City Council education chair promises more public meetings, increased involvement in Chicago schools

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is intent on shaking up key leadership in Chicago’s City Council — appointing an education committee chair who promises to be more hands-on than his predecessor.

Under the previous mayor, the committee weighed in on the city’s school system only infrequently. But the new chair, Michael Scott Jr., a West Side alderman, told Chalkbeat he wants to take a more active role in district oversight. Among the ways he plans to deliver on that promise: more frequent committee meetings — and more pressure on district leadership to be there to answer questions from city officials and the public.

“It will be almost like a board meeting,” he said, “but more informational.”

Scott, whose 24th Ward includes parts of the North Lawndale, Austin, and West Garfield Park communities, said he’s met with Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and her counterpart in the city’s community college system. They discussed his vision for the education committee and how he can bring more attention to the successes — and shortcomings — of public education in Chicago, according to Scott.
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Scott, first elected in 2015, replaces Alderman Howard Brookins as education committee chair. He is a district graduate and has three children at Chicago Public Schools. Scott’s father, Michael Scott Sr., did three stints on Chicago Board of Education from 1980 to 2009, serving twice as the body’s president, a title he held when he died a decade ago.

“I hope when everything is said and done that I’m able to affect change like he did,” Scott said.

Scott recently spoke with Chalkbeat about his new role and how City Hall, even without control over hiring, firing, budgets and decision-making at Chicago Public Schools, can take a more hands-on approach at the school district.

City Council doesn’t have legal power to make the school district do much, right?

We don’t. They have their own board. The board is appointed by the mayor. There’s not very much we can do. But people want to know what’s going on with their educational system, what issues are arising there, and if we bring them before council I’m sure we’ll get answers.

It is then up to us as a body, if their answers aren’t sufficient, to bring them back [to the committee]. Or the mayor that appoints the CEO and board, as of now, making sure that she gets those answers for us. (Editor’s note: Mayor Lightfoot has said she supports an elected school board.)

Why is the education committee taking a more active role now? In November, there was a committee meeting about the district’s sexual abuse scandal — six months after news of it broke — and schools chief Janice Jackson didn’t show up.

If the mayor is calling for more transparency and the mayor is the one who appoints the CEO, then I would suspect that the CEO would want to live up to the expectations put forth by the mayor.

How do you see the education committee’s role changing under your leadership?

In the short time that I’ve been in City Council, the education committee hasn’t met that often. I hope my role can be to advocate for issues that folks in the community are passionate about or want to get more information about, and be able to be that platform for Chicago Public Schools or City Colleges to get out that information.

You recently met with schools chief Janice Jackson. What issues did you tell her the education committee might want to bring more attention to?

Early education. Special education. Things around security in and around the schools, and school resource officers. Budgets, so folks know what money is being spent on what resources, and how effective CPS is [managing] those things. CPS partnerships with the city colleges and how to get more people into more four-year universities, and if not, into these two-year colleges and making sure once they do that they graduate.

What’s one issue you’d personally like to see addressed?

For me, the issue of where school resource officers are, and making sure that schools that really need them have them. There’s a big list of where they should be and they aren’t always there. In my ward, I have an area that is besieged by crime, and oftentimes we want to make sure that crime doesn’t filter over into the schools. I’m not saying it does all the time, but just in case.

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We want to know where those school resource officers are, where they should be, what budget are they coming out of, and are they doing the job that’s best for the school they are assigned to.

What about special education? The state has stepped in to deal with some problems with the district’s Diverse Learners program.

My baby has autism; he’s on the spectrum, so I’m really passionate about CPS’ Diverse Learners program. That is something you will hear me talk about.

Have you ever had any personal issues with getting services?

Not personally, because he’s at a therapeutic day school. So not at the moment, but I hear about issues people have had about getting their child in a program, and it hasn’t always been a pretty picture. If I can help in that area — for selfish reasons as well as making sure folks don’t go through that — I’d like to.