Will democracy come to Chicago schools?

In Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, democracy is an unwelcome guest when it comes to selecting members of the school board.

For more than two decades, the power to appoint members of the Chicago’s Board of Education has remained exclusively in the hands of the mayor. Unlike boards of education in Illinois’ other 891 communities, Chicago Public School Board members are appointed, not elected.

It is a system Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his allies are fighting hard to maintain.

However, a citizen uprising has created a turbulent political environment where an elected school board may become a reality. The direct election of school board members has become a leading priority for a coalition of citizen groups and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Today, the battle lines are clear.  


On one side stands the people of the Windy City who have repeatedly demanded the right to elect members of the Chicago School Board. On the other side are the supporters of mayoral control including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, the charter school industry and their allies in the corporate education reform movement.


Although rare in Illinois, and across the nation, mayoral appointed boards have been a favored position held by those who support the privatization of public education in the United States.  Electoral politics, they say, stands in the way of the rapid expansion of charter schools and other efforts to “reform” the American public education system.

Corporate education reform advocates are quick to claim that the direct election of school board members will make it more difficult to adopt policies opposed by teachers’ unions and citizens’ groups.   

And in Chicago, these so-called reformers have been very successful.

But after Mayor Emanuel and his political appointees on the Chicago Public School Board closed a record number of schools in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods, citizens, teachers and public school supporters have been actively pushing back against the Mayor’s “no-need for democracy” position.

As Jitu Brown, a Chicago citizen leader told the Chicago Sun Times, “We have endured school privatization and appointed school boards who loot the public trust and use no-bid contracts as an everyday way of life and then tell us that the system is broken. The system was broken, by them, and we demand an elected representative school board now.”

While reaching the boiling point in Chicago, the battle between those who favor mayoral control and those who believe in the direct election of school board members goes well beyond Chicago.  

A few years ago, a battle in Bridgeport, Connecticut pitted their former mayor’s desire for a mayoral appointed board against the wishes of his own populace who continued to support an elected board of education. 

Thanks to record levels of campaign contributions, from those who support charter schools and privatization, Mayor Bill Finch waged the most expensive charter revision campaign in state history. Despite the extraordinary campaign effort, Finch lost the referendum and went on to lose his job in the next election.

The fight in Chicago appears to be equally heated.

In 2015, a group of community organizations, along with the Chicago Teachers Union, collected 50,000 signatures in order to place an advisory referendum on the spring 2015 municipal election ballot. 

Among the most outspoken proponents of a democratically elected board has been Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis who said in a written statement, “Our school communities desperately need democracy in the form of an elected school board, new streams of progressive revenue that fund our schools equitably and a strong and protected educator voice able to direct school-level education policy decisions.”

With voters able to vote on the issue in 37 of the city's 50 wards, approximately 90 percent of the votes cast on the question were in favor of the direct election of school board members.  

The following year, the Illinois House of Representatives voted 110 – 4 in support of legislation that would have changed the Chicago school board from one that is appointed by the mayor to one popularly elected.

However, Democratic allies of the Mayor Emanuel succeeded in keeping the bill from ever being voted on by the State Senate.

The legislation was reintroduced in early 2017 and in March of this year the legislation passed the Education Committee by a vote of 18-1.  

Once again, eyes now turn to the Illinois State Senate to see whether they, in an election year, will once again ignore the voices of Chicago residents and derail the effort to give them the right to vote for their local school board.

Jonathan Pelto is a former state representative in Connecticut, and an education advocate. He is the founder and coordinator of the Education Bloggers Network, a confederation of more than 250 pro-public education bloggers from around the country. He was 2014 candidate for governor in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanpelto.

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