I’m stepping down from the Chicago Board of Education. With change coming, some thoughts on its future.

I hope future boards will focus on student outcomes and make hard but necessary choices about buildings and budgets.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

When I was appointed to the Chicago Board of Education in June 2019, I knew my prior experiences — as a teacher, a Chicago Public Schools employee, an educator collaborating with over 30 districts, a CPS parent, and a member of a Local School Council — still might not prepare me for the duties of effectively governing our large and complex district. What I didn’t know was what awaited us in the months and years to come, including a global pandemic.

The heroic efforts of educators and district leadership have kept our district running, and we’ve even made progress in some important areas. CPS launched its equity framework. The Office of Safety & Security reimagined an approach to whole school safety. The board livestreamed and recorded its meetings, and opened new and revised policies to public comment. We’ve engaged community members to inform policy on school programming, funding, and accountability.

Sendhil Revuluri (Courtesy photo)

Today is my final board meeting. As I step away from the toughest and most rewarding volunteer role I’ve ever held, I want to share some reflections I have about the changes and challenges our district has in store.

Our educators focus on student learning outcomes. Our school board should, too.

School systems exist to improve student outcomes. Having great buildings, happy parents, balanced budgets, or satisfied teachers are incredibly important and valuable. But they are the means, not the ends.

Over the last few years, my fellow school board members and I have committed many, many hours to the role, far beyond those visible in public, holding office hours, attending events, visiting schools, talking with stakeholders. But the current reality is that much of our time, attention, and energy is spent not on student outcomes — what matters most to our students and their families — but on the methods used to get there.

Our educators focus on our students to guide their practice. But in some of our most contentious board discussions, on topics such as school reopening, COVID mitigation, or the role of School Resource Officers, the loudest voices often centered adult interests, values, or concerns.

The school board should represent the voice of our community.

Our role as a board is to represent the vision and values of the community. Our main duty as a board is to listen to the community, form a coherent vision, then set, resource, and monitor focused goals that advance that vision.

So while discussions and decisions about effective methods are essential, they’re not our job as a board, but the domain of district leadership. For example, if we hear our community say “it is important that our students read well,” our role is to set a clear goal about student literacy outcomes. What approach or curriculum to use, selecting staff, and so on — that’s the responsibility of district leadership. Then the board must monitor the progress toward that goal.

Our community has varied ideas about which student outcomes matter most, and which means should be used to achieve them. As board members, we have different experiences, opinions, and priorities. We may not agree on everything, including which student outcomes are the most important. As a fellow board member once told me, “if we all agree, then some of us are superfluous.” But when we find areas of broad agreement, we will know where to set our goals.

Whoever is on the board, however they’re selected, what matters most is how they work.

Many Chicagoans have (and have shared) strong opinions about how board members are selected. These discussions often focus on beliefs about what is more democratic, but it’s far less frequent that people ask what will most benefit student outcomes. I believe that the composition of the school board or the method of its selection is far less important than whether it is governing effectively.

Advocates of an elected board have embraced democracy and argued for parity with other Illinois school districts. One can agree with them on these beliefs — as I do — and yet push further, to ensure that the board, however it is selected, governs the district in a way that delivers educational experiences that work better for all of our students.

This is especially crucial right now. Recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that our students’ current achievement has been set back by the multiple effects of the pandemic. We must ensure this unfinished learning does not lead to a loss of future opportunity, especially given the challenges many of our students face accessing post-secondary education.

Our students need us to govern effectively, and there are tangible, evidence-based, and feasible steps to move in this direction. The steps are both well-defined and adaptable to local context, and with commitment and focus, can be accomplished in six months or less. We owe it to our students not to be distracted from these steps toward effectiveness by political preference, power dynamics, or adult needs.

Just as a classroom teacher assesses their students’ learning, the school board and the public will be able to see and monitor progress towards these outcomes in the whole district, allowing for adjustment and improvement along the way to deliver our students what they deserve.

We must ensure that board members, regardless of the selection process, are informed about their role, and skilled in how to govern to get results for our students. They must be ready to listen to the community, set clear goals, and be held accountable for student outcomes.

And the community must engage on the desired results — and not just at election time. Whether appointed or elected, I hope future board members will be selected based on their commitment, focus, energy, and ability to keep student outcomes first and foremost, rather than the opinions they embrace, the allies they bring, or promises to adopt specific methods.

If we don’t face facts about our buildings and budget, we will shortchange our students.

Like many large urban districts, our student enrollment has changed significantly — including an almost 20% drop in the last decade. While it’s helpful to understand the reasons for this decline, I believe it’s most important to best serve the students who are enrolled in the district now.

That won’t be easy with a finite and inadequate budget, as measured by the evidence-based funding methodology adopted by the state of Illinois. Data compiled by the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University shows that in some schools we spend far more per student while providing neither strong learning outcomes nor the rich and broad experiences they deserve. Our budget is currently balanced, thanks to a once-in-a-generation infusion of federal COVID relief. But as a recent report shows, in just a few years, continuing to do what we’ve always done will lead to annual deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is a time to choose: between preserving features of how the district has worked in the past and ensuring that our students’ futures are secure. We can’t move our buildings, but we can choose policies and spending to give our students the best possible educational experience we can with the resources and population we have.

At some point, choices to keep our existing buildings, addresses, or school names will impede the quality of students’ educational experience and their learning outcomes. While those spaces may have value to a person or a community, we can’t put that in front of whether our students are safe, learning, and thriving. We must look forward to their future.

One key lever that CPS could apply is making budget projections more visible. This form of long-term financial planning is a best practice recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association and is used by both the City of Chicago, under the direction of both Mayor Emanuel and Mayor Lightfoot, and Cook County.

When each of our students may be with our district for 14 years, a long-term perspective is essential. We are in a car heading for a fiscal cliff. While turning the car off our well-traveled road may be a bit bumpy, the reality of our finite resources means that the only alternative to making changes now is to turn abruptly in several years — causing nausea or injury.

Our choices will determine how well we deliver what our students need and deserve.

Like any big event in our own lives — a graduation, a wedding, or the birth of a child — this moment of governance transition may bring stress, but it also brings the joy of possibility. This is another opportunity to deliver what our students need and deserve. But if we don’t face and accept our current reality, it will be hard for us to change it.

To change, to adapt, to grow is hard — so hard most people don’t even try. But we can do hard things. And we owe it to our students to do so. Their futures, especially those most vulnerable and who are currently furthest from opportunity, are in the balance.

Sendhil Revuluri is a parent of two CPS students, a former teacher, and has served as vice president of the Chicago Board of Education since June 2019. He is stepping down this month.