Wendy Katten, whose children attend Burley Elementary School, is a member of CODE --- Communities Organized for Democracy in Education -- a group working for an elected school board in Chicago. Katten talked to Ward Room about the issue, which will be on the ballot as an advisory referendum in over 300 precincts in the Nov. 6 election.
Give me some background on why Chicago is the only district in the state that doesn't have an elected school board.
Katten: We never have had an elected school board in Chicago. There was a nominating commission prior to mayoral control, where there were a group of LSC members and mayoral appointments who would make nominations, and then the mayor would choose, but there was never an election. It's kind of a myth when people say, "Well, we had it and it didn't work. We never, ever, ever had it."
When some aldermen tried to get this on the ballot in their wards, they couldn't because Joe Moore said their paperwork was a few minutes late. And one of the things he said was, "We don't need any more politics in Chicago." What's your reaction to that?
Katten: We did get in on the ballot. It's in 327 precincts. Those aldermen were trying to get it on for their whole ward. It couldn't be more political than what we have now, which is that the mayor gets to unilaterally appoint people. There's never been any dissension, debate. Other cities have a public debate on school policies, and a system of checks and balances. It's silly to even have this board because it's just a rubber stamp, although they do get to do things like raise taxes. It could bring in politics that the mayor doesn't agree with.
Do you think the teacher negotiations would have gone differently if we've had an elected school board?
Katten: If we had an elected school board and it was made up of a mix of stakeholders who are actually connected to our schools and some who potentially send their kids to the schools, then we would have different policies. We wouldn't have possible Rupert Murdoch as a vendor for CPS, and maybe we wouldn't have an office of assessment that's spending $300 million over testing, and maybe we would have things like reduced class size: things that people who have their kids in the school actually want.
Even if this passes in every precinct, isn't it just an advisory referendum?
Katten: The first step is just to gauge public opinion, and get information out. I didn't door knocking in 12 wards, and a lot of people didn't even know that the board isn't elected. If this were to change, it would have to be done in Springfield, so we're working on that, too, simultaneously, starting to meet with legislators.
Did the strike add any interest or energy to this cause?
Katten: I think so. I think a lot of people became aware of some things -- the overtesting, and the evaluation, and tying performance to student test scores in a district that's 87 percent free and reduced lunch. I think parents want schools to get what they need to succeed. In our district, I think parents want schools to get what they need to succeed. A low-income school gets a social worker twice a week. And yet you see assessments and the school closing office downtown expanding. People are more aware and want a say in how the money's being spent.
Even as you're approaching legislators, the mayor is also going to be twisting their arms.
Katten: I actually got to talk to Mike Madigan about it personally, when I was canvassing in his precinct. He was outside weeding. He wasn't for it. He was worried about politics.
I think you may have lost. You canvassed the one guy whose opinion counts.
Katten: He wouldn't sign. Many of his neighbors did. It's on in his precinct. It's on in the mayor's precinct. We canvassed there, too.
Would people feel differently about the way he runs the schools or trust him more if he had kids in the schools himself?
Katten: Probably. Everybody has a choice, but he's not that familiar with the day to day, so I think people would probably have more respect for his decisions if he did, but my group doesn't waste our time faulting him for that. Just something small, like they changed the school calendar, doing all these half-days, and moving the spring break by a full week.