Illustration by Mell Montezuma

Op-Ed: Lightfoot Has Failed Us on an Elected School Board

Two bills in the General Assembly would mean democracy for Chicago’s public education

Standing with hundreds of other Chicagoans outside of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home on May 20, her two-year anniversary as mayor, it occurred to me that we shouldn’t have had to be there. 

Lightfoot told us she would do right by thousands of disenfranchised people whose needs have been disregarded by this City. She told us she would lift all of Chicago to rise together. But that hasn’t happened. As a mother and CPS parent, I’ve watched our mayor continue to put her interests over the needs of our children in a global pandemic. Frankly, this is not okay.

A case in point is Chicago’s current unelected, undemocratic, mayor-controlled school board. Existing gaps in education funding, school staffing, and student social-emotional support have been magnified by COVID-19. While the children of our city are in real crisis, CPS is barely meeting their needs. The kids who need the most are getting the least while Lightfoot awards COVID relief funding to police and businesses. 

Yet all isn’t lost. Of 892 Illinois school boards, only Chicago’s is appointed. We have $1.8 billion of federal relief coming to our City—and the only way to ensure enough goes to our kids is to end mayoral control of Chicago’s school board now. 

Currently, the school board can raise property taxes with no accountability to voters; one of two recently resigned school CEOs went to prison; and overall, the unelected board has been a disaster for the mostly Black and Latinx students CPS serves. For more than two decades, Chicago has seen a hundred school closings while dozens of turnarounds and consolidations have disrupted education for tens of thousands of low-income students. 

This has contributed to a purge of over 50,000 Black students since the year 2000, while inequity between Black, Latinx, and white students has increased. We can better address this—and so much more—with a democratically elected school board.

Right now, there are three elected school board bills in the Illinois Senate. Two of these bills are complementary and would mean democracy for Chicago’s public education, while one would mean more of the same.

Bill SB2497 would establish a twenty-one-member elected school board starting in 2022. Voters would elect one representative from each of twenty districts and an at-large member as chair to four-year terms. HB2908, which passed the House and is currently in the Senate, would divide Chicago into twenty electoral districts starting in 2022. The twenty-first seat would be a citywide election for the board’s president. Both of these bills would ensure a wide swath of candidates from across the city, which is crucial in creating a school board that better represents all CPS families.

The third bill, SB827, is a naked attempt by the mayor to maintain control of the school board. Lightfoot’s “hybrid” plan offers two elected seats and five appointed seats in 2026, which would later increase to three elected seats and eight appointed seats. The mayor would name the board president and vice president, draw district maps, and the bill would sunset in 2030. This undemocratic bill serves no one and its passage would guarantee widening inequality for Chicago public school families. 

It’s important to note that the bills for a fully elected board do not directly address the ability of undocumented Chicagoans to vote in school board elections. However, the issue is being addressed legislatively through SB1565, which would allow people who are not citizens to vote in school board elections via affidavit. The sponsors of SB2497/HB2908 support extending enfranchisement to undocumented Chicagoans in school board elections; the companion bills are compatible with non-citizen school board voting legislation if that legislation were to pass. 

In past referendums, ninety percent of Chicago voters asked for the right to have a say in choosing a representative school board. Governor Pritzker supports it and state legislators have approved an elected school board three times. Chicago parents deserve to sit on a school board that governs policies and makes decisions that will shape their children’s futures. The time for a fully elected school board is now.

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Naoma Nagahawatte is a CPS mom and advocacy director of the non-profit Raise Your Hand Illinois.

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