When Mayor Emanuel announced his original education team in 2011, the press release very carefully noted those board and senior staff members who were also Chicago Public Schools (CPS) parents. Three of the board members had children at a CPS school – Board President David Vitale, Rodrigo Sierra, and Andrea Zopp. Beth Swanson, the Mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Education, was also a CPS parent.
Sierra served only 18 months before moving to the Chicago Housing Authority board. Based on public information sources and social media profiles, it appears that all of the Vitale and Zopp children have graduated and are no longer CPS students. Beth Swanson, the only senior staff person to have children in CPS, has also moved on, leaving the Mayor’s Office last summer for a position with the Joyce Foundation.
Also based on public and social media sources, it appears that only two of the board members have school-age children, and they attend private schools. Deborah Quazzo’s son attends Latin School of Chicago, as did her two older children, and her husband serves on the Latin School Board of Trustees. Board Vice President Jesse Ruiz’s two children attend the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Lab School has multiple ties to CPS and political leaders. Mayor Emanuel’s three children go to school there, as did President Obama’s daughters, and former CPS board member and current U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker’s children.
I don’t bring this up to suggest that there is something wrong with attending private school or that those board members without children in the school system are bad people. [Full disclosure, my two children are now in their first year at a private school after attending a CPS school for 8 years.]
Instead, the question is whether the board members are representative of the people they are serving. Do they have shared experiences with the families whose lives are being impacted by their decisions? This is a fundamental value in our system of democracy.
At the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the mayor is required by State law to appoint CHA residents to three of the ten board seats. Additionally, the CHA residents are part of an advisory council that proposes a list of potential board members to the mayor. Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) board members have been scrutinized as to how often they ride the CTA.
This issue may be one of the reasons why there is such a strong push for an elected school board in Chicago, and why about 90 percent of voters support it. Mayor Emanuel’s response is that there is more accountability with the current system of an appointed board, because it all rests on his shoulders. That’s a fair point, and we’ll find out on Tuesday how the voters feel about his education record.
The CPS Communications office did not respond to a request for comment.