Students walk down the hall at Nicholas Senn High School in Edgewater on April 23, 2021. The fate of the city depends on the quality of its public schools, and legislators should reject a proposal for a 21-member elected board. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Does anybody in Chicago really believe the best thing for the city’s school kids is another 21 politicians?

Ultimately, Chicago’s future rests with its schools.

Good public schools, more than anything, will keep young families from fleeing the city for the suburbs. Good public schools are vital to thriving neighborhoods across the city, and especially in communities of color left devastated by decades of disinvestment. Good public schools lead to a well-educated workforce that keeps and lures businesses.

Good public schools are Chicago’s foundation, as they are for every successful big city. Without that foundation, Chicago is going nowhere.

So Mayor Lori Lightfoot must fight, publicly and hard, against a bad proposal to create an ungainly, unmanageable 21-member fully elected school board that would upend how Chicago’s public schools are run — and not for the better.

Stability, not the uncertainties and transparent dangers of a completely new system of governance, is what Chicago needs right now to build on more than a decade of hard-won academic progress. And that’s truer than ever as three top CPS officials — CEO Janice Jackson, Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade, and Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera — make their way for the exit.

Their resignations will leave a huge leadership vacuum at the very top at a time when the school district is struggling to recover from the educational and financial impact of a devastating pandemic.

One person must be accountable to recruit superb new leaders. One person must be in charge. That one person should be the city’s elected chief executive, the mayor.

If not, we fear Chicago will see a replay of the disaster for school kids that has been playing out in Los Angeles since 2017, when the teachers union there and charter school advocates burned through $17 million in a contentious race to fill seven seats on a new, elected school board. To this day, the two sides are at odds and student academic performance remains stagnant.

Does anyone in Chicago really believe that the best thing for our city’s school kids is another 21 politicians? Does anyone really believe that a fully elected school board would be made up of 21 independent, super-qualified individuals, each of them civic-minded, knowledgeable about education, experienced in running a multi-billion-dollar governmental enterprise and committed to doing what’s best for students?

Or might they be as equally inclined — just saying — to do what’s best for the people who funded their campaigns?

Lightfoot’s got a job to do down in Springfield. She has to throw her weight around. She has to make the calls and collar the votes. She must use all her powers of persuasion, publicly and forcefully, to achieve a sensible compromise on this business of an elected school board, one that puts the education of children first, not the agendas of special interests.

‘Transition’ hybrid board?

Two weeks ago — late in the game — Lightfoot announced her own proposal for a hybrid school board, with eight members appointed by the mayor and three elected. But the mayor’s bill, being shepherded by Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, has yet to gain much traction among lawmakers, many of whom say it doesn’t go far enough in providing for elected board members.

Meanwhile, Senate President Don Harmon is looking to forge a compromise. Last Friday, he proposed the creation of a temporary hybrid board with a majority of members appointed by the mayor — but only as a transition to a fully elected board sometime in the future.

We don’t know if Harmon really loves that idea, or if he’s signaling to Lightfoot that she had better fight harder for some version of her own hybrid board. But we have to ask: If a fully elected board is wrong for Chicago’s schools now, which it is, why would it be right a few years down the road?

Our own view, which we’ve often stated, is that Chicago’s schools could benefit from a board comprised of both elected and appointed members that could encourage more robust and independent debate. But ultimate control of the board must remain with the mayor or — as in the failing past — nobody will really be accountable.

Fear of political backlash

There is still time and room, we’re told, for negotiations in Springfield that could lead to an agreement on a long-term hybrid school board over which the mayor’s office retains majority control. The spring legislative session is running down, but nothing is ever really over there until a session’s last day.

Much of the support for the 21-member school board bill comes from Democratic state senators and representatives who fear payback from the Chicago Teachers Union. They worry that the CTU will run its own candidate in the next Democratic primary against against any legislator who fails to back the bill.

What they fail to appreciate is that the school board surely would serve as a kind of incubator for CTU candidates for everything from the Legislature to the City Council to the Cook County Board. If they think the CTU is messing with them now, just wait. No vote is insurance against a primary challenge.

Chicago’s public schools have made undeniable progress in recent years, under a system of mayoral control. While so much more needs to be done, more kids are graduating from high school, more high schools are offering advanced courses, and more kids are going to college.

Chicago cannot risk going backward.

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