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It’s harder than it should be to vote in Chicago’s Local School Council elections

The district is requiring community members to vote in person during a pandemic, using an English-language ballot. That’s not the only problem.

Chicago holds Local School Council elections this week at hundreds of public schools. The elections typically happen every two years, but this year’s event is unlike any other. Delayed because of the pandemic, the election includes a mail-in ballot option. For more, see Chalkbeat’s LSC Election Guide.

I teach civics to juniors and seniors in Chicago Public Schools. In my classes, we study elections, citizenship, protecting our constitutional rights, navigating the court system, and more. We then turn those conversations into actions to strengthen our communities. In our most recent unit, we anchored our learning with the question, “How do I matter in this election?”

It’s a timely question this week in Chicago.

Scott Zwierzchowski
Courtesy photo

Although we just finished a national election, Chicagoans have another very important contest on our hands: elections for seats on Local School Councils, or school-level governing boards made up of parents, community representatives, students, and teachers at more than 500 campuses. LSCs decide school budgets, they evaluate principals, and they develop school improvement plans; they impact how 300,000 young people live and learn in this city. Every Chicago resident is eligible to vote in these elections.

Chicago is attempting its first mail-in Local School Council elections. I know about it because I am a Chicago educator; parents and students may be aware because the district is sending them emails about the elections. However, as a community member, nothing was mailed to me, I haven’t gotten any emails from my alderperson. There’s a billboard at an intersection near my house about the elections in my neighborhood, but that’s all I’ve seen.

I live near the school where I teach, and I’ve been active at the council there. I’ve attended meetings, voiced my thoughts in public participation, and even collaborated with my LSC on gathering student input on big decisions like whether to retain campus police officers. My LSC has always been open to input, and allows community members to weigh in on how they want to see our school improve. Without an elected representative school board in Chicago, LSCs are where I can turn to as a community member to be heard. They are a democratic stronghold in a city where the mayor appoints school board members.

So we would want as many people as possible to be able to vote in LSC elections, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality.

In our last unit on elections, our civics class focused on topics, such as voter suppression. We diagnosed complications and issues in the current voting procedures and systems. Students looked at examples from all around the country, and we asked questions like “What does voter suppression look like?” “Who does voter suppression often target?” and “What needs to be done about voter suppression in the United States today?”

Student responses in a PearDeck presentation to the question, “What does voter suppression look like?”
Courtesy of Scott Zwierzchowski

In class, we discussed how voter suppression can have drastic impacts on democracy. One of my students, Isabel Cancelo, feels strongly about voter suppression tactics in general and how they limit the power of certain communities, often people of color and people living in poverty. She said that it “limits the voices of others which is just unfair and undemocratic. If all people had the access to vote as much as others, then their voices will be properly heard and more things can be done to better all communities.”

One thing my students pointed out is that voter suppression includes limited options for voting. While parents, teachers, and staff are voting by mail in council elections, and students are given the option to vote virtually, every community member in Chicago is required to visit a campus to vote in person during a pandemic and a stay-at-home advisory, using an English-language ballot.

Voter suppression also includes a lack of widespread information about the election process. Isabel noted that she didn’t know about the LSC elections until we talked about it in class. She called it “a serious issue that is often overlooked.”

There’s also a lack of information about who is on the ballot and what they stand for. For community members to vote, we must first know how to find which schools are in our neighborhood area boundaries. Even if you manage to figure which schools you can vote for, good luck trying to research the candidates and LSC information on those schools’ websites. It’s not easy. Most CPS schools don’t have a regularly updated webpage for their Local School Council, let alone information on how to access candidate profiles. Chicago Public Schools does not have a centralized list with this information either. I’ve called and called the Office of LSC Relations, but no one answers. The mailbox is full.

When I talked to my students about all of this, they easily made the connections to what we had already discussed about voter suppression. Isabel articulated the consequences: “If we limit who is able to vote in Local School Council elections, this could affect the population of voters. This means that the people who are able to easily vote will mostly be of a certain class, age, status, race, and other factors.”

This serves to limit “the variety of voices that should be heard,” she said.

But what we focus on in civics class isn’t simply about understanding and critiquing the system; it’s about taking action. When I asked my students for their suggestions on how to combat voter suppression in the LSC elections, they suggested calling community members to educate them on the elections. One student proposed partnering with community organizations to get out the vote. Isabel suggested more community advertising. Another student said that, if nothing else, we need to keep those who cannot vote in mind when casting our own ballots.

Without changes, community members will have less of a voice in school budgets, principal reviews, and school improvement plans for years to come. Implementing these changes are crucial to an equitable, democratic community.

I’d ask all community members the same question I asked my students: “How do you matter in this election?” CPS doesn’t seem to think you do.

Scott Zwierzchowski is a social science educator at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. He teaches civics and psychology to 11th and 12th graders.

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