Updates on the shift to an elected school board for Chicago

It’s been almost three years since the General Assembly passed a law to create an elected school board for Chicago. Unlike the rest of Illinois, Chicago has never had a school board directly elected by voters, and from 1995 on, the Board was appointed by the mayor. 

After 15+ years of organizing, agitation, ballot referenda, rallies, protests, and bills introduced but not passed, the legislation creating the elected board passed in May 2021 with a timeline of a hybrid board starting in January 2025 and a fully-elected board seated in January 2027.

Although it was really the only politically possible compromise at the time, community organizations, including IL-FPS, were not uniformly pleased when that bill passed. A reasonably smooth transition from a mayoral appointed board to a fully elected board needs time, but we didn’t think it needed six years. But the General Assembly, particularly Senate President Harmon and the elite of Chicago’s business community who put the current board structure in place in 1995, weren’t supportive of anything but a hybrid structure from Jan 2025 to Jan 2027.

What’s happened since May 2021?

Even though the deadline for drawing district maps for the elections was July 1, 2023, no serious work on that task began until about a year ago, and Spring Session 2023 ended in May with no map voted on, postponing any progress until fall.

Then last fall, the Senate proposed only letting half of Chicago voters vote in the first election. This (ludicrously bad!) proposal wasn’t received well, and President Harmon then made a hasty suggestion to elect all 21 seats just 12 months later, November 2024—a proposal that had never previously been on the table. The House wasn’t thrilled with either of these options, and so once again ILGA adjourned in mid-November with no progress made, and elections inching ever closer.

In February, Mayor Brandon Johnson weighed in with a letter to President Harmon supporting a hybrid board from January 2025 to January 2027, essentially what the House had proposed previously. Harmon then introduced a bill that matched the House one, and last week that was finally what passed both chambers

What will elections look like?

The first elections will take place on the date of the General Election this fall, November 5th. The city is divided into ten districts, and candidates can begin circulating petitions on March 26th. 1000 signatures will be required to get on the ballot. Eligibility requirements to run and serve will be the same as for any other school board in the state. (See this and this and this for more info.)

The ten districts have also been mapped into two subdistricts each. And after the November election, each of those ten districts will have an elected member and a member appointed by the mayor as well. The appointed member will have to reside in the subdistrict the elected member isn’t from. The mayor will also appoint the president of the Board.

Finally, in November 2026, all 21 seats will be up for election, and from there a schedule of elections similar to what exists in the Illinois or US Senate will follow, ie the entire board will never be up for reelection at one time. The board president seat will be elected at-large, and those candidate petitions will require 2,500 signatures. The 20 district seats will require 500 signatures to get on the ballot.

What’s still missing?

Well, we won’t have a full democratically-elected board for another two and a half years. Democratic governance being the goal, that’s not fabulous! On the other hand, although a report on the financial entanglements of the City of Chicago and CPS was issued on schedule, the actual solution to those entanglements haven’t been worked out yet, and now there is a two year buffer to iron out the details. 

Half our property taxes in Chicago go to the Board of Ed; they’re the largest public employer in Chicago after the federal government, and they are in charge of the day-to-day education of more than 300,000 children. The Board of Ed, the City, and ILGA should be working together to make this as unchaotic a change as possible, and we need maximal transparency over the next two years, fiscal and otherwise.

The new system also hasn’t really solved the issue of who will truly have the ability to run and serve. These are uncompensated positions, and there’s no public financing of campaigns. We think both of those are necessary to make this transition to democratic governance more meaningfully democratic. Board members will have about 135,000 constituents and dozens of schools in their districts, as well as levying billions in taxes and allocating billions on spending. Those are big, time-consuming responsibilities, and we want elected officials to have the time to take them on, and a salary in order to be able to do so. Also, non-citizens can't vote in any elections in Illinois besides local school council elections, but there is a good argument that Chicago school board elections would be a place to start expanding enfranchisement. Grassroots advocacy was successful in getting language into the mapping and calendar bill to create a new standing committee of the Board on Black student achievement (105 ILCS 5/34-18.85). Additional grassroots advocacy on all these unaddressed points is still needed, and the coming two years are as good a time as any for this.

...and now, ILGA doesn’t want to relinquish state control

Despite the final version of a map and election timeline for the Board being the decision of —yes!—the General Assembly itself, some legislators were feeling salty about two more years of mayoral control. Because they’ll hold the majority of 21 seats, Mayor Johnson’s 11 appointees will likely determine the direction of the Board’s policymaking and spending agenda until January 2027.

Unfortunately, ILGA’s discontent has resulted in two terrible pieces of legislation rapidly making their way through ILGA right now. Please call your state rep and state senator to oppose these bills. (Calls needed to the House first because that is where both of these bills are now.)

✶  HB 5008 [Fact Sheet

Chicago schools have had police (aka school resource officers, SROs) stationed in them since the 1960s. In summer 2020 when pressure to remove SROs altogether built in the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal murder by a Minneapolis police officer, the district punted the decisions to local school councils, giving them the option of voting to retain or remove SROs. That process has been refined and improved over the last several years. Schools now receive replacement funding for officer positions they close, and the decision is part of the development of a Whole School Safety Plan that the LSC votes on as well. 

The total cost CPS is paying for officers stationed in schools has dropped significantly as schools voted to remove SROs. At the February board meeting, the Chicago Board of Ed, voted to end the program altogether for the 2024-2025 school year, charging the CEO with developing a districtwide policy for a post-SRO era. The last 39 schools, all high schools, to have SROs, will no longer have them this fall.

In response, HB 5088 was introduced by Southwest Side State Rep Mary Gill. It would give LSCs the power to individually contract with CPD. This bill passed rapidly and unanimously out of the House Police & Fire Committee and may come up for a floor vote in the near future. It is not clear why this bill wasn't heard in an Education Committee given the implications it will have on an Illinois public school district and the changes it will make to the School Code.

HB 5008 doesn’t place any restrictions or regulations on such contracts (e.g. number of officers, training of officers) and doesn’t specify how officers would be funded. While district-level contracts between CPD and CPS have gotten more restrictive in recent years, this law does nothing to keep those protections, possibly creating a situation of anything-goes in terms of what school-level agreements w/ CPD look like.

No matter what though, the research is clear—the SAFEST schools for ALL students are schools WITHOUT police stationed in them. Studies have shown that stationing police officers in schools harms the safety, security and the educational experience of students, in particular Black and Latinx students, low-income students, students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students. See this review of the extensive research from Chicago and elsewhere showing the negative impact of police in schools from CPS parent & Loyola education professor Charlie Tocci. 

Also, data collected by police in schools, i.e. surveillance by SROs, is NOT protected by federal & state student privacy law (FERPA, ISSRA) like other education records because those laws have major exceptions for law enforcement. Parents (and students over 18) have no control or access to it. So, for example, for years students were added to Chicago's gang database without their or their family even being informed.

Although a successful vote to permanently shut down Chicago’s gang database took place in Sep 2023, that doesn’t end the possibility of harm for schools where officers are stationed and are sharing info with CPD. Criminalization of normal student behavior can have devastating consequences–especially for undocumented students.

The reality is that law-enforcement agents simply do not belong in schools.

HB 5766 [Fact Sheet

This bill would prevent the Chicago Board of Ed from making any changes to schools with selective admissions policies, including their budgets or requirements for admissions. It is primarily a reaction to a Board resolution passed in December 2023 that stated that the next district facilities master plan would “transition away from privatization and admissions/enrollment policies.” This resolution was sensationalized in the media as a plan to begin closing selection enrollment schools.

This bill has several key problems:

Selective admissions is not defined. It could, in fact, refer to hundreds of CPS schools because, under the open enrollment system, any Chicago student can apply to attend schools they are not geographically zoned for if they meet certain admissions requirements, including test scores, GPA, language proficiency, or a performance audition. If participation in a lottery is a requirement, all charter schools and magnet schools would fall into this category as well.

➤ Freezing the budgets for any schools with selective admissions requirements means any budget shortfalls in FY2025, FY2026, or FY2027 will necessarily have to fall on schools with no admissions requirements, which are, historically, the most underresourced schools in the district. With a fiscal cliff approaching due to the end of federal covid relief dollars, this will have a devastating impact on the ability of the Board to budget equitably.

➤ CPS already has a detailed facilities planning process, which is mandated in the Illinois School Code and developed over many legislative sessions with the input of Chicago communities impacted by arbitrary school actions over the last decades. This bill does not acknowledge that part of the School Code and undermines the intent of ILGA in putting it into place.

➤ Educational outcomes of selective enrollment vs neighborhood high schools are not uniformly more positive, as research from the Chicago Consortium on School Research and data from their To & Through Project shows. Given this, why should SE schools receive special budgetary and enrollment protections in state law that non-selective schools can’t also benefit from? 

➤ Changes are needed to admissions policies to selective schools to improve equity. Since 2009, North Side SE high schools have become whiter and wealthier. In spring 2022, CEO Martinez proposed changing SE high school admissions by allocating all seats by residency tier rather than just 70%. The General Assembly shouldn’t be imposing statutory constraints like HB 5766 that would block improvements to more equitable access.