More than 50 community activists, students and parents assembled outside of Robert E. McNair Elementary School Monday to kick off a campaign to get a referendum on February’s ballot for an elected Chicago Board of Education.
The coalition — which includes the Grassroots Education Movement, Communities Organized for Democracy in Education, Grassroots Illinois Action and United Working Families — is trying to get the required 8 percent of signatures from each of the city’s 50 wards so it will be included on the Feb. 24th municipal ballot.
Last week, the Chicago City Council’s Rules Committee left a referenda off the ballot regarding electing school board members.
That move angered many Chicago residents and was seen by some to be a “crowding out” of the issue, Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), as reported by the Chicago Sun Times.
Since the 1990s, the Chicago Board of Education has been hand-selected by the mayor, then approved by the city council. It’s the only school board of more than 800 statewide that’s appointed rather than elected.
“Today, you see a broad coalition of families across this city that understand we will no longer accept voter suppression in Chicago at the hand of its school board,” said Brandon Johnson, an Austin resident and organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union.
“For far too long we’ve had a top-down approach toward education that’s been driven by the corporate interest groups that stand to make a profit off the backs off black and brown families; and today we’re saying ‘no more,’” Johnson said.
Drana Jackson, a mother of a student at Walter H. Dyett High School in Bronzeville, said she’s fighting for parents like herself to be able to determine who gets to represent her on the school board.
Despite a civil rights complaint filed by members of the Dyett community, the board of education has “ignored us and refused to make the necessary changes,” Jackson said.
Dyett has just 13 students at the school, and many of their classes – including P.E. – are done online, Jackson said. The school has been in the process of being phased out by CPS over the past several years and faces closure at the end of this academic year.
Jackson said the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization worked with Communities Organized for Democracy in Education in 2012 to try and get a similar non-binding referendum on the ballot and found that 87 percent of those contacted favored an elected school board.
Catelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, said communities around Chicago remain united in their demand for an elected school board.
“While the mayor makes his moves, by squashing democracy and disrespecting parents, we will make our moves, by knocking on doors and by giving people the one thing the mayor is afraid off; we are going to give people the chance to vote for an elected school board,” Johnson said. “We want more than to be just a voice at the decision making table; we want to be the decision makers.”
Jitu Brown, a member of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Austin resident, suggested an elected school board may not be “the silver bullet” but argued there still has to be a way for the school board to be accountable to the people.
“If you don’t have instruments of democracy, then you have no protection from corporate greed,” Brown said.
The group held its rally at McNair, which earlier this year the Chicago Board of Education voted to turn over administrative and teaching duties to the Academy of Urban School Leadership, a private organization with ties to board President, David Vitale, and CPS Chief Academic Officer Tim Cawley.
A CPS spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.
But CPS officials have said in the past there’s no need for an elected school board.
In a 2012 AustinTalks.org article, spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said in an e-mail,”There’s already too much politics in our school system, and what it doesn’t need is more. The decisions of our board members are based on what’s in the best interest of students.”