Last week our state senator, Don Harmon, chose not to call a vote in the Illinois Senate that would have given Chicago an elected representative school board like every other school district in our state. The bill had passed overwhelmingly in the Illinois House, and there was enough support for it to pass the senate. Harmon has himself expressed support for the measure in the past, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on it. 

So what happened? It appears that Harmon prevented a vote in deference to Lightfoot, who’s had a heavy hand with Chicago schools in office despite having campaigned on an elected school board for CPS.

But representation is important. During the pandemic, CPS has seen inconsistent policies handed down from the Mayor’s Office, and community members have had no clear avenue to make themselves heard because the current board is appointed by the Mayor. An elected representative board would make board members more accountable to their communities because their power would come from the people instead of the Mayor; it would also create a clear process for advocacy and debate.

Unfortunately, accountability and a clear process seem to be missing in Springfield as well, with Senate President Harmon quietly channeling his inner Mitch McConnell to stop a floor vote on this legislation. It’s not the first time this has happened in the push for an elected representative school board for Chicago — the previous senate president, John Cullerton, buried the popular measure more than once. It is, however, the first time the person standing in the way has been our elected representative here in Oak Park.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most powerful Illinois state senator hails from Oak Park. Our village is a liberal stronghold, so it’s a safe seat for a competent Democrat. And while Oak Parkers are passionate about politics, our attention is all too often on the happenings within our borders or on policies with direct effects here. This insular self-focus affords our representatives at the state level considerable latitude to wield power over what’s happening elsewhere. Mix in the top senate leadership role and we have a senator who can, on his own, exercise a veto over the wishes of Chicagoans — with his own constituents barely paying heed.

We need to start paying heed. As a community, we already fail to appreciate the profound effects our local policies have on neighboring communities — subsidizing yet another large grocery store just outside the borders of the Austin food desert and continuing to harvest Austin sales tax dollars, just to take a current example. 

As voters, we share responsibility for the policies and actions of our elected representatives, and as those elected representatives grow in power, we have a civic duty to continue to hold them accountable to our values. Progressive notions of equity and inclusion don’t hold up so well if they vanish at Austin Boulevard or Roosevelt Road. 

I, for one, will be paying close attention to Senator Harmon’s leadership both locally and throughout the state over the coming years, and I encourage all Oak Park voters to do the same.

Paul Goyette is an Oak Park resident.

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