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Editorial: An elected school board isn’t answer, but changes needed

New Chicago Public Schools CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett attends her first school board meeting last month.  |  Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

New Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett attends her first school board meeting last month. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: December 13, 2012 10:22AM

Does the Chicago Board of Education have a democracy problem?

Without a doubt.

Chicago teachers went on strike in part because they felt ignored and put-upon by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board.

And now this: On Tuesday, a referendum asking some Chicago voters if they favor switching to an elected school board was approved by a resounding majority — 87 percent. The non-binding referendum wasn’t on the ballot in all precincts. Voters in only 327 precincts across 35 wards weighed in.

But given the broad support — 65,763 yes votes to 10,174 no votes — no one should ignore these results.

They represent real dissatisfaction with the board and its practices.

But the solution is not an elected board. As we wrote last summer, there is no evidence that an elected board would be more inclusive or lead to better schools. Nearly 95 percent of all school systems have elected boards, with mixed results. School governance is just one of many factors that influence how well students learn.

And even with the best election system, voter turnout likely would be low and the influence of special-interest groups high.

There’s no question that Chicago’s seven-member school board should be more democratic and representative.

The board has made moves in that direction lately. You now can sign up online to speak at the monthly board meeting instead of having to show up at 6 a.m. to secure a spot. Board members also are available to meet with the public by appointment.

More significantly, the new Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is seeking an extension on the Dec. 1 deadline to list school closures for next year so CPS can fully engage the public. This was her call, and Emanuel and the board president backed her up.

These are important steps. But the board should be more diverse, including more average (i.e. not affluent folks) parents, school staff and community members. They should be vetted by an independent commission, which could forward the names of potential board members to the mayor. Alternatively, a minority of the board could be elected, preserving mayoral control but making the board more democratic.

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