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Report Recommends Elected School Board for Chicago

Would Chicago be better served by a school board that was elected rather than one in which all of the representatives were appointed by the mayor?

A new report released by the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois Chicago this week says yes, and it calls for an "elected and representative" school board for the nation's third largest school district.

The paper comes as Chicagoans head to the polls next week to decide who will lead the city—and ultimately guide the school system—for the next four years. In all but a dozen wards, voters can cast ballots on a nonbinding question on whether the city should have an elected school board. Chicago is the only jurisdiction in Illinois in which the mayor appoints the members of the school board, and any change in the law will have to be made in Springfield, the state capital.

Education has been front and center of the mayoral race. After all, Mayor Rahm Emanuel presided over the 2012 teachers' union strike, the first teachers' union strike in the city in 25 years, and over the closure of nearly 50 schools in 2013.

In a January article, the Chicago Tribune reported that Emanuel has opposed efforts to create an elected school board and has defended the current system, saying that it had created a "culture of accountability."

"I don't think we should put politics back into our schools," the Tribune quoted Emanuel as saying. "That's what got them in trouble in the first place. "

Emanuel's closest opponent  in the race, Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, has said that he supports an elected school board.

For the report, researchers reviewed district and state education data, national test scores, research on school governance, and Chicago school board actions over the 20 years since the state legislature gave the mayor the power to appoint all members of the seven-member board. They determined that there was no conclusive evidence that a school board appointed by the mayor was more effective in governance or more effective in increasing student performance.

In particular, they noted that the system had become more inequitable, and board policies over the years have disproportionately negatively impacted low-income and African-American students.   

Policies—including school closures, an emphasis on testing, expansion of selective enrollment schools, redirection of  resources away from neighborhood schools, closures of neighborhood schools—have impacted African-American and poor students most, leading to a two-tier system, with unequal opportunities to learn for African-Americans students, the report said. 

And while graduation rates and test scores improved in the last two decades, the gaps between African-American students and their peers persisted. The report said that the appointed board has been "markedly" unresponsive to the concerns of parents, teachers, and community stakeholders.

Parents feel "that they have no say over really dramatic decisions that have been made by the board," said Pauline Lipman, a professor of educational policy studies and the report's lead author.

The city is among several urban districts in which the mayor controls the school system. The trend started in Boston, before it spread to Chicago. Today, New York City; Cleveland, Ohio; and Providence, R. I., are among other cities in which the mayor appoints a majority, if not all, of the school board members.

Lipman said the intent of the paper was to inform the ongoing debate around the future of education in the city.

The paper recommends an elected school board that would prioritize "equitable educational opportunities" and outcomes; be transparent and accountable to the public; increase public participation in district initiatives; and develop and evaluate policies and practices steeped in educational research but with input from teachers, students, and community.  

"We try to say quite clearly that there is no guarantee—that what Chicago needs is really a fundamental revision of its policies with much more focus on equality, on strengthening Local School Councils, the appropriate ways of assessing learning," Lipman said.  "It really needs a rethinking of its education policies, and what we have seen is that under mayoral control, we've had a series of policies, which overall have not improved education for the majority of students, which have exacerbated inequality and...which have privatized a huge chunk of the district." 

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