Pressure mounts on Lori Lightfoot to support elected school board bill

Chicago Mayor-Elect Lori Lightfoot is still a week from inauguration day, but with Illinois’ spring legislative session winding down, lawmakers are already pressing her to support a state bill that would create an elected school board in Chicago.

Lightfoot pledged during her campaign to support an elected school board. But she has described the current proposal, which calls for a school board consisting of 20 board members representing as many districts, plus a president, as a “recipe for disaster and chaos” because of its size.

The measure passed the Illinois House in April but has yet to make its way through the state Senate amid Lightfoot’s reticence, according to the office of State Senate President John Cullerton.

“The mayor-elect did ask the Senate president to hold onto the bill so she can look into the issue more, so that’s the current status of the bill,” Cullerton’s spokesman, John Patterson, said Monday evening.

Earlier in the day, supporters of an elected school board gathered downtown to call on Lightfoot to back the bill. Among those at the rally were parent and community groups, representatives from the Chicago Teachers Union, local lawmakers and newly elected Chicago aldermen who promised to take on a bigger role overseeing the city’s public schools. Those in attendance emphasized that Chicago voters in 2015 overwhelmingly supported an elected school board in a non-binding referendum.

“The people have spoken, and it’s time for us to have the representation we need,” said Jeanette Taylor, alderman-elect in the 20th Ward. “We need everyday folks on the board who come from our communities, who can advocate and who will go back.”

At the rally Taylor and others blasted the proliferation of charter schools and the closing of neighborhood schools under the current seven-person board, whose members were appointed by outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She also cited a litany of district scandals in recent years, from risky bond deals and kickback schemes, to allegedly mishandled cases of student sexual abuse and systemic special education neglect.

The current proposal for a 21-person board that would go into effect in 2023 passed the state House in April, but faces an uphill climb in the Senate. The state legislative session ends on May 31.

Some defenders of the status quo, including former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, have aired concerns that special interests and dark money could come to dominate school board elections. (Duncan went on to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama.) Current schools chief Janice Jackson said at a panel last month that if a single mom from Englewood can win an election, “sign me up.” But, she warned, “you could end up with expensive elections that don’t benefit students” and a board controlled by private interests that creates more bureaucracy.

State Rep. Robert Martwick (D-Chicago), who introduced the bill, said the sheer size of his proposed board would help address them in lieu of campaign finance reform.

“The way to limit the influence of outside money is to make more districts and have them be smaller so that grassroots organizing and involvement in the community is more important than money,” Martwick said.

A 21-person elected school board would dwarf those of other large urban districts. Among the top five school districts, two urban centers — Los Angeles Unified and the Las Vegas-area Clark County, Nevada — each have seven-person elected school boards that represent seven geographical districts. A nine-person elected board oversees Miami-Dade County Public Schools. In New York City, the nation’s largest district, the mayor controls the public schools and appoints the majority of a 13-person board that oversees contracts, school closures, and other policy changes.

Another supporter of the proposal, Alderman-Elect Andre Vasquez of the 40th Ward, spoke in favor of the bill Tuesday. But expressed concerns that an elected school board might exclude immigrants and undocumented residents who can’t vote. The city, he said, should also consider ways to ensure their voices are heard.

“We need the voices of immigrant families and undocumented folk at the table,” he said.

As for the timing, Taylor acknowledged that Lightfoot might need some time to weigh all these issues and others. However, dragging her feet could hold consequences for the mayor-elect, Taylor warned.

“She has four years in her term like everybody else,” Taylor said. “Chicago will make her answer.”