Supporters of an Elected School Board

Elected School Board Is A Distraction, Not A Solution

Late last week, a bill to create an elected school board in Chicago passed a senate committee.  Predictably, this early (and mostly insignificant) step in the legislative process was met by a chorus of celebratory voices heralding the importance of getting an elected schools board in the city.

While I’m not opposed to an elected school board, I just don’t see where the children and families who depend on the city’s public schools stand to benefit.  It seems to me that the elected school board is more of a distraction than a solution.  And something tells me that the so-called education advocates who are making a big deal out of this issue are operating with an ulterior motive.

Let’s be serious for a moment.  If the goal of your advocacy and the mission of your organization is better educational outcomes for Black and Brown children, how could you spend so much effort on an elected school board? Since when does elected equal effective?

There is currently a guy occupying the big, white residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capitol.  In just a few short weeks, he has rolled back a consent decree that was designed to ensure needed reforms in the Chicago Police Department.  He has signed two executive orders on immigration that stand to threaten the families and loved ones of many Chicago Public Schools students and teachers.  He has proposed taking away funding for arts programming, food programs for the poor and taking away channel 11 from kids in Chicago.  That guy is the duly elected President of the United States.

I know what you’re thinking.  I’m comparing apples and oranges.  Well, let’s come a little closer to home.

The Governor of the State of Illinois has wreaked his own version of havoc on life in Chicago.  In his tenure, we’ve seen social services cut drastically and many health and wellness centers close down completely.  Statewide school funding and equitable funding for Chicago have become something of an annual crisis.  Today, the Governor is holding onto the $215 million that CPS needs just finish the year without major disruptions.  He too is elected.

But, the governor is a statewide official.  The school board would be elected in Chicago.

Well, let’s look at the city because that is where this gets most ridiculous.  Most of the “elected school board” folks argue that one of the big reasons we need an elected school board is because the mayor of Chicago simply doesn’t care about the children in CPS.  They argue that he is just a tool of crony capitalists looking to line the pockets of his close friends at the expense of the children and the general public.  But, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is the twice elected head of the city government.

I have spent a good amount of time in my career working for pro-democracy reforms like increased access to voter registration, sensible redistricting and campaign finance reform.  So, I understand the basic “good government” argument for an elected school board.  But, it is almost laughable to see the education folks get so worked up about a reform that would be inconsequential at best.

I can see other interests for the Chicago Teacher’s Union.  They control a huge campaign war chest that would give them a shot at picking up a few of the 21 seats that last week’s bill would create on the elected school board.  Suddenly, they’d have the ability to control a few votes on the board (much in the way they criticize the mayor for doing).  I can also see how other groups may just find themselves in a spot where they hate the mayor more than they care about our children and see this as an opportunity to stick it to him.

But, an elected school board would not bring additional revenue to the district (in fact, I’m sure the election and the larger governing body would cost the district significant money).  An elected school board will not create more high-quality school options or make the application process any easier.  An elected school board would most likely reflect the behavior of other elected bodies in this state: controlled by special interests, slow and ineffectual in action.

From the perspective of an honest education advocate, the elected school board is simply rearranging deck chairs on the titanic.  It is a distraction and it is only a helpful conversation for those who don’t want to talk about the real issues facing our schools.

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Chris Butler is first a husband and a dad. He has been involved across the spectrum of public engagement activities and has worked with a number of diverse constituencies in urban and suburban communities. He has also been involved in several political campaigns including his service as a youth and young adult coordinator for Barack Obama’s primary bid for U.S. Senate. Chris worked as deputy campaign manager and field director for A+ Illinois where he developed a strong, statewide field operation including over 500 organizations and 50,000 individuals around the state working to bring adequacy and equity to Illinois’ school funding system and as the director of advocacy and outreach at New Schools for Chicago, a leader in school reform in Chicago. Chris is a 2006 graduate of the Ministry Training Institute and holds a degree in civic and political engagement from Northeastern Illinois University.