After decades of organizing by parents, activists and unions, Chicago is on the verge of having a fully-elected school board for the first time in its history.
A proposal awaiting Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature phases out a seven-member board of mayoral appointees for an elected panel triple the size by 2027. With the shift, Chicago would join most U.S. cities in having an elected board, which supporters say is critical for equity in a district where most of the roughly 350,000 students are low income and of color.
However, the Chicago plan has prompted backlash, even from supporters, and disagreement over what’s next, previewing what the third-largest U.S. city can expect in the transition.
“It’ll be a little messy, but it will demonstrate a real step forward for all students and families,” said Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Chicago Democrat who championed the bill.
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Going from an appointed to elected board is uncommon, leaving Chicago without a clear roadmap.
Lawmakers must tackle the politically charged mapmaking process for the elected districts, while government watchdogs seek campaign finance limits. And some want legislation allowing immigrants without legal permission to live in the county to vote for school leaders.
Chicago’s Board of Education — which passes an $8 billion budget, confirms a CEO and approves contracts and policies — was created by the Legislature in 1872. After many versions, a seven-member board was instituted in 1999.
The fight for an elected board began shortly after, as parents and activists felt their concerns weren’t heard.
Poll-style city ballot questions showed overwhelming support for elected boards, including in 2015. That was two years after then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who sought more privately run, publicly funded charter schools, moved to close an unprecedented roughly 50 schools.
Activists say an appointed board in Chicago, where roughly 60% of its 3 million residents are Black and Latino, is racist. A 2018 National School Boards Association survey shows about 90% of school boards are elected.
“People talk racial justice, they don’t want to walk it,” said Shannon Bennett of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. “It is very easy to call people marching with tiki torches racist. To deny people the right to vote is the same voter repression that everyone wants to get all up in arms about.”
His organization has fought for elected boards but rejects the proposal’s timeline.
The shift would start in November 2024, with 10 elected members and 11 mayoral appointees, including board president. Two years later, voters would have say in all 21 races. Serving four-year terms, members wouldn’t be paid.
Parent and activist Jitu Brown said school closures and other policies have disproportionately affected minorities and contributed to Black residents leaving. There are also fewer Black teachers, whom he wants as role models for his son. In 2000, about 40% of district teachers were Black, which has dropped to 20%, according to district data.
“To subject Chicago students to six more years of mayoral control opens the door to really immeasurable levels of harm,” he said.
Activists’ push for equity also includes giving immigrants without legal status a voice.
One proposal would require the State Board of Education to create an affidavit to help non-citizens register to vote for school board. But county clerks say that could leave room for error in other contests.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot — who campaigned on an elected board in 2019 but stands to lose control of a rubber stamp board if she’s reelected — has emerged as a vocal opponent of the bill. She calls 21 members “unwieldy.”
Supporters say 21 people better represents a diverse city, but some experts fear inefficiency. The typical number is seven, according to the NSBA. In New York, the nation’s largest district, the mayor and borough presidents appoint a panel of 15.
“There is so much potential for non-substantive conflict,” said Michael Ford a professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “It is setting Chicago up to have an incredibly politicized and incredibly fragmented electoral process.”
Among the most critical steps is mapmaking, said University of Illinois at Chicago education professor Pauline Lipman. Legislators must ensure equality by race and neighborhood.
“Chicago has never had democracy in public education,” she said. “There should be a community process for discussing how the districts are drawn so the spirit of this demand can be met.”
Still, turnout for school board races is typically low.
Experts say that gives organized groups like the Chicago Teachers Union, which calls mayoral control an “unmitigated disaster,” an edge.
While most school board races aren’t expensive, costs in Denver and Indianapolis have raised concerns. In November, more than $17 million was spent in Los Angeles in a fight between charter school advocates and the union.
Government watchdogs say campaign finance limits are needed to curb outside influence and allow people without means a chance. Lawmakers say they’re discussing it.
“Chicago will become one of these districts that get flooded with outside money,” said Domingo Morel, a Rutgers University political scientist. “That is something that the community needs to be fully aware of.”
There’s also more chance that national issues having little to do with school operations will creep into board matters, said Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State University professor who co-wrote a book about money in board races. She said Chicago can expect heavily contested races with an elected board.
She said: “It will create a new competitive realm of electoral politics for the city.”