Teachers union, community groups want elected school board

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Rev. Jackson says minorities have paid price for inequalities at CPS

The Rev. Jesse Jackson approaches the podium Wednesday at Chicago Public Schools headquarters. Jackson criticized a slate of school closings and changes that were adopted by the board. Friday he met with representatives of the Chicago Teachers Union and community groups to focus on returning the school board to an elected body. (William DeShazer, Chicago Tribune / February 26, 2012)


February 26, 2012

Stung by another round of school closings and turnarounds, some community leaders are looking at how Chicago can return to publicly electing its school board.

At a meeting Friday at Rainbow/PUSH Coalition headquarters on the South Side, Chicago Teachers Union officials met with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and representatives from civic groups that helped lead the attempt to block Chicago Public Schools' recent efforts to close or "turn around" 17 chronically underperforming schools.

The aim of these meetings, Jackson said, is to build momentum to wrestle control of Chicago's school board away from the mayor and restore it as a publicly elected body. Though a formal plan is not yet in place, officials said, all options are on the table, including working through the Illinois Legislature or the federal court system to bring about change.

Persuading lawmakers to change state law to allow an elected school board could be a tough task if Mayor Rahm Emanuel opposes the idea, as he did while running for office last year.

"Getting legislation passed is always about having people in Springfield to speak for you," said Chicago Teachers' Union President Karen Lewis at another meeting Saturday at Rainbow/PUSH.

A Tribune/WGN-TV poll during the mayoral campaign last year showed public support for just such a move. Seventy-seven percent of those polled said the school board should be elected, while just 17 percent said it should be appointed by the mayor. None of the major mayoral candidates, including Emanuel, supported returning to the old system of electing a school board.

"This is not about a confrontation with Rahm, this is about the democratic principle," Jackson said. "This is not personal."

Amid criticism from Jackson, the union and scores of community members, the seven-member Chicago school board unanimously approved a slate of changes Wednesday that included closing seven schools and the wholesale restructuring of 10 others, a process CPS calls "turnaround."

Emanuel and CPS leadership maintained that these schools were among the worst in the district, plagued by not only academic failures, but school cultures that were not conducive to a quick fix.

Explaining his vote, board member Rodrigo Sierra said, "I refuse to allow students to wait one more day for access to world-class education they deserve.

"While the plans I consider today may not be perfect , while change is hard, while we may not realize its goals we desire, we simply cannot stand by and continue to fail our children."

Jackson said Rainbow/PUSH will call on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate inequalities in the city's public school system that, he said, have disproportionately affected African-American and Latino students. Jackson said the complaint could lay the groundwork for a federal civil rights lawsuit to end decades of CPS policies that, he said, have drained resources from struggling schools, further destabilized low-income neighborhoods and put minority students at a disadvantage.

Drawing comparisons to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, Jackson said CPS' practices, from a tiered school structure and mayor-appointed school board to school board meetings held during weekday afternoons, are designed to limit community participation and public criticism.

"It's not as if the evidence is not there that the actions CPS has taken … have done irreparable harm to education in our neighborhoods," said Jitu Brown, a member of the local school council at Dyett High School, one of two schools that will begin a three-year phaseout next fall. Dyett's incoming freshmen will be reassigned to Phillips High School, another struggling South Side school a few blocks away.

"Young people's academic progress and their safety has been put in harm's way," said Brown, who represents the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. "So when the mayor says he can no longer sit by and wait, or when (CPS chief Jean-Claude) Brizard says they have to do something, I'll push back and say, 'You have been doing something. These have been your policies, your approach to education.'"

Fueled by the school district's poor academic performance, troublesome bureaucracy and bleak financial picture, a Republican-led state Legislature gave control of CPS to former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995. Daley set about to strengthen leadership atop the district and streamline its decision-making, whittling the 13-member elected school board down to seven members appointed by the mayor.

In the years since, a mishmash of reform efforts has produced some significant gains within CPS. Graduation rates have improved. The number of students dropping out has shrunk. But a report released last fall by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research indicated that the reform efforts — particularly the opening and closing of schools in the last decade — have hurt minority students and widened the achievement gap between white and black students.

After years of working to improve conditions for minority students inside the system, Jackson said, help needs to come from outside.

"We are going to ask for federal intervention to end patterns of racial and resource segregation," Jackson said. "And to empower parents with the right to vote, as they do in every other school district in the state."

Ipso Facto at 5:39 PM February 25, 2012

It is hard to believe that Penny Pritzker does not represent the face of the disenfranchised. Look she had to split the fortune amongst 10 other feuding cousins.

Fed-Up-In-Chicago at 4:08 PM February 25, 2012


Can we limit the right to vote to citizens who actually pay taxes?

Terrence Benshoof at 4:07 PM February 25, 2012

Quite a dilemma for Chicago. On the one hand, an appointed school board that answers to the Rahmunist, but is at least willing to remove incompetent teachers and administrators who aren't earning thier keep. On the other hand, the possibility of an elected school board, answering in theory to the people, but likely to be manipulated by the Jesse Jackson followers, embedding union incompetence in what is already a world-renowned education disaster.

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