As CPS gears up for the next Local School Council elections, legislation under consideration in the state’s House of Representatives would require every charter school in Chicago to be administered by an LSC.
Unlike traditional neighborhood schools in the city, charter schools are not overseen by an elected body of parents, community members and staff. (Find out who is running for the LSC at your school.)
“The whole point of this is bringing democracy into our schools,” says Rod Wilson, a member of Communities Organized for Democracy in Education, which has been lobbying for the bill. “We feel that if a school is in District 299 and receives public funding, there should be parents with decision-making authority, not just giving advice or input.”
House Bill 5328, sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) also restores some authority to LSCs at schools under probation and requires Chicago Public Schools to provide $2,500 to each council for training purposes. The bill passed on first reading in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee in late March and is awaiting a second vote to get out of committee.
The Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) opposes the bill, arguing that it “would create an additional and conflicting decision making entity in the charter school authorization process,” according to a summary of charter school-related legislation that the organization is tracking in Springfield.
“Charter schools under current law and contract are governed under non-profit governing boards, and if you add LSCs as a layer, it’d be unclear what role they’d play,” says Andrew Broy, president of INCS. “Charters get to design their curriculum and they get held accountable for results, not process.”
Broy said most charter schools already have active parent councils and that many schools’ governing boards include parents and community members. As an alternative to the LSC proposal, he said he’s suggested to lawmakers that charter schools should demonstrate how they’ll ensure parental and community involvement during the authorization process.
Even though the group doesn’t want charter schools to have elected governing entities, three staff members of INCS are currently running for seats on LSCs in Chicago. LSC elections take place on April 7 at the city’s elementary schools, and on April 8 at the high schools.
The INCS staff running for seats at LSCs include: the group’s spokeswoman, Jodie Cantrell, community candidate at Blaine Elementary School; director of development and capacity, Eric Johnson, parent candidate at Audubon Elementary School; and charter support manager, Jelani McEwen, community candidate at Kenwood High School. WBEZ first reported on some of the unusual candidates running for the Blaine LSC in March.
Suspicious of motives
Broy says he doesn’t think it’s a contradiction for his staff to run for positions on LSCs while the organization opposes having councils at charter schools. He considers it a sign of their “well-roundedness” if they participate in community organizations in their neighborhood.
“They’re trying to have a role in governance in local schools, and in those schools they can do that through LSCs,” he says.
But perhaps not surprisingly, activists against charter schools say they are suspicious of the true motives of LSC candidates who support charter schools.
Earlier this week, for example, some parents and educators circulated a list of candidates “not to vote for” on Facebook because of their support for charter schools and supportive politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.
“If they’re running for LSCs, does that mean they want to make them charter schools? Is that the purpose?” asks Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville and a former LSC member himself. “Or do they want to be a part of a democratic process? If so, they should support this bill.”
Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is also getting increasingly involved in promoting LSC participation to both its own members and community groups. In February, the CTU and the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) organized a summit for about 250 LSC candidates and other community activists who wanted to learn about how to run an effective council. The coalition of like-minded LSC candidates voted to share a campaign platform that advocates for an elected school board, universal pre-kindergarten and an end to charter and military school expansion.
“We realize how important the LSCs are, and that they’re pretty much in the same boat as the union,” said Michael Brunson, the CTU’s recording secretary. “We have the same interests in having our publicly funded schools survive.”
LCSs are responsible for approving schools’ discretionary budgets, hiring principals, and overseeing the school’s Continuous Improvement Work Plan, although councils at schools on probation have more limited powers. Each council is made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers, one non-teacher staff member and the school principal. High schools also include one student representative.
Getting teachers, residents and community members interested in joining their LSCs isn’t always easy, Brunson says.
“You mention LSCs and people’s eyes roll,” he says. “There has been a lot of cynicism and disengagement. You can see that each year as you have elections, fewer and fewer people running for school councils.”
After passage of the historic School Reform Act and during the first elections in 1989, more than 17,000 people ran for seats. But interest in LSC elections has since dwindled. This year, for example, CPS extended the deadline for candidates to file their paperwork to encourage more people to sign up.
Despite the extension, many LSCs still lack enough candidates to fill the vacancies. Nine of the 516 schools with LSCs lack any parent candidates, while 39 lack any community candidates. In total, 35 percent of councils don’t have enough parent candidates to fill the vacancies, and 22 percent don’t have enough community member candidates, according to CPS data. Click here to see an interactive map of all LSCs and the names of all of the candidates.
Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who studies race and class inequality in urban schools, says that despite the lack of interest in LSCs, they remain “the only place where there is democracy at any level” in Chicago schools. The city’s School Board is handpicked by the mayor, although there is currently movement in Springfield to change the system.
“They have great potential to involve parents and community members and teachers with the principals in robust discussions of what they want to happen at their schools and put pressure on CPS to provide it,” Lipman says.