Seventh Circuit Finds No Right to Elected School Board

CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit on Tuesday tossed Chicagoans’ claims that the city’s distinction as the only district in Illinois without an elected school board is racially discriminatory.

A lawsuit filed by former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and other Chicago residents in 2016 challenged the mayor’s “exclusive and absolute right to select the members of the Chicago board, without the advice or consent of the city council or any other legislative body.”

Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, has been plagued by budget shortfalls, teacher strikes and corrupt officials, partly stemming from a 1995 change to the way the Chicago Board of Education’s members are chosen, according the complaint.

Since 1995, the mayor has had complete authority to hire and fire Chicago School Board members. Before then, the City Council had the power to approve or reject the mayor’s appointees, giving residents slightly more say over board appointees.

Chicago’s school district is the only one in the state without a board elected by residents, a unique situation partly motivated by racism, according to the residents’ lawsuit. Chicago is home to 45 percent of Illinois’ black population, 37 percent of its Latino population, and just 11 percent of the state’s white citizens.

But a federal judge dismissed the case last year, finding no “fundamental right to vote in school board elections.”

The Seventh Circuit was no more sympathetic to the Chicagoans’ race-based claims.

At oral arguments two weeks ago, U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook asked the plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas Geoghegan how blacks are treated any differently than whites when voters of all races are excluded from voting for the school board.

The judge reiterated this same point in Tuesday’s ruling in favor of the state.

“Black and Latino citizens do not vote for the school board in Chicago, but neither does anyone else. Every member of the electorate is treated identically, which is what [the Voting Rights Act] requires,” Easterbrook said. “It is misleading to say that political processes in Chicago are not equally open to participation by persons of all races.”

All three judges who sat on the panel, including U.S. Circuit Judges Michael Kanne and Diane Sykes, are Republican appointees.

Easterbrook acknowledged that some large jurisdictions have, in the past, used at-large elections to dilute minority voters’ influence, but said the plaintiffs have not argued against the at-large mayoral election.

Rather, they argued that voting rights are not equally distributed in the state because Chicago residents may not directly elect school board members, unlike other districts.

The Seventh Circuit panel was not convinced.

“Every voter throughout Illinois influences education policy. Some do this by electing a school board, some by electing a mayor who appoints a board, but influence is there for everyone to wield,” Easterbrook said.

This ruling comes on the heels of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s use of his unilateral power over the school board to push through the single largest round of school closures in American history.

Emanuel has closed over 50 schools since he took office, a decision that sparked protests and hunger strikes by parents, on top of the 86 schools closed under former Mayor Richard Daley from 2001 to 2009. Eighty-nine percent of these schools were overwhelmingly black.

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