing them, and allowing charter schools to move in.
To preserve a strong public school system that works for kids from all parts of the city, regular parents, citizens, and teachers must have a say in policy, funding, and staffing CPS schools.