In the wake of a dramatic school strike — and just prior to the anticipated announcement of scores of school closings — residents of 327 precincts in 35 wards will vote next month on an advisory referendum calling for an elected school board.
With 77 percent of Chicagoans backing an elected school board  according to a Chicago Tribune poll, the challenge facing Communities Organized for Democracy in Education,  the coalition of groups backing the referendum, is making sure voters know about the referendum and go to the end of the ballot to vote on it, said Austin schools activist Dwayne Truss.
On the West Side, State Representative La Shawn Ford has sponsored two forums on the referendum, with a third scheduled for Monday, October 29 at 6 p.m. at Carey AME Church, 1448 S. Homan.
Ford, who’s sponsoring legislation establishing a legislative task force to study the issue, has invited supporters of the referendum as well as CPS and Democrats for Education Reform, the group that paid for Mayor Emanuel’s post-strike TV ad blitz. CPS and DFER have declined to participate, Truss said.
Tuesday forum features Karen Lewis
On Tuesday night, CODE is holding a forum on the referendum at the Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie (7 p.m., October 23), featuring Karen Lewis, Ben Joravsky, and Pauline Lipman of UIC and Teachers for Social Justice.
Tuesday’s forum will be broadcast live on CAN-TV 27.
At Ford’s October 8 forum, Lipman reviewed findings from her 2011 study of elected and appointed boards . Chicago’s school board is the only appointed board in the state and a rarity in the nation, where 96 percent of school boards are elected, she said.
Elected boards “tend to look more like the people who elect them,” Lipman said. “They have parents and teachers and community organizers and education experts.” Chicago’s board “has corporate CEOs and bankers and real estate developers,” she said.
[In Catalyst, Lawndale organizer Valerie Leonard points out that while her neighborhood has been targeted for school closings and turnarounds, not one person on the school board is from the West Side.]
Elected boards “have structures and processes in place to involve the public,” Lipman said. “They meet in the evening, when more people can attend, they meet in communities, they have community task forces to study issues, they debate and vote in public.”
That’s a contrast to Chicago’s board, she said.
“If you’ve ever been to a board of education meeting here, you know you have to get up at 4 a.m. and get on line by 6 a.m. for the chance to speak for two minutes to a board of education that is paying no attention to you – half of them are sitting there texting” during the public comment period.
Behind closed doors
After public comments Chicago’s board “goes into executive session and at the end of the day – for those of us who stick around – they come out and tell us what they’ve decided.”
She said arguments that appointed boards are more effective don’t hold water. Under mayoral control since 1995, Chicago’s board “has failed our children,” she said, with the racial achievement gap growing and the number of schools on probation doubling.
Under the appointed board, CPS is moving toward “a two-tiered education system with a small number of selective-enrollment schools” with a rich curriculum, while “disinvesting from and destabilizing neighborhood schools” in black and Latino communities, where preparation for standardized tests.is emphasized.
Over 100 schools have been closed, mainly in black and Latino communities, with “disastrous” results, she said. “Children have died,” she said, referring to violence that’s resulted. “Children have dropped out because they’re afraid to go to the school they’ve been transferred to.” And low-income communities of color, already hit hard by unemployment and foreclosures, have lost “anchor institutions.”
And against the argument that elections would “politicize” the board, Lipman asked, “What could be more political than a board that’s only accountable to the mayor’s political agenda?”
Lipman took issue with Ford’s proposal for a study commission. “This discussion has been going on for a long time,” she said. “The damage has been done. We don’t need a study commission. We need an elected school board.”
Ford responded: “I’m going to be carrying legislation, whether for a task force or for an elected school board. Whatever the community wants and is willing to fight for, that’s what I’ll fight for.”
He said that under its current governance, CPS has failed black students.
A previous version misspelled Pauline Lipman’s name.