Elected school board bill to get a renewed push in the Illinois legislature

Backers of a bill that would establish a 21-member Chicago school board say they are building momentum again, this time in the Illinois Senate. 

If the bill passes the legislature, Chicago could hold school board elections starting in 2023. 

The bill has supporters, including Illinois Sen. Robert Martwick, a Democrat who represents Chicago’s Northwest Side and some adjacent suburbs. But it has had its share of detractors, too, who say that a 21-person board would dwarf that of any other major urban school district’s governing body and would be too large to govern effectively. 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who currently appoints the school board, opposed the bill last year. Speaking with reporters Tuesday in Springfield, she said she briefly discussed the bill with Martwick during her visit to the Capitol and agreed to meet “at another time” to discuss it further. 

The Senate’s new president, Don Harmon, a Democrat whose district stretches west from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood to suburban Addison, has supported elected school board bills in the past, according to his spokesperson, John Patterson, but has not yet taken a stand on this particular bill.

“He looks forward to having a discussion with Senator Martwick and the rest of the [senate] caucus to move it forward,” Patterson said. 

Martwick introduced the bill as a member of the House of Representatives last spring. Now as a senator he is the lead sponsor of the bill, which has yet to be assigned to a committee. 

Among the country’s largest school districts, school boards tend to range from seven to nine members.   

In Los Angeles Unified and the Las Vegas-area Clark County, Nevada, voters elect seven school board members each representing a geographical district. 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-member board that oversees contracts, school closures, and other policy changes.

In Boston and Philadelphia, the mayors also appoint a board from a list of recommendations from a citizens nominating panel. Boston has seven members, plus a student representative. Philadelphia has nine.

Elected school boards exist in 90% of school districts across the country, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study. That includes the other 852 districts in Illinois. 

Martwick’s bill would divide Chicago into 20 districts, each with an elected representative, with a citywide elected president. The first election would be held in 2023, following the cycle of municipal elections.

Although advocates have pushed for decades for an elected school board, they have gained legislative traction recently. In 2017 the House and Senate passed a bill to create an elected Chicago board, but then-governor Bruce Rauner vetoed it. Martwick’s bill, introduced last spring passed with 110 votes in the House before it stalled in the Senate. 

The issue cropped up in Chicago’s last mayoral race, with the two candidates who entered the runoff, Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, each pledging support for an elected board. 

Supporters of the movement, like Martwick and the Chicago Teachers Union, say that an elected board would be more accountable to residents and would give voters more say in what happens in their schools. 

“This is something that we’re all promised in democracy,” Martwick said, “that you get a say when there is a government entity that has a huge impact on your life and whether you have kids in that school or not, the performance of your schools affects every aspect of your life.”

He added that he’s open to debating the size of the board.

Critics of creating an elected school board have said it diffuses accountability and it wouldn’t accurately represent Chicago’s diverse population. There are also concerns it would be influenced by outside money from powerful education groups such as the teachers union and charter proponents.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” schools chief Janice Jackson warned during a panel appearance last year at the University of Chicago. “It has to be done in a thoughtful way, and we have to get at what the ultimate goal is, which is more transparency and involvement from the community,” she said. The risk, she added, is “expensive elections that don’t benefit students” and a board controlled by private interests that creates more bureaucracy.

Dick Simpson, a former alderman who backed Lightfoot in the mayoral election, said he thinks the legislature needs to hold a vigorous debate. 

“The general idea of an elected school board is a good idea but whether this is the ideal form and structure is up to the legislature,” Simpson said. “A lot of the issues are in the details. How would it be put together?”

Simpson noted that the average school board has much fewer than 21 members, but said that elections for larger districts could become expensive and run the risk of candidates becoming bankrolled by political parties or the teachers union.

“The board would work better with nine,” Simpson said. “The city council should be larger but for the school board I think there’s enough experiences around the country that we should stay with the best practice we can find.”

Illinois state Representative Will Guzzardi, a Northwest Side Chicago Democrat, who advocated for the bill in the House, said the ball now lies in the Senate’s court. He said he believes there is enough momentum in the Senate and the general public for it to pass. 

“From my perspective, we’ve done our job in the house,” Guzzardi said. “We passed a good, solid bill and we’ll leave it to the Senate to see what they can come up with and if they can get it passed.”

Representative Kam Buckner, a Chicago Democrat whose district encompasses parts of downtown and the Southeast Side, filed a different bill last month in the House to meet the deadline for new legislation, his spokeswoman Dulana Reese said. He submitted the bill, which outlines a similar 21-person board, in case Martwick’s bill fails to pass the Senate.  

Hannah Meisel of The Daily Line contributed reporting.