by Elizabeth Earl, Contributing Writer
A citywide coalition of parent, community and teacher organizations is partnering with the Chicago Teachers Union in an effort to pass a referendum for an elected school board in Chicago Public Schools.
The group, Communities Organized for Democracy in Education, hosted a town hall meeting Oct. 23 at the Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie Blvd., at which a panel with strong views on local education and politics, including CTU President Karen Lewis, spoke about the importance of allowing the community to choose school board members.
“[The current school board] made decisions [about school closures] without reading the transcripts, without ever setting foot in the schools they were going to close, or turn around, or whatever they call it this week,” Lewis said. “When you do not have experience [working in the schools] … then you’re making decisions in an ivory tower.”
Although most of the country’s school boards are elected, Chicago Board of Education members have been appointed by the mayor since
1995, when former Mayor Richard M. Daley changed the system from popular votes to mayoral appointment. According to Lewis, the board’s 13 members have never worked in CPS schools, nor do their children attend them. She said an elected school board would be more representative of the community.
The elected school board would not have a direct impact on the performance of students or schools but would make it easier for parents to be heard, said Pauline Lipman, coordinator of Teachers for Social Justice, which conducted a nationwide study of big-city school boards. The study found that elected boards typically meet in the communities at night, she said.
Currently, in order to be heard at the school board meetings, parents and teachers must be in line downtown at 6 a.m., forcing them to skip work, Lewis said. After waiting several hours, they only have two minutes to speak at the hearings. Lewis said because the hearings are on Wednesday mornings and the board meetings are on Tuesdays, all of the policies considered for implementation are already decided by the time parents weigh in.
“We in CODE are not saying that an elected school board is going to fix all [the issues],” Lipman said. “But we cannot get off square one with this appointed board.”
Many CTU members attended the meeting, donning their signature brigst red shirts and black pins. Eric, a CTU member at a Logan Square school, said the strike put Chicago’s public education system on national display, which brought forth an issue larger than Chicago’s teachers.
Bill, another CTU member, agreed the strike impacted Chicago’s educational landscape.
“[The strike] galvanized a lot of teachers to care more about the deeper issues,” he said. “Especially on strike, we were having conversations with colleagues, walking through neighborhoods that we don’t teach in and being able to see what the issues are in the neighborhoods and talking to the teachers there in diverse situations.”
The teachers did not want to be identified by their last names to prevent reprisal.
“All of these undemocratic practices that we experience in Chicago are not the case in other cities with elected school boards,” Lipman said. “When you close a school, you destroy a community. That’s why people get up at 4 a.m. to stand in line and not be heard.”
Democracy in Chicago has been a tentative, fragile thing, according to Chicago Reader political journalist Ben Joravsky, who has been a journalist for more than 30 years and describes himself as “a skeptical cheerleader” for movements like CODE.
“When it comes to democracy in Chicago, I don’t really believe in it,” Joravsky said. “It hasn’t really worked in my lifetime. I almost hate saying this—it sounds so corny—but the school board should listen to parents and students and teachers before they make a decision, but they don’t.”
Lewis said “education hobbyists” occupy the board. The TSJ hopes to elect parents, principals and those actively involved in CPS schools to move the policies in a different direction, she said.
CPS Spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said in an email that the appointed board acts in the best interest of students.
“There’s already too much politics in our school system, and what it doesn’t need is more,” Sainvilus said in the email. “The decisions of our board members are based on what’s in the best interest of students.”