Northwest Side Senator Martwick confident elected city school board coming to Chicago
by JASON MEREL
Senator Robert Martwick (D-10) said he has “little doubt” that the plan for a fully elected Chicago school board will make its way to Governor J.B. Pritzker’s desk and he will sign it into law.
“I suppose the forces that are opposed to this could convince legislators to change their votes,” he said. “It’s a remote possibility but not likely.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been an opponent of the elected school board idea.
The Senate bill, which is sponsored by Martwick, was sent to the Illinois House for a concurrence vote after it was approved in the last days of the spring legislative session.
The House passed its version of the bill earlier this year 71-39 and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch expressed support and intends to take the bill up when the legislature returns next week.
The legislation outlines a plan to transition from a 7-member appointed by the mayor board to a 21-member elected board. If signed into law, the 2024 election cycle would see 10 elected and 10 appointed board members. The 10 appointed seats are subject to the consent of City Council and would then become elected seats during the 2026 election, with the city’s first fully elected board seated in January 2027. Board members would be elected to 4-year terms and the bill would place a moratorium on school closings effective July 2022 until the first elected board is seated in 2024.
Questions have been raised about why a 21-member board is needed and how schools will be supplemented by additional city funds or municipal services if the mayor doesn’t appoint the board and formal ties with the city are cut. Critics have said that the bill was rushed through the legislature and that interest groups, including the Chicago Teachers Union, would dominate the elections. CPS is its own taxing body and manages its own finances.
Martwick said he’s been working on the legislation for the past 6 years and there have been extensive negotiations and compromises that led to this bill.
He said that setting up 20 districts in the city would address concerns such as ensuring minorities have access to the board, that elections don’t become proxy wars between the teachers union and private interests such as charter schools and that elections would be localized.
“If the district is small enough, you don’t have to worry about money interests at all,” he said. He said his experience running in smaller elections is that the smaller the election, the more grassroots organizing can be done with the least need for campaign donations and that’s what he would like to see done with the school board.
He said his original proposal years ago was for a 50-member board so each ward could be represented but it was met with even more opposition. He said he then looked at House districts and found that the demographics of the House members who represent Chicago were nearly identical to the demographics of the populations they represented.
“The issues that affect Lincoln Park are not the same as the issues that affect Morgan Park so everyone has to have a seat at the table for this to work,” Martwick said.
So he said he drew a 20-district map that roughly corresponded to House districts. Martwick said he would have preferred a 24-district map since there are actually 28 state lawmakers whose districts overlap into the city.
The size of the proposed board has often been criticized, with opponents also citing the failures of the Los Angeles elected school board.
“LA was a disaster because they switched from a 7 member appointed board to a 7 member elected board,” Martwick said. “What happens then is you have a proxy war between the unions and charter schools. All 7 seats in LA were won by the Koch brothers. Charter school interests completely wiped out the unions. If you’re worried about a proxy war for the Chicago board, don’t be worried about the teachers union.”
He also responded to an assertion in a June 2 Chicago Sun-Times editorial that he should be held responsible for declining enrollment if the bill is passed by the House and approved by the governor.
“Enrollment has been declining in Chicago Public Schools for 20 years,” Martwick said. “What did the mayoral boards do? They closed schools, mainly in disadvantaged areas. If you ask parents that have been requesting this (elected board) for 15 years, the board let them speak, they were dismissed and condescended to. That’s what this is about.”
He said he shares concerns about CPS’ finances because he has children that will be attending public schools and he will be among those footing the bill.
“It was broken before, it will be still be broken after the elected board is seated,” Martwick said. “The difference is we would have accountability.”
“Everything I do is reforming government,” Martwick said. “Government is always broken. The whole point is that you have the right to democracy, you identify the problems and you fix them as you go. The worst argument is that democracy isn’t perfect yet.”
Referendums passed in support of an elected school board in Chicago in both 2012 and 2019. Martwick said the legislation has passed in the House four times since 2015 and twice in the Senate since 2017, all with super majorities, but that the two chambers could never approve the bills concurrently.
“It’s been a very popular issue in my district for years and it’s something I’m glad to finally be able to bring across the finish line, Martwick said. “I wrote the structure. It’s not perfect but I listened to the concerns people had and addressed it in what I thought was a thoughtful way. I can’t wait for the governor to put pen to paper and write it into law.”