A number of prominent Latinos in Chicago are criticizing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to make an already disproportionately white school board even more ethnically lopsided by removing one of his only two Hispanic appointees.
“We are disappointed that in a school district that is 46 percent Latino — Latinos being the largest cohort of students now, having exceeded African Americans in the district a number of years ago — that there was not a Latino named to the school board,” says Sylvia Puente, executive director of the non-partisan Latino Policy Forum. “It feels like it’s a missed opportunity.”
There are now four white board members — up from three — while less than 10 percent of children in Chicago Public Schools are white. The remaining two board members are black, compared with nearly 40 percent of students.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Emanuel said his administration “has always been reflective of the citizens we serve, and he will continue to ensure that Latinos are represented in leadership and Board positions.”
The statement goes on to name board member and Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz as well as the mayor’s top education advisor, Arnaldo Rivera. Ruiz, an attorney and Mexican-American who formerly chaired the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), is currently not a voting school board member in his capacity as interim CEO.
Insiders tell Catalyst that at least one Latino turned down an invitation to sit on the board.
It’s unclear whether politics has anything to do with the reduction in Latino representation on the board. The shuffle comes two months after all but one of the city’s Hispanic-majority wards went for Emanuel’s opponent, the Mexican-born Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, in the mayoral elections.
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez — by far Emanuel’s biggest campaign supporter from Chicago’s Hispanic community — says he sees no problem with the ethnic makeup of the board, given the influence of Ruiz and Rivera on the daily workings of the district.
“I’d rather have somebody be in charge of the School Board every day than to try to reach some symbolic positioning of Latinos,” says Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat.
But Miguel del Valle, a former state senator who ran against Emanuel in 2011 and backed Garcia in this year’s race, says the ethnic disparity on the school board just doesn’t make sense.
“If you can’t find one person in the City of Chicago, given all the Latinos we have out there in different arenas, with the skills and talents and the background to be able to serve responsibly and meet the fiduciary obligations, I have to say that they didn’t try hard enough,” he says.
Census data from the 2013 American Community Survey show that Latinos make up just under 30 percent of city residents.
Del Valle, who formerly chaired the Illinois P-20 Council, says he understands that it might be challenging to find someone willing to join the board “under the current circumstances.” CPS faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit next fiscal year and is in the middle of contract negotiations with a teachers union that went on strike last time around.
“Let’s face it: it’s a tough situation to walk into. But you look and you look and you look,” he says.
Reflecting ‘needs and aspirations’
Earlier this week Emanuel announced he was replacing four board members whose terms expire at the end of the month, including Carlos Azcoitia, a former educator and Cuban immigrant. He’d been named to the board in 2012 to fill a vacancy left when another Latino board member, Rodrigo Sierra, was named to the Chicago Housing Authority. (Sierra joined the CHA to replace a vacancy left there by yet another Hispanic.)
Azcoitia said he was told by Board President David Vitale that he would be replaced just days before the mayor made the announcement. He says he would have stayed on had he been asked – and if he’d been allowed to meet with the mayor first. He wasn’t asked to stay.
Reached on Thursday, Azcoitia expressed concern about the changes on the board.
“I know that sometimes with the right leader you can transcend these issues, but it’s important to recognize diversity and quality,” he says. “Latino students and their families should see their needs and aspirations reflected on the board by people who have had similar experiences.”
Josie Yanguas, director of the Illinois Resource Center, knows that just because somebody is Latino doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have the knowledge base to weigh in on one of the issues she’s most concerned about: serving English-language learners. District data show that one in six children in CPS are considered to have limited English proficiency.
“Obviously a huge share are Spanish-speaking, but in Chicago there’s a significant Arabic population, significant Polish population. Those voices aren’t necessarily getting represented either,” says Yanguas, whose organization is dedicated to helping schools across the state serve linguistically and culturally diverse students.
But the lack of adequate ethnic or linguistic representation isn’t a problem that’s unique to the CPS school board, she adds. “Look at the composition in Central Office, the composition of administrators, of principals and teachers in the system,” Yanguas says. “In a state where you have over 800 school districts, you have five superintendents who are Latino.”
And on the state school board, it’s more of the same, she adds. Just one of the nine appointed members is Latino (although there is one current vacancy).
Leading on Latino issues
Some critics have said it doesn’t matter much who Emanuel appoints – or whether they’re Latino, black or white — when CPS board members say little at public meetings and rarely vote against proposals supported by the administration.
Azcoitia says he knows some people believe there’s pressure on board members to vote in favor of everything that’s presented by the administration. But he says he’s been comfortable voting “no” on issues he thought might negatively impact students in Latino neighborhoods, pointing to two of his own votes against CPS proposals to close Von Humboldt Elementary and turning Ames Middle School into a military school in 2013. (Both proposals passed anyway.)
“Even though you’re appointed by the mayor, you have to represent as an educator what’s best for the students and the schools,” he said. “It doesn’t mean because you’re appointed you have to agree or you have to vote affirmatively all the time.”
Del Valle says he’s been disappointed with the lack of strong Latino leadership on education issues. But he says part of the fault lies in the lack of a large-scale movement of Latino parents and community-based activists in Chicago advocating on specific issues such as bilingual education or bringing on more Hispanic teachers into schools. Currently, 18.6 percent of CPS teachers are Hispanic, according to district data.
“That then means that the climate for folks to exert themselves within the system and to provide leadership doesn’t get created,” Del Valle says. “We used to have a lot more advocacy, when we had less political representation. The more political representation we had, the less advocacy we’ve had.”
Jaime Dominguez, a professor of political science and Latino Studies at Northwestern University, says the fact is that many Latino organizations in Chicago — including those concerned with education — are more focused on delivering services instead of political organizing.
“Because they’re nonprofits, they can’t endorse candidates or get too involved,” says Dominguez, who helped run a bilingual survey earlier this year before the mayoral election. “That somewhat neutralizes the Latino voices.”
But he says the “excitement in the Latino community” over this year’s mayoral election and subsequent runoff — which he attributes to the presence of a Latino candidate — might serve as a wake-up call to political leaders. He thinks Emanuel’s decision to pick no new Latinos for the school board was an oversight. “I think he undervalued the significance of Latinos,” Dominguez said.
He went on to add: “This needs to be talked about. And it’s perfect timing for it, coming off the election. Latinos do need to have a larger voice over education, over curriculum, over teacher hiring. And why wouldn’t they? To suggest otherwise is, to me, to say their voice doesn’t count or they’re not capable.”