Socialist Involvement in Local School Councils and the September GCM

Socialist Involvement in Local School Councils and the September GCM

At the September general chapter meeting, members of Chicago DSA will vote on a proposal from the Electoral Working Group about whether we as a chapter should actively engage in the 2024 Local School Council (LSC) elections in Chicago. In preparation for this upcoming vote, we want to share a little about what LSCs are, and why we believe they are valuable spaces for organizing the working class. Additionally, we hope to provide our perspective as a working group on our proposal.

Local School Councils were created as part of a long history of activism and organizing in Chicago. Reform efforts stretching back to at least the 1960s aimed at desegregating Chicago schools and improving local control of schools resulted in the passage of the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988, which established Local School Councils in Chicago. These efforts were often spearheaded by organizers of color, including: the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (an organization which partnered with the Southern Christian Leadership Council to fight for Civil Rights), the Chicago Teachers Union (under the leadership of African American president Jacqueline Vaughn at the time of the act’s passage), and Harold Washington (who laid the groundwork for passage of the act during his mayoral terms). Although there isn’t space in this article to fully appreciate the history behind LSCs in Chicago, we have provided some links at the bottom of this article with additional information.

The result of their organizing effort and power-building is a nationally unique system of locally elected democratic bodies that exercise power at the level of individual schools. Each Local School Council consists of 13-17 members, depending on school type. The school’s principal chairs each Local School Council. Each LSC has six parent representatives that are elected by the parents of children in each school, as well as two community representatives, elected by residents of the school’s attendance boundary. LSCs wield real power and accountability in their schools. They perform an annual evaluation of the principal, make decisions on the retention and hiring of their school’s principal, develop and approve their school’s budget, and develop their school’s continuous improvement work plan. In 2020, Local School Councils were given the authority to decide whether their schools would retain an in-building police officer.

The schools that these councils hold authority over are key terrain in the socialist struggle in Chicago. Students, parents, teachers and community members have come to expect Chicago’s public schools to provide more than just a K-12 education. Schools provide meals (over 90% of students at many schools receive free or reduced lunch), medical and social care (although more can and should be done to improve this), and post-secondary support for graduates attending college or entering the workforce. For students with the greatest needs, special education programs provide education and care. Schools also provide services for students who are refugees or new immigrants (although these are also areas where more is needed). In their 2019 strike, CTU won increased support for students who are unhoused. To the extent that working people in Chicago have come to expect material support from their government, they have been more likely to receive that support from the school their child attends than from anywhere else.

Therefore, we have a unique opportunity to engage with local school councils as Democratic Socialists. These bodies are democratic assemblies that hold (limited) power in the distribution of material goods to Chicago’s working class. When members of a school’s LSC fail to exercise control through the local school council, either through failing to meet quorum or through carelessness in supervision, it can have real consequences for their school’s community. It is important for school principals to have democratic accountability for their work, for the budget they propose, and for ongoing school improvement.

On the other hand, when an empowered school community organizes and exercises control, there can be real action to remedy important problems. Throughout the height of the COVID pandemic, Local School Councils across the city served as a voice for parents and students to help exercise control over how their schools reopened. Parents, students, and teachers came together to raise money for lead paint remediation at a Bridgeport school. At a school in Pilsen, DSA members have been working with the school’s LSC to advocate for the school to receive solar panels, as well as to expand options for public participation in LSC meetings.

We are introducing a platform theme of “Green, Healthy Schools” for our 2024-2026 LSC work as part of our resolution. This theme builds on the “Green” enthusiasm evident around our active priority campaigns, as well as the “Green New Deal for Public Schools” concept that has been nascent over the past few years. We also believe it’s worth emphasizing “Healthy” as part of this campaign. Chicago public schools and students currently face acute health crises, both physical and mental, in the form of crumbling infrastructure, housing and food insecurity, and the failure of a profit-driven healthcare system (among others). We believe that through engagement with LSCs it is possible to build schools that care for students, staff, and its surrounding community in ways that build a green future for our world.

As a socialist, you can participate in Local School Council work in several different ways. This could start with simply attending the next meeting at your local school – Local School Council meetings are open to parent & community attendance. You could work to organize members of the school community to help build power for a change. Or, you could consider running for Local School Council yourself! LSC members serve 2-year terms and are provided with training during the first 6 months of their term.

As the Electoral Working Group, we bring this resolution to the September General Chapter Meeting for a number of reasons. First, we believe that LSCs are valuable organizing spaces, as shown in their history, as well as organizing work currently in progress. A number of the Electoral Working Group’s members are either actively participating in some form of LSC organizing or have done so in the past. Second, under chapter bylaws, chapter working groups need approval from the Executive Committee or from the chapter as a whole to engage in externally facing work or to access chapter member data. As part of the LSC proposal we are looking to potentially engage with political, labor, and neighborhood organizations for candidate recruitment and educational nonprofit orgs (such as Raise Your Hand) for training. We believe the chapter has a right and a responsibility to weigh in on this before we reach out to these other organizations. Finally, we think that it is valuable for the chapter to consider LSC work as part of our broader strategy. While the “Green, Healthy Schools” theme fits nicely with chapter priority campaigns, the chapter may vote that the time and effort which could be spent on LSC elections would be better directed to other areas. If the resolution does not pass, EWG would not actively recruit LSC candidates, but would consider for endorsement for any candidates who chose to apply, in accordance with our normal endorsement process as part of our bylaws established by the chapter.

We urge members of Chicago DSA to carefully consider the value of LSCs in the lead-up to the September GCM. We bring this resolution in September (more than six months before LSC elections) because we want to avoid uncertainty or wasted effort towards a campaign that the chapter does not view as valuable. When our chapter is united in our efforts, we can accomplish absolutely unbelievable things. If you believe LSCs are a strategic priority for the chapter and you want to be involved in helping to elect folks who will build the schools that Chicago’s children deserve, we ask you to vote yes and join our campaign!

Further reading on Local School Councils: