Is An Elected School Board Just a Distraction?

Last week I had the opportunity to talk school board governance and its impact on student achievement on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight. You can watch the segment above to see me talking it over with elected school board supporter Roderick Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville.

Popular frustration with decisions like the massive school closings and the proposed (now rescinded) high school conversion of National Teachers Academy have fueled the push for an elected school board. And there’s certainly national precedent–well over 90 percent of U.S. school districts are governed by elected boards. But in Chicago, we’ve never actually had an elected school board. The mayor has been appointing school board members since 1872, to be exact. What changed, briefly, with the 1988 school reform law, was that the mayor had to pick from a slate chosen by a nominating commission that was designed to include community representation,  and even included mayoral foes.

To no one’s surprise, that created gridlock, and when the state legislature agreed to give the mayor full control of Chicago’s schools in 1995, the nominating commission went the way of the dodo.

More importantly, at bottom, there’s very little research on what model of school governance actually benefits students.

What research there is suggests that urban districts with mayoral control, which often includes an appointed school board, appear to have better student achievement results than urban districts with elected boards. But the appointed edge is slight. The most rigorous study out there is from 2013, done by two researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

So there’s an argument to be made that an elected school board is not the answer to how do we fix our schools. Indeed, it may well be another example of what Australian education expert John Hattie calls “the politics of distraction.” The real work is getting done in efforts like Freshmen OnTrack. Whatever kind of school board will direct more time and resources to adults in schools to work together and solve problems, with special attention to resources for schools in the neediest, historically-underserved neighborhoods, that’s the kind of school board I want to see in Chicago.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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