Civic Federation Position Statement on 21-Member Elected Chicago School Board

May 18, 2021

The Civic Federation opposes legislation under consideration by the Illinois General Assembly that would create a 21-member elected Chicago School Board. The proposal would establish a governing board that would: be too large to be effective; lead to expensive and divisive political campaigns funded by interest groups; allow the legislature to create gerrymandered electoral districts; not necessarily lead to improved educational outcomes; and create a potential financial disconnect between the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools.[1]

The Chicago Public Schools has had a contentious recent history. Its leadership has been rocked by scandals. The drive for an elected Board is fueled in part by a desire for a greater voice in school operations from a broad spectrum of the community, particularly in underserved communities. Past administrations were not always inclusive or transparent in the decisions they made that most directly impacted those communities.

In recent years, CPS has greatly improved the transparency of its operations by discussing substantive issues and agenda items publicly at board meetings, introducing live-streaming of its meetings and creating new committees. The District has significantly improved graduation rates.[2] However, more should be done to increase the transparency of CPS operations and decisionmaking. Creating a 21-member Board does not necessarily address those issues.

History of Chicago Public Schools Governance

The Chicago school district is the only one in Illinois that does not now and has never had an elected school board.[3] The structure of the governing Board of Education has been revised multiple times since the creation of the District in 1872. In 1995, the General Assembly amended the Chicago School Reform Act to restore direct mayoral control of the schools. The mayor was authorized to appoint a five-member Board of Trustees and a Chief Executive Officer. The number of Board members was increased to seven in 1999.[4]

There are 14,178 school districts in the U.S.[5] While most smaller districts are governed by an elected board, the reverse is true in many large metropolitan areas. In addition to Chicago, the school boards in New York, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Baltimore are appointed by the mayor or the mayor and governor.[6] A major exception is Los Angeles, where an elected seven-member Board oversees the operations of the Los Angeles Unified School District.[7]

Legislation has been introduced into the 102nd Illinois General Assembly providing for a 21-member elected Chicago School Board. Twenty members would be elected for four-year terms from single member districts, and a Board President would be elected citywide. Board members would be required to receive a majority of the votes cast. If no one candidate received a majority of the votes, a runoff election would be held with the top two candidates. The Board would select top CPS administrators, who would serve at the Board’s pleasure. If this legislation is approved, elections will commence in 2023.[8] The Illinois House of Representatives approved the legislation on April 15, 2021 on a 71-39 vote. It is currently being considered by the Illinois Senate.

Chicago Mayor Lightfoot has proposed a hybrid school board structure that would include both elected and appointed members. Under her plan, two of the seven CPS board members would be elected in 2026 and the rest would be appointed by the mayor. In 2028, the board’s size would grow to eleven, with three elected and eight appointed members. The Board would revert to mayoral control in 2032 unless the legislature took action.[9]

Civic Federation Position on a 21-Member Elected Chicago School Board

The Civic Federation opposes House Bill 2908 and Senate Bill 2497 establishing a 21-member elected Chicago School Board for the following reasons:

The large size of the proposed board

The proposed 21-member CPS School Board would be the largest in the nation. Currently, major urban school districts boards range from seven members in Los Angeles to thirteen members in New York City.[10] The new CPS Board also would be larger than most other local government governing boards, including the Cook County Board of Commissioners or most Illinois municipal councils.

In the Federation’s view, such a large elected school board would be too large to be effective. It would likely become enmeshed in factional politics, turf battles, political conflicts and appeasing powerful stakeholders. This would make it difficult to focus on efficient administration or implementing the core educational mission of the school system. It would also be difficult for the district’s chief administrators, who manage the schools on a day–to-day basis, to satisfy the demands of 21 elected members. Finally, a large board would be expensive to operate as members would require professional staff.

The high cost of electoral campaigns

The cost of elections for CPS board members in a city the size of Chicago would be very high. Political campaigns would bring in infusions of outside money that would lead to divisive, contentious campaigns and distort the electoral and political process. In Los Angeles, a record $17.7 million was spent in the 2020 school board elections as teachers’ union and charter school backed candidates fought for control of the board.[11] Of that amount, over $16 million came from interest groups, mostly charter school proponents. The remainder was raised by school board member campaigns.[12]

The Illinois General Assembly would draw electoral boundaries

House Bill 2908 establishes that the Illinois General Assembly would draw the boundaries for the elected school board districts. It is unclear why this power should reside with the legislature rather than an independent or City of Chicago agency. This could lead to significant gerrymandering of the districts based on political concerns, including benefitting incumbents’ reelection chances.[13]

Elected districts do not necessarily produce better outcomes

There is no consensus in the policy literature as to whether any particular form of governance–elected school boards, mayoral control or state takeovers–improves academic achievement or administrative performance. A 2013 study evaluating mayoral governance and student achievement found that mayoral control of urban school districts has led to some improvements in academic performance.[14] However, a recent study of Chicago’s experiences with mayoral control reached the opposite conclusion, finding increased racial disparities in educational outcomes.[15] The issue with establishing a connection between governance structure and performance is that there are too many other factors such as levels of funding, demographics and administrative competence or qualifications (that also have a direct impact on academic and management results) to establish a conclusive correlation between type of governance and outcomes.[16]

Potential Financial Disconnect between the City of Chicago and CPS

Historically, the Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago have had a close financial relationship, which was established in state statute or intergovernmental agreement. As a result, the City provides the District with significant annual subsidies. For example, in FY2021, the City provided $124 million in pension contributions for CPS employees in the Chicago Municipal Retirement Fund, $142.3 million from a dedicated property tax levy used to pay for some debt service funding, $39.7 million for certain CPS capital projects funding and $12.5 million in grants for programs such as early childhood development.[17] CPS also received $96.9 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) surplus revenue from the City of Chicago in FY2021, and $163.1 million the prior year.[18]

Legally separating the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public School raises questions about the ongoing financial responsibility of the City to the school district. No other Illinois city has a financial responsibility for its school system. Rather, each unit of local government is fully responsible for its own financial obligations. If the Chicago Public Schools become a fully independent government, it is not clear that the City would or should be obligated to fund CPS pension, debt and other related costs.

[1] For more information on the history of Chicago Public Schools governance, see The Civic Federation, “Chicago Public Schools Board of Education Governance: A History and Review Of Other Cities’ Practices: An Issue Brief of the Civic Federation Task Force on the Chicago Public Schools,” June 8, 2017 at

[2] Samantha Smylie, Hybrid or elected school board? Lightfoot proposal stirs debate in Springfield, Chalkbeat Chicago, April 14, 2021 at

[3] 105 ILCS 5/Article 34, Cities Of Over 500,000 Inhabitants - Board of Education.

[4] Chicago Public Schools, “About the Board of Education,” at

[5] United States Census. Public School Systems by Type of Organization and State: 2012 - United States - States: 2012 Census of Governments at

[6] School Board websites and Education Commission of the States, “50 State Comparison: Local School Boards,” 2016 at

[7] Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education at

[9] Dan Petrella and Jenny Whidden, “Lightfoot’s plan for a partially elected school board introduced in state Senate as House passes bill calling for all seats to be chosen by voters,” Chicago Tribune, April 15, 2021 at

[10] Cassie Walker Burke, Chalkbeat Chicago, “As 21-person elected school board bill gains momentum, calls grow in Chicago for another option,” March 25, 2021 at

[11] Howard Blume, L.A. school board races show split between union- and charter-backed candidates, Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2020 at

[12] Eric Zorn, Nasty, expensive school board elections for Chicago? Hard pass. Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2021 at

[13] Cassie Walker Burke, Chalkbeat Chicago, “As 21-person elected school board bill gains momentum, calls grow in Chicago for another option,” March 25, 2021 at

[14] Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen, “Mayoral Governance and Student Achievement: How Mayor-Led Districts are Improving School and Student Performance,” Center for American Progress, March 2013.

[15] Pauline Lipman, Eric Gutstein, Rhoda Rae Gutierrez and Tirzah Blanche, Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, University of Illinois at Chicago, “Should Chicago Have an Elected Representative School Board” A New Review of the Evidence,” February 2015.

[16] The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Governing Urban Schools in the Future: What’s Facing Philadelphia and Pennsylvania,” January 2016, p. 5 at briefs/2016/01/governing-urban-schools-in-the-future-whats-facing-philadelphia-and-pennsylvania.

[17] Chicago Public Schools FY2021 Budget, Interactive Online Reports, Revenues & Expenditures, at

[18] TIF surplus is excess money remaining in a TIF fund after revenues have been pledged for projects. Annually the City of Chicago can declare a TIF surplus and distribute the remaining funds to taxing districts based on the portion of a tax bill each taxing body receives. Source: Civic Federation, Chicago Public Schools FY2021 Budget Analysis, at