Candidates for mayor are split on returning school board control to voters
More than 20 years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley secured the power to hand-pick who sits on the Chicago Board of Education. Ever since, whether to establish an elected school board has been an ongoing political dispute, one that has intensified amid unpopular decisions by Daley and his successor, Rahm Emanuel, such as charter school expansion and mass school closings.
With Emanuel’s decision to not seek reelection, the school board is becoming a political litmus test, and candidates are staking out their positions early.
Chalkbeat Chicago reviewed and compiled candidates’ stances on the elected school board question.
Thirteen of the 15 candidates responded to our inquiries or released statements about whether they would support an elected school board, which would require a change to state law. And while the majority said they support an elected board outright, two of the candidates who’ve raised the most cash in the race so far — Bill Daley and Gery Chico — each described visions of a “hybrid” school board whose majority would be appointed by the mayor, while community members would select the remainder.
It’s unclear how much power community members would actually have under a hybrid model. Some critics fear the mayor’s appointees would function as a bloc or allow the mayor too much sway over the board, undermining democratic choice.
But it’s important to note: Researchers lack consensus about whether elected school boards or mayoral control results in better fiscal management and student performance. Many factors affect those outcomes, like student demographics, funding levels and quality of leadership at schools, districts and in city and state government. But, as noted in this 2016 analysis of school governance systems by Pew Charitable Trusts, “there is broad agreement on at least one conclusion:
“Governance systems that produce uncertainty, distrust and ambiguous accountability can impede districts’ progress on any front,” regardless of how they are constituted.”
Here’s a closer look at where the mayoral candidates stand.
‘Hybrid’ elected school board supporters
Five candidates support creating a school board with some members appointed by the mayor and the rest chosen by community members.
This camp includes candidates with ties to former Mayor Daley: his former budget director and schools chief Paul Vallas; Daley’s first board appointee Chico; and Daley’s brother Bill Daley, who, like Emanuel, once was chief of staff to former President Barack Obama.
In December, Bill Daley proposed a sevenmember school board with four members, including the board president, appointed by the mayor, while three board members would be recommended by Local School Councils.
“CPS has taken steps in the right direction under mayoral accountability, including rising graduation rates,” Daley said in the statement. “Removing mayoral accountability would result in multimillion-dollar politicized elections and risk derailing tentative progress at a time when we need to take big, bold steps for the future of our kids.”
When Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza appeared at a breakfast for the City Club of Chicago, whose membership includes business and civic leaders, she characterized a fully elected school board as “just plain bad policy.”
“A purely elected school board, that leaves the mayor out and lets the mayor, frankly, off the hook,” said Mendoza, who served as a campaign surrogate on Emanuel’s 2015 reelection bid. “And we need more accountability from the mayor, not less.”
Similarly, Chico’s platform proposed “a hybrid elected-appointed school board,” where the majority of members would be appointed by the mayor, “so that the mayor is held accountable for the educational outcomes of the district throughout the city.”
Former police chief Garry McCarthy, who was both hired and fired by Emanuel, supports “a partially elected school board where three members are elected by neighborhood voters and three are appointed by the mayor,” according to his website.
Vallas proposed “a hybrid elected and appointed school board” with nine members, according to a statement. Four would be elected by the community and five appointed by the mayor, including the chairperson. Vallas promised one of his appointees would be recommended by the disability community.
The pledge comes amid a state takeover of the district’s special education program, which was found to be denying and delaying student services. Vallas also pledged to appoint a board member recommended by the Chicago Teachers Union, which is endorsing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the mayor’s race.
Fully elected school board supporters
Those who support a fully elected school board are, Amara Enyia, Bob Fioretti, La Shawn K. Ford, Jerry Joyce, Lori Lightfoot, Preckwinkle, Neal Sales-Griffin and Willie Wilson.
Preckwinkle, one of the most visible mayoral candidates and backed by major unions, blasted the school board’s 23 years of mayoral control.
In a statement outlining her education platform, she alleged mayoral appointees have failed Chicago in various ways, from skipped pension payments to no-bid contracts, “and presided over multiple scandalplagued administrations” at Chicago Public Schools. Like other supporters of an elected school board, she argued that an elected body will be more accountable to residents rather than to special interests or the mayor.
In 2015, Chicagoans voted overwhelmingly in favor of an elected school board, via a nonbinding referendum. Since then, the state legislature has sought several times to return the board to voter control, but those attempts sputtered amid opposition from school officials, Emanuel and outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Fioretti, a former alderman, maintains that elected school boards empower and return control to people. Every other school district in Illinois has one, Fioretti said, and denying Chicago theirs “was part of a grand scheme by a Daley in the first place,” referring to the 1995 state law backed by former Mayor Daley that granted him power over the school board.
Enyia, a policy consultant and organizer endorsed by Chance the Rapper, backs an elected school board for many of the same reasons other candidates mentioned — that it’s a fairer, democratic process, that the current board lacks transparency and that an elected board is more likely to follow the will of the people.
She recalled the contentious school closings in 2013 and multiple district scandals: the district’s mishandling of student sexual abuse cases, delays and denials of services to students with disabilities, and school leaders implicated for corruption or ethics violations. However, “some people have the sense that [an elected school board] will solve all the city’s problems, and it will not,” she said.
“But what it’s responding to is the lack of responsiveness and accountability parents sense from the board.”