Lightfoot Seeks to Change the Chicago Board of Education from Appointed to Elected. Does it Matter?

For most of Chicago’s history, a school board appointed by the mayor has overseen the city’s schools. Then, in the late 1980s, it shifted to an elected board only to revert back to an appointive system in 1995. Now, Chicago’s new mayor Lori Lightfoot wants an elected school board overseeing the Windy City’s schools, but first she had to appoint one while a change to state law is hammered out. Are you following?

While these machinations in the third largest district in the nation might be confusing, the proposed change in governance may not matter.

According to a 2016 Pew Charitable Trust report: “There is no consensus among researchers about whether any particular form of school governance—including state takeovers, mayoral control, or elected local boards—leads to better student performance or fiscal management.”

But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from trying. Centralizing and decentralizing education governance is a popular American pastime.

In an unpublished paper written in conjunction with a Bellwether project* on the evolution of public school governance, James Shuls explains:

Over generations, states and cities have continuously experimented with different [education governance] models. More importantly, governance policies have adapted with the times. When people were isolated in remote communities, local boards of education were the norm. When immigrants flooded northern cities, boards composed of ward representation ensured neighborhood public schools reflected local needs. As partisan politics and nepotism grew, district governance became more centralized. Later, as centralized administrations grew distant and unresponsive, some boards reverted to include greater ward participation.

More recently, state receivership, statewide school districts, and charter schools and their authorizers have introduced new governance models.

What matters more than the specific governance model, according to the Pew report, are clear lines of accountability, scopes of responsibility, transparency, and good governance practices — all things Lightfoot has proposed for Chicago’s school system.

Assuming Lightfoot can get it done, the more important question for Chicago is whether they’ll continue executing on the strategy that made it the fastest improving school system in the country.

The fact that Lightfoot kept Janice Jackson as Chicago Public Schools’ CEO bodes well for a continuity of strategy. But then again Lightfoot is opposed to the idea of opening charter schools or closing any schools, two major factors in Chicago’s history of continuous improvement.

Regardless of whether Chicago’s next school board members are appointed or elected, they’d be smart to take a good hard look at what’s led to unprecedented academic achievement gains across all student groups and keep doing what’s worked.

*Email me at jason.weeby@bellwethereducation.org if you’re interested in learning more about the paper.