Elected school board to be litmus test for aldermanic candidates: grassroots groups

October 3, 2014

As if Chicago’s upcoming mayoral election didn’t already promise to feature education as a prominent campaign issue, a coalition of community and labor groups are now trying to get a measure for an elected school board on February’s ballot in each of the city’s 50 wards.

Part of their strategy, organizers say, is to make the question of whether Chicago should have an elected school board a sort of litmus test for incumbent aldermen and their challengers.

“We’re going to raise this with aldermen in upcoming elections – and hopefully in time for the November elections – and ask, ‘Do you support this?’” said Jitu Brown, education organizer of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and a longtime proponent of a change from an appointed board. “Will these people go against the mayor’s wishes and advocate for the children of Chicago, or will they go lockstep with the mayor while our children are the collateral damage of these policies?”

Brown says he expects some current aldermen and other candidates for city seats – including Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is considering a mayoral run – to support the referendum and even circulate some petitions, but he says that the effort is not coordinated with those campaigns.

“If someone wants to champion this issue, that’s what our elected officials should be doing,” Brown added.

Even if the referendum gets on the ballot and passes, state legislators would have to rewrite state law--and go against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who now has control of the system--to allow for an elected board.

The effort is being led by the coalition of community groups called Grassroots Educational Movement, or GEM, of which KOCO is a member. In addition, the United Working Families independent political organization--which formed over the summer with the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Action Now, and Grassroots Illinois Action--is also supporting the campaign.

“Never any debate”

Among the groups gathering signatures is the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, which will be leading volunteers to canvass in the 12th, 14th and 15th wards on the Southwest Side.

“This is a very popular issue in our community, and a lot of people support this,” says Patrick Brosnan, the group’s executive director. “There’s never any kind of debate going on at any of those board meetings, always just presentations and ‘everything is great.’ But things aren’t great. There’s a lot of problems […] Frankly, I don’t think an elected school board would be making most of the decisions this current board is making.”

Chicago’s school board has been made up of mayoral appointees since 1995, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley convinced the State Legislature to turn over control of the school district to City Hall. Chicago’s previous system for choosing school board members involved a messy nominating procedure in which community groups offered up names from which the mayor had to choose appointees.

To get the item on the ballot, the groups need to collect signatures from at least 8 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial race in each ward; that means some wards with a higher voter turnout will require more signatures. Petitions are due to the city’s Board of Elections on Nov. 24, the same day they’re due for aldermanic and mayoral candidates.

Previous efforts

This wouldn’t be the first time the issue goes to a referendum. In 2012, another coalition of community groups called Communities Organized for Democracy in Education (CODE) collected enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in 327 of the city’s more than 2,000 precincts.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the non-binding referendum, with an average of nearly 87 percent of votes in favor in each precinct.

“It’s pretty clear that the sentiment is there,” says Rico Gutstein, a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago who is part of Teachers For Justice, a member of CODE. “We were in 13 percent of precincts, in precincts that were entirely black, entirely white, entirely brown and entirely mixed […]. We were in the wealthiest and the poorest neighborhoods.”

Unlike the 2012 campaign, CODE is not actively taking part in this newest, ward-level effort to get a referendum on the ballot. (There are several ways to get a referendum item on the ballot, including at the precinct-, ward- and city-wide level.) Many of the groups who are part of CODE, however, are also members of GEM, which is behind the referendum. As a coalition, CODE is focusing on two other strategies for transforming the school board’s makeup, explains Roderick Wilson, who heads the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville and is a member of CODE.

“We’re seeing if we can file a state or federal lawsuit because this is voter suppression and taxation without representation,” Wilson said, adding that the group is currently fundraising for that possibility.

Separately, CODE has also been actively lobbying the State Legislature to push forward a bill to convert Chicago’s board into an elected body. The bill was introduced in the House in 2013 but has not advanced much since.

“This particular policy need to be changed in Springfield,” Wilson acknowledges. “What these referendums do is show more citywide support for an elected school board, which is definitely helpful in bringing the issue to move in our Legislature.”