It’s time for an elected school board

The balmy days we had weeks ago when teachers were rallying out front of Hyde Park’s public schools during the teachers’ strike may be behind us, but reform of public schools in Hyde Park and across the city is still very much ahead of us. Another potential step was taken during last week’s election when a referendum was put on the ballot asking about the desirability of an elected school board for the city’s public schools.

We endorse this idea, as did more than 85 percent of Chicagoans who were asked. The question did not appear on every ballot, but roughly 75,000 voters weighed in. In Hyde Park, the results were close to 90 percent in favor of an elected school board. Our current school board is appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

As one expert told the Herald, it’s like a giant focus group examining the popularity of an elected school board. Almost 66,000 people said it’s a good idea. Those are solid results.

The state of public education in Chicago is one of chronic crisis. We took a small step forward this fall when more than 90 percent of the Chicago Teachers Union membership voted to strike and used the negotiating table to discuss some fundamental reforms that are needed, including reducing classroom size and ensuring that all students have the basics — things like up-to-date textbooks and air conditioning for schools where classes take place in the sweltering summer months. We can take another step by giving advocates for students, parents and teachers a pathway to leadership in the school system.

Not everyone agrees. Opponents of the elected board argue that the elections are unlikely to get very large turnout and that the board will be packed with representatives of special interests. If this occurs, and the board merely plays politics instead of providing real leadership, it will be the children who attend our public schools who pay the price.

The problem with this argument is that it is hard to distinguish between the perils of elected school boards and appointed school boards in this respect. Are there no special interests represented on the board now? We are skeptical.

The electorate is joined by politicians who are speaking out in favor of the elected board, including state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8), who has introduced legislation to study the issue, and several aldermen. We hope to hear vocal support from our local elected officials on this issue in the near future.

Not only is an elected school board a good idea, but the campaign for a popularly elected school board would also provide an excellent opportunity for public conversation about the big ideas driving school reform these days. To give one example, the charter school movement has been noisily critiqued by parents and teachers but they are often unable to draw public officials into conversation. Other changes to the schools are also contentious, but they are often implemented without sufficient debate. While we are fans of marches and rallies, we also believe in the value of public discourse. A campaign might be the one place where that debate could take place.

Public education in Hyde Park was front and center during the strike. Everybody was talking about the teachers’ demands, school conditions and the challenges of educating children. Public debate will continue with the pursuit of an elected board, and that discourse can only benefit the school system.

We understand there are some who disagree. Let’s put the elected board to another referendum — but make this one binding. Let’s hear the arguments pro and con and let the people decide. The process will be an education in itself — and we might take another step down the road of real reform for the benefit of all of Chicago’s public school students.