PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday February 19th, 2015, 6:10pm

UIC Education Experts: Chicago Should Move To An Elected School Board

Policies under Chicago's mayor-appointed school board "have exacerbated historical educational inequalities" in the city, according to a new report by University of Illinois at Chicago education researchers. Progress Illinois takes a look at the report and the debate over an elected school board.

new report by University of Illinois at Chicago researchers delves into the hot education question of the municipal election -- Should Chicago have an elected, rather than the current mayor-appointed, school board?

Voters in 37 Chicago wards will weigh in on that question in next week's election via advisory ballot referendums.

The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature -- which approved the 1995 law that gave Chicago's mayor full authority over the school district and board appointments -- must ultimately change the rules.

The report by UIC's Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education found "no conclusive evidence that mayor-appointed school boards are more effective at governing schools or raising student achievement" than elected ones.

But the researchers did find that mayoral control in Chicago has restricted public participation in school district decisions and limited the accountability and transparency of the board, adding that the board's policies over the past two decades "have exacerbated historical educational inequalities" in the city.

"What we've seen under the mayor-appointed board is that racial disparities in education outcomes on every measure that we looked at persisted and in some cases widened, in particular for black students," said report co-author Pauline Lipman, UIC professor of educational policy studies and director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education. "And so that's very concerning that after 20 years, what we see is African-American students in particular being left behind."

Chicago's mayor-appointed school board has also been a "poor steward of public resources" by engaging in "questionable and risky financial agreements," and its policies around expanding charter schools, opening turnaround schools and closing neighborhood schools, a record number of which closed in 2013, have largely failed to improve education, according to the report.

"Over two decades, the board persistently pursued policies for which there is very little support in educational research and which have not achieved stated aims," the researchers write.

The report calls for an elected, representative school board in the city, though researchers acknowledged that there is "no guarantee" educational policies will become more equitable or effective after such a switch.

At a recent panel discussion about the 2013 school closings, current Chicago Board of Education member Jesse Ruiz, former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, echoed similar concerns about elected school boards, noting they do not always "equal perfect."

"There are a number of elected school districts across the state that, frankly, when I was on the state Board of Education, I had to overtake because they weren't serving the interest of their students," he said at the discussion.

The UIC experts, however, argue that "the evidence indicates that an elected board, representative of Chicago's economic and racial diversity and less tied to big money interest, is a necessary condition for Chicago Public Schools to move toward high quality, sustainable public schools for all students."

The four 2015 mayoral challengers vying to unseat incumbent Rahm Emanuel -- Bob Fioretti, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, William "Dock" Walls and Willie Wilson -- have expressed support for an elected school board, as have a number of aldermanic candidates. Emanuel, who is seeking a second term, rejects the elected school board idea, saying recently, "I don't think we should put politics back into our schools. That's what got them in trouble in the first place."

Emanuel also maintains that the city does have elected school boards in the form of Local School Councils (LCS).

"We have elected school boards for each school," he said in October after a city council meeting. "And overall, we have the mayor, the CEO, the board, the principals in the building and the teachers accountable to meet the results that parents should expect in a high-quality school.

"As it relates to the school board and a process, there are Local School Councils," the mayor added. "As it relates to accountability for results, I don't believe what we need right now is more politics in schools. We need accountability and progress, and that's what I'm focused on."

Lipman called Emanuel's LSCs comments "rather cynical," explaining that "CPS has been undermining Local School Councils over the past 15 years" by closing neighborhood schools and opening charter schools, which do not have LSCs. And probation policy, Lipman said, has "pretty much stripped" the power from LSCs at underperforming schools taken over by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a controversial school turnaround contractor.

Additionally, LSCs have "no power" over major district decisions, like whether schools should be closed, Lipman pointed out.

Leading up to the closure of 50 neighborhood schools in 2013, and in previous rounds of school closings, LSC members "pleaded to keep their schools open, provided evidence about why they should be kept open, offered alternatives to improve those schools and they weren't listened to by CPS," Lipman stressed. "So they actually have very little power in that situation."

Regarding the concern of inserting more politics into the system, Lipman said she's not sure how the board could get more political than it already is, citing board member Deborah Quazzo's business interests and Board President David Vitale's ties to AUSL as just a few examples.

"Right now, the school board can get away with doing things like tripling their investments in their own companies without any repercussions, and there's no way to remove those board members," added Wendy Katten with the Raise Your Hand coalition, an elected school board proponent. "We should have honesty and transparency from our school board on what their plans are, and their plans are clearly to close a bunch of district schools and open almost a same number of privately-run schools, but they never told anybody that." 

According to an analysis by Raise Your Hand, the district has opened 21,251 new seats, despite declining enrollment, since announcing in 2012 its intent to close schools due to underutilization as part of the 2013 round of school closings. 

"That's the problem with this," Katten said. "Everything's done behind closed doors, you can't rely on the information, you get very limited information on what's happening and no real honesty and truth about the larger picture of what's happening in the district."

Elected school board proponents say a recent investigation by the education newsmagazine Catalyst Chicago bolsters their case for a more transparent and accountable school governance system.

According to Catalyst's report, which looked into the number of students CPS was unable to locate after the 2013 school closings, 434 students were unaccounted for at the time CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett inaccurately stated in an open letter to the Chicago Sun-Times that the district had lost track of only seven students after the closures. It took CPS more than five months to turn over the correct information to Catalyst.

CPS has now admitted that Byrd-Bennett's initial claim was incorrect. According to CPS, the inaccuracy was based on coding problems with its records. Regarding the missing students, the district reports that as of now they have lost track of 115 students affected by the 2013 closings. 

Asked what should happen now that this information has been brought to light, Lipman said, "There are various things we can call on CPS to do, but I'm weary about that." 

"We can ask CPS to investigate to try to find out where these students are, and we should do that. But more than that is that we really need a much more accountable governance structure, because this is just one of a number of cases in which CPS is engaged in actions that have not been transparent."

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