Earlier this month, when the Chicago Public Schools inspector general issued a report that CPS CEO Forrest Claypool engaged in a “full-blown cover-up” of ethics violations and “repeatedly lied” to investigators, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tiptoed into the controversy. Rather than condemn his handpicked CEO, a longtime loyal factotum and friend, Emanuel said simply, “Forrest made a mistake,” and asked that no one make any snap judgments. Board of Education president Frank Clark immediately commended Claypool for “exemplary leadership” and said the board would review the report.
Claypool would eventually announce his resignation, but the rubber stamp was in full effect. The mayor was ready to stand by his guy, and so Clark, who was also appointed by the mayor, did the same.
And this, the initial stiff-arming of a damning IG report, is just one illustration of why an unelected school board doesn’t make sense for Chicago. Illinois lawmakers handed the mayor control of the board in 1995, making it something of a rare bird: a tax-levying body that isn’t actually elected by the taxpayers. Proponents argue that having the mayor appoint the board increases accountability—if you don’t like the board’s actions, elect a new mayor. But this is sort of like blaming Toyota if your Uber is late. There are no checks and balances on the board’s tax decisions. Neither the mayor nor the City Council can veto those votes.
Just to put a fine point on how insane this is: We elect members of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board, but not the school board. We vote on something like 30,000 judges every election, but not the people responsible for the stewardship of, among other things, special education dollars for the kids who need it most.
And an elected school board isn’t exactly a fringe idea. According to education advocacy group Illinois Raise Your Hand, 94 percent of school boards around the country are elected, and Chicago’s is the only one in Illinois appointed by law. Several nonbinding referenda over the last few years have shown again and again that Chicagoans want to elect their boards. So what’s the argument for having the board appointed by the mayor?
Supporters of an appointed board say it removes politics from the board’s composition. If you ignore for a second that Chicago has run on patronage since its inception, this still makes very little sense. An elected school board would represent the diverse viewpoints of members’ constituencies the same way any legislative body does. But an appointed board only represents one point of view: the mayor’s. What the politics-free argument truly is after is a board that will oppose the Chicago Teachers Union. v