Elected School Board: The Jerks Win Again

May 26th, 2017 by Phil Leave a reply »

Chicago is the only place in Illinois where the school board is not elected. Instead, the board is appointed by the Mayor, so when it comes time to make any decisions, they just do what the Mayor wants. Unlike rubber stamp aldermen, though, these people literally don’t have constituents. They don’t hold ward nights. If there’s a problem in your school and you want to go to an elected official, you wind up going to your alderman, even though he/she has no formal power. You can go to a monthly school board meeting, held downtown Wednesday mornings, and speak for two minutes, but unless it’s a very exceptional situation, nobody there cares what you have to say.

For years, numerous groups have been advocating for an elected school board. It’s overwhelmingly popular, all across the city. But for this to happen would require a change to state law. The Illinois House actually passed a bill in 2016, but it died in the Senate, because Senate President John Cullerton wouldn’t even let it be called for a vote. Cullerton is a close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who completely opposes an elected board, because it directly takes away his power.

This year, the bill was reintroduced, as House Bill 1774. And today, May 25, it passed the House again, by a huge vote of 105-9. The even bigger news is that it will actually be allowed to get a vote in the Senate. It is looking very promising that the bill will actually pass.

You would think that all of the people who have been clamoring for this for years would be thrilled, right? And that Rahm Emanuel would be pissed? Well, you’d think wrong.

In reality, what we’re seeing unfold is a brilliant political maneuver. A deal was struck, without any of the advocacy groups being previously aware. Yes, the bill is going to the Senate. And it’ll probably get voted on there. And it’ll probably even get signed by Governor Bruce Rauner, who you’d also think would be opposed. And it’s all because of a simple amendment made to the bill at the last minute, before it passed the House:

The first school board election won’t be until February 2023.

Make no mistake. This is not simply a compromise, where the people get what they want, just a little delayed. This is a setup. When the first elected board comes online in 2023, they will be inheriting a district that is a shell of its former self, still overwhelmed by difficulties handling basic operating expenses, still beset with a crumbling infrastructure, still buckling under the strain of excessive numbers of charter schools. And they will be inheriting a district with tens of thousands fewer students than CPS has today. In short, this is what the people of Chicago are being told:

Fine. We’re sick of your complaining. You can have your damn elected school board. We’ll just take everything we can first, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

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Chicago holds municipal elections every four years. The Mayor, City Clerk, City Treasurer, and all 50 aldermen will be up for reelection in 2019, and then again in 2023. The elected school board, per the language of HB1774, would consist of 20 members elected from districts, and a board president elected at-large across the entire city. The elections would coincide with the current municipal election schedule. And there is absolutely no mechanical reason why the first board election couldn’t occur in 2019. (Just don’t be surprised if some officials start claiming otherwise. There are people on the government payrolls whose jobs titles may as well be We Who Claim Otherwise.)

The actual amendment was introduced by the bill’s chief sponsor, Rob Martwick, who happens to be my State Representative. It’s very clear from the reports out of Springfield that Martwick was told that if he wanted the bill to get a vote in the Senate, he’d have to accede to changing the date. Martwick has been the most ardent champion of the elected board down in Springfield. Don’t blame him for the amendment.

The 2023 date represents a deal brokered by House Speaker Michael Madigan. We don’t know who all was party to the negotiations. And I don’t have some kind of deep inside information about what’s going down. But I pay attention. And I can see what’s happened here. It’s a brilliant political coup, pulled off by a couple of people who really are political geniuses… just not in ways that actually result in good things for the people they represent.

There are a lot of takeaways from how this has gone down. And a lot of potential winners. Here’s what’s really happening:

First, if there was any lingering doubt, it’s gone now: Rahm Emanuel is definitely running for reelection in 2019. But it’s not just that. He’s the one who “gave” the most in cutting this deal, so he expects a lot back. One thing he absolutely expects is much stronger institutional support from the Democratic Party apparatus in Chicago. That means support from Madigan, but also a synergistic relationship with the man that Madigan and Emanuel are trying to force down our throats to be the next Governor, J.B. Pritzker, whose billions of dollars could be instrumental in helping keep some wavering aldermen in line. The other thing Emanuel gets out of this is a full six more years to do what he wants with CPS. This means more union busting, more charter schools, more nonsense mandates, more rigged graduation rates, more squeezing of special education funds, more privatization… the list goes on and on. But, you might ask, doesn’t he already have that?

That’s where the next piece comes in. Don’t think for a second that Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the SUPES scandal represent some kind of extreme outlier situation. What made the SUPES scandal different is that Byrd-Bennett was both sloppy and greedy. See, the next batch of fat contracts won’t involve bribes – at least, not the kind you can actually get prosecuted for. Instead, you can expect to see more fat campaign contributions, going a lot of different directions. You can expect to see more sweetheart deals. The drive to privatize will get even more intense. And with the tap potentially set to run dry in 2023, you can also expect to see new, more exotic things start to happen.

How exotic? We have use our imaginations here. Think about the city’s recent parking meter deal. It was a terrible long-term deal for the city, all done in the name of a short-term cash injection. Think about how the state is looking to sell the Thompson Center. When government really wants cash for something – especially if it’s an intentional one-off use sort of thing – it will find assets to sell. It will find deals to cut. So what assets might CPS have – assets that someone else might be interested in? Look to see moves to start selling anything off that isn’t a school proper, to be then turned around and leased back to CPS. For that matter, don’t even rule out the possibility that CPS will start to try and sell more school buildings. No, they haven’t done well selling off the buildings they’ve closed in the past few years. But what if there are buildings in more attractive locations, places where developers might be more interested? You can’t rule this stuff out given the people who are running the show. Now, if you’re thinking that one thing CPS really can’t do is get away with closing any more buildings… think again.

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For the 2016-17 school year, CPS experienced an overall enrollment drop of about 13,000 students. That’s a 3.5% drop. In one year.

The mass exodus of families is only going to continue. The percentage drop might level off. But the year over year losses will continue for the foreseeable future. Parochial or private schools might pick up some of the numbers, but a lot of those people are just going to leave the city. And don’t think for a second that this is seen as some kind of dire crisis on the part of the existing CPS leadership. The ripple effect of the enrollment free-fall is massive, and it’s well-worth stopping to consider who will actually benefit from this.

If a school has fewer students, then with student-based budgeting in place, it’ll get less money, which means less staff, which means fewer unionized teachers. In some cases, it’ll mean that a school has so few students left that it’ll have to get closed… or, if it’s still not politically feasible to “close” a school, then we can expect instead to see some “mergers” and other creative ways to make it so that there are fewer buildings open. Part of the calculus here too is that the stronger charter networks will ride the storm out. If the neighborhood schools continue to deteriorate, that’s all the more reason for parents to clamor for charters, right? CPS buildings will wind up being sold to privately bankrolled charter networks, accomplishing two huge goals in one – expanding charters while also bringing in an influx of cash. Some smaller charter operators might fold, but really, the Powers That Be don’t care about most of those people anyway.

There are also a lot of collateral benefits to driving families out of the city. The engine of gentrification isn’t going to slow down, after all. Sure, some of those young professionals will themselves want good schools to send their kids to. But the overall system will make sure that there’s still ways for at least some of those desirable populations to get access to better resources. After all, if things go according to plan, Pritzker will become Governor, Illinois will institute a progressive income tax, property taxes won’t actually shift much, and the result will be that even if CPS as a whole continues to struggle financially, the better-off schools will continue to get just enough that not everyone will leave. Remember: the overwhelming majority of the students who left before this school year were black or Latino.

And then, on top of all of this, the entrenched political elite will actually be able to claim that they gave the people what the people wanted. In so doing, they will blunt some of their loudest critics, because the elected school board has been the single most galvanizing issue for parents across the city. Unlike CPS funding woes, which are very complicated and which require layered solutions, the appointed school board is a discrete problem, and the elected school board is a discrete solution. It’s been a gateway issue to get parents and others more involved in fighting for other issues. Take away the elected school board issue, though, and you’re actually weakening the progressive opposition in the city.

But, you might ask, if all of this is true, and it does so many positive things for Emanuel and Madigan, wouldn’t Rauner simply veto this? It’s a logical question. And the logical answer is: No, he won’t, because many of the benefits are actually things he wants to see too. The Chicago Teachers Union is the strongest union local in Illinois. Rauner desperately wants to destroy them. If there’s a way to hurt the CTU by signing an elected school board into law, he’ll do it. He’ll also be fully on board with the privatization and related initiatives. He won’t like the idea of the synergy between Madigan, Emanuel, and Pritzker, but that was going to happen anyway. Rauner is a lot of things, but he’s not an idiot. In all likelihood, if he wasn’t literally at the table when the 2023 deal was cut, he was at least in the loop. In practice, this can be a net win for him too.

There is one possible saving grace in all of this: Rahm Emanuel still his to win reelection in 2019, and he is still very much vulnerable. But he’s already taken multiple steps to shore up his support. Just this week, a handful of black aldermen nevertheless already held a press conference endorsing him for reelection, even though he hasn’t even said he’s running! Nobody close to Madigan, Cullerton, or Pritzker is going to openly side against him. Too many people fell out of line in 2015, so a lot is being done now to ensure more of them stay in line: new school construction, a multi-front effort against Rauner, the hush-hush coalition backing Pritzker, etc. And by weakening some of his biggest critics – notably including the CTU – Emanuel is doing a masterful job of reestablishing himself.

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I have a three year old. He’d be in third grade in February 2023. That would mean four years in an intentionally resource-deprived system, one which seems like it will only keep getting worse. It’s one thing for adults to stand up and fight an unfair system. It’s something else entirely to put your children on the front lines of those fights, especially if there aren’t other kinds of ties holding you to the city.

I also serve on a Local School Council. I have voted to approve school budgets which were, in my opinion, illegally constructed, foisted upon us by a CPS Central Office that really doesn’t care what the law says, and really doesn’t care about its students except insomuch that they want to be able to tell a good story about them. That’s why you see these amazing increases in graduation rates, for example. It’s a good story. But as I read in an article just this week, these diplomas are so flimsy in some cases, they’re actually doing more for CPS than they are for the kids themselves.

It kills me. I see the quality of the staff in our neighborhood school. I see the tremendous, beautiful diversity the school offers. We have a nice neighborhood. We’re a block from the school. It should be an ideal situation for my son to walk into two years from now. And instead, we’re hearing the message loud and clear from downtown: You people should just go away. We don’t care about your kid, and we never will. Oh, we’ll pretend sometimes. But you know better. So just go away already, okay? And so it doesn’t matter how wonderful the people immediately around us are. It just seems like the effective result of staying and fighting is to deprive our child of a better education. It’d be one thing if it was about us. But when it’s about him? Well, it’s not hard for me to understand why there’s 13,000 fewer students in CPS this year.

The one thing I’d pinned some real hope on was that we might be able to put enough pressure on the political establishment that the elected school board could become a reality – just in time for him to start school. But now, today, we are confronted with the stupefying reality: The news that we may actually be getting the elected school board is actually not good news at all. As the late, great Karl Hendricks put it: The jerks win again.

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