For more than 20 years, the mayor of Chicago has had the power to appoint not only the CEO of the nation’s third-largest school system, but also the entire school board that governs it. But after years of protests from Chicago residents, the Illinois state legislature may finally end this controversial governance structure, potentially setting the stage for much larger public school shifts in the Windy City.
Other than Chicago, every school district in Illinois has an elected school board, as do more than 95 percent of school districts nationwide. But in 1995, as a reform strategy for the state’s largest and poorest district, state lawmakers passed legislation granting Chicago’s then-Mayor Richard M. Daley greater authority to appoint his city’s school leadership. Rahm Emanuel succeeded Daley as mayor in 2011, and took control over Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
Supporters of mayoral control—a strategy also instituted in New York City in 2002 and Washington, D.C., in 2007—say that challenging the status quo of chronically underperforming urban school districts is easier if one elected official has expansive decision-making power, rather a divided school board sharing it.
The mayor can also theoretically better leverage the school system with other governmental agencies, the private sector, and civic institutions. Researchers find that cities with diffuse civic capacity tend to be less effective in promoting urban school improvement than cities that can take coordinated civic action. Mayoral-control supporters also argue that it can increase political accountability for schools’ performance: School board elections have notoriously low turnout, and it can be easier for voters to hold a highly visible politician responsible for the success or failure of a district.
Yet critics of mayoral control say it is the opposite of democratic and reduces the public’s ability to shape their schools and local communities. The Chicago Teachers Union, a powerful critic of the Emanuel administration, argues that while Chicago’s school board “is composed primarily of corporate executives,” the CPS’s predominantly poor, black, and brown student body come from communities that have no say in running their schools.
In 2015, Chicago residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a nonbinding referendum to switch back to an elected school board. The Chicago Tribune reported then that “perhaps no issue in Chicago politics has been more polarizing in the last four years than Emanuel’s handling of CPS.” As public dissatisfaction with Emanuel’s education policies grew, so did the momentum to end mayoral control.
In 2016, a bill to end mayoral control passed in the Illinois House, but never came to a vote in the Senate. The House sponsor, Representative Robert Martwick of Chicago, said that the absence of an elected school board has “eliminated democracy” in his city.
Martwick vowed to make a more concerted effort to get his Senate colleagues on board this year, and was successful. On May 26, the House again overwhelmingly approved a bill to end mayoral control, and last week, the Senate passed a similar bill, which would create a Chicago school board with 15 elected seats. (Chicago’s school board currently has seven members.) The House and Senate are expected to pass a version they both can agree on later this month.
Chicago has for years been a high-profile city for national education reformers. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Arne Duncan, who had been serving as CPS’s CEO, to serve as his first secretary of education. Duncan brought to the federal level some controversial school reform strategies he had promoted in Chicago, such as linking student test scores to teacher pay.
Emanuel, who served as Obama’s first White House chief of staff, also launched an ambitious school reform effort when he took over as mayor, one that included robust charter school expansion, school closures, and longer school days. Opposition to Emanuel’s policies helped mobilize the Chicago Teachers Union to launch in 2012 their first strike in 25 years, a seven-day effort that influenced union strategy across the country, and Emanuel's policies continue to attract national attention. This year, his administration announced a new graduation requirement found nowhere else in the country: CPS seniors must now prove they have post-high school plans, such as going to college, getting a job, or joining the military.
Emanuel and CPS officials have testified against ending mayoral control, and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner said last year that he opposes Chicago reverting to an elected school board. But even if Rauner vetoes such a bill, Illinois lawmakers have enough support to override his veto.
Chicago isn’t the first city to bounce between mayoral and electoral control. In 1999, Michigan’s state lawmakers stripped power from Detroit’s elected school board, and empowered Detroit’s then-Mayor Dennis Archer to appoint the school district’s leadership. But in 2004, Detroit residents voted to return district authority to a locally elected school board.
Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University, notes that Michigan state lawmakers had much less confidence in Kwame Kilpatrick, Archer’s successor, which was a significant factor in Detroit going back to an elected school board. Similarly, Illinois lawmakers’ worsening relationship with Emanuel is playing a role in the decision over Chicago’s school governance.
“The state is a key actor here,” says Henig. “The legislature can either make this happen or prevent it from happening. If the [Michigan] legislature had trusted Kilpatrick, they wouldn’t have necessarily let it go back to an elected board. As it often happens, the personal relationships of the mayors with the legislature are a big part of the story.”
This same dynamic has played out in New York, where state lawmakers granted former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg six-year terms of control over the nation’s largest public school system. By contrast, current Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected in 2014, has had a much rockier relationship with the legislature, and lawmakers have only granted him one-year extensions of mayoral control, leading to tense annual fights between the city and the state.
If the Illinois legislature approves a compromise bill this month, Chicago’s change in school governance might not take effect for another six years. But Henig says the bill’s passage would still likely lead to some “immediate changes” in Chicago; for example, how parents and teachers mobilize to fight current policies.
Rick Hess, the director of education policy at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, says that painting the fight over mayoral control as “some grand philosophical crusade” exaggerates the stakes of the debate. He notes that the public doesn’t say it’s a crisis of democracy when a mayor appoints a police chief, or when the president appoints the attorney general.
“They’re both democratic models; it’s just a question of how much authority you want to give the mayor,” Hess says.
Henig agrees, noting that parents and teachers tend to cast a disproportionate number of votes in the low-turnout school board elections. “When someone says one [model] is more democratic than the other, that’s just rhetorical posturing,” he says. “There’s a pro-democratic argument for either one.”
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Chicago once had an elected school board. Prior to 1995, the mayor still played a role in selecting school board leadership, but Chicago residents had more of a say in the process, through elected local school councils that nominated candidates for the mayor's consideration.