Policy makers, community groups and educators last week said the passing of House Bill 363 in the Illinois Senate would create another layer of bureaucracy for Chicago Public Schools. Whether this is good or bad, however, is contested.
The bill would establish state laws and an oversight committee regarding school facilities planning. CPS would be bound by this legislation when dealing with a number of school facilities issues, including school closings. Bill proponents say this measure would stem what they call uninformed school closings.
“If we were to close every low-performing school in this city, we would have way too few places to send our kids,” said David Mayrowetz, associate professor at University of Illinois-Chicago’s educational policy studies department.
House Bill 363, championed by Rep. Cynthia Soto, passed unanimously in the House last week with 118 votes. Soto had support across party lines, a fact Collin Hitt, education policy specialist at the Illinois Policy Institute, says makes the bill seem innocent despite setting what he calls an unnecessary precedent.
“We do not support it,” Hitt said, “and we oppose efforts to further regulate districts that in fact need greater flexibility in personnel and infrastructure decisions.”
But community activists said the bill is necessary to ensure equitable treatment in the district.
“For 30 years [CPS-backed reform initiatives] have not delivered on providing a first-class education for all children in Chicago no matter where they’re coming from,” said Jackson Potter, steering committee of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators. “We’re saying the time is now.”
CPS currently does not have a set practice or standard for school facilities issues, but looks at underutilization, low academic performance and the condition of the physical building, according to a CPS spokesman. Sixty schools have closed since 2002, not including the 16 schools slated for closure after a CPS board vote in February.
Some supporters were disappointed by the removal of a one-year moratorium on school closings in the original bill language. The moratorium would have applied to the recently closed schools and would have involved an evaluation and hearing from affected members of the school community.
“Clearly CPS needs oversight and that should be provided for the decisions they recently made as well,” said Potter, who called the loss of the moratorium “a let down.”
The Chicago Teachers Union agrees. It preferred the bill with the moratorium, but Press Secretary Rosemaria Genova says Soto would have CTU’s continued support as the bill moves to the senate.
“We should not continue to close schools if there is no proof that they [incoming schools] are doing academically better [than the old schools],” Genova said.
Despite differing opinions, all agreed there needs to be more communication about decision making whether by CPS or through a new committee.
“If we’re going to have a system that … is trying to shift authority away from the school district and into the hands of the parents … we’re going to need more information,” Mayrowetz said. “We need a more transparent system.”