Chicago Students Want a Democratic School System

By Emily Gray Brosious
Originally published at Gapers Block
Aug. 26, 2014

In 1995, Richard M. Daley convinced the Illinois General Assembly to do away with elected school councils and place Chicago Public Schools directly under the mayor’s control.

Since then, CPS has operated under a model whereby the mayor directly appoints school board members and district CEOs — currently Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Chicago Students Union (CSU), a student-run organization formed in 2013 in response to CPS school closures, is pushing to end that system of mayoral-control.

CSU rallied in Chicago’s Loop last Monday calling for a democratically-elected school board and student-prioritized funding.

The demonstration kicked off in Daley Plaza where Will Guzzardi, Democratic candidate for the 39th Illinois House District, joined the rallying call.

Guzzardi criticized the mayoral-appointed school board for recent school closures, teacher layoffs and budget cuts. He promised to push a bill in Springfield that would establish a democratically-elected school board, accountable to Chicago students and parents.

From Daley Plaza, demonstrators marched to the Chicago Board of Education headquarters to rally, chant and share spoken word poetry.

“We’re here chanting ‘this is what democracy looks like’ because it’s true. Democracy is people coming together,” said CPS student and CSU member Vanessa Perez. “Emanuel’s not letting us do that with this school board. The board should be elected by the people, for the people- how it’s supposed to be. That’s what democracy is.”

CSU isn’t the first group to call for an elected school board in Chicago. In fact, the Chicago City Council has pushed this very referenda question aside on two previous occasions.

According to the Chicago Tribune, city council members friendly to Emanuel have spared him the “political embarrassment of finding out whether Chicagoans would prefer an elected school board rather than an appointed one” by filling the ballots with unrelated referenda in an effort to box out supporters of the elected school board measure.

Per Illinois law, there’s only room for three referendum questions on any ballot — a provision that many say has become a tool allowing the mayor’s aldermanic allies to block efforts viewed as anti-administration.

For its part, CPS consistently blames fiscal problems — not the district’s governance model — for unpopular school closures and budget cuts.

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has said the district continues to put “children, families and high-quality education first” despite budget hardships.

“Despite receiving less funding from the state for education spending than any other state and growing pension obligations, CPS continues to make academic investments around District priorities — raising base per pupil funding, increasing seats at high-performing STEM and IB schools, and expanding opportunities to earn college credit while still in high school,” Byrd-Bennett said.

But CPS students like Vanessa Perez say decisions like these need to be made by a democratically elected school board — not a mayoral-appointed one.

“We want an elected board, by students, parents and teachers who are able to vote,” Perez said.

The majority of Illinois school districts do elect their local school board members, as do the majority of public school systems in this country, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Chicago is one of about a dozen US cities including New York, Boston and Washington, DC that have moved to some form of mayoral-led school board model over the past 20 years.

Despite this trend, some recent studies show mayor-led school systems are not more effective than democratically-governed districts.

“Market-Based Reforms’ Rhetoric Trumps Reality”, a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute’s Broader Bolder Approach to Education, compared the impacts of mayor-led school systems in three large, urban school districts — Washington, DC, New York City and Chicago — with student and school outcomes over the same period in other large, high-poverty urban school districts.

“The report finds that the reforms deliver few benefits, often harm the students they purport to help, and divert attention from a set of other, less visible policies with more promise to weaken the link between poverty and low educational attainment.”

A 2013 report from the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education (CEJE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago also found no evidence to support the claim that “mayoral control and mayor-appointed boards are more effective and governing schools or raising student achievement.”

CEJE’s report went on to say Chicago’s top-down education accountability model — based on standardized tests — and its expansion of selective enrollment schools has expanded a two-tier education system in Chicago and exacerbated race and income-based achievement gaps in the city.

However, a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress disputes those findings. Their study found mayoral-control school districts to have largely improved districtwide performance compared to other school districts state-wide. It acknowledged however, “This improvement varies across districts, and it is somewhat uneven by grade and subject matter.”

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