Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and his staff were probed for more than two hours March 26 in Springfield by legislators who piercingly questioned the district’s decision-making on school closings and turnarounds and called for a summit of the CPS facilities task force.
Brizard agreed with legislators about the definitive goals for schools, neighborhoods and children. He failed to suppress the anger that state legislators from Chicago feel about closings and turnarounds, which they characterized as “precipitous, disruptive of school neighborhoods, harmful to students and perhaps, even racially biased.”
Legislators held CPS liable of “circumventing and marginalizing local school councils, of failing to respect the ‘culture’ of Chicago neighborhoods and of purposely causing schools to fail and then closing them to facilitate change that is unrelated to education—essentially, to invite gentrification.”
The war, however, is not over. After the hearing, House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee Chair Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia told Brizard that more testimony is required, specifically testimony “from the community.”
Chapa LaVia, state Sen. Iris Martinez and state Rep. Cynthia Soto – leaders in ongoing legislative efforts to change the district’s process for deciding on school actions – agreed that a “summit hearing” of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force must be scheduled soon.
The hearing “evoked widespread concern and indignation from both political parties about CPS’ lack of transparency and accountability to the Legislature, the people of Chicago and public school students,” said Jackie Leavy, pro bono advisor to Soto, who attended this hearing and the previous one Feb. 28.
During the previous hearing the Senate Education Committee addressed the moratorium bill, sponsored by Soto and Martinez, on school closings, turnarounds and phase-outs. The moratorium period would require CPS to create policy that identifies and helps improve the schools where students score a 75 or below on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.
The bill would also require CPS to create and establish a transparent process with regards to the way it handles school closings, openings, consolidations, turnarounds, phase-outs, boundary changes and other related school facility decisions.
“What does it take [for CPS] to understand? We’re just spinning our wheels. We’re stuck in a ditch and can’t get out,” said Soto.
State Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago) explained at the Feb. 28 hearing that unlike public school systems in her colleagues’ districts, the citizens of Chicago do not get to choose their school board. She explained that the General Assembly granted mayoral control to Chicago’s majors in 1995.
“The General Assembly created the problems, the General Assembly has to help fix them,” she said.
Soto and Martinez both said they took action into their own hands once they saw parents walking into their offices frustrated by the lack of transparency and communication they were given with CPS.
“We saw teachers, parents, students… we saw the community come together and they were saying ‘You know what, you’re not listening to us,’” Martinez said.
The Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education committee held Monday gave influence to Soto’s bill, along with legislation from Rep. Marlow Colvin (D-Chicago) to set limits on CPS class sizes, and a measure by Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) to make CPS testify before the General Assembly each year about its annual budget.
Brizard, who was not at the Feb. 28 hearing, apologized for not appearing at the previous committee hearing saying “The last thing we want to do is disrespect any members of this committee.”
He arrived at CPS last May and said officials “knew we had to do something right away” to address the problem at failing schools and asserted that the administration wanted “to exceed the requirements of the law” in terms of getting community engagement into decisions.
“I don’t think the new board and the new administration really let this bill resonate the way it should have,” Martinez told Brizard. “It was just signed [into law] in August of last year and, on December 1, you already had [made closing and turnaround] decisions on 17 schools.” She questioned whether CPS leaders were “carefully looking at every school and what was going on in that area” reported Jim Broadway of Catalyst Chicago.
“Remarks by State Reps,” said Leavy, “ranged from threats to subpoena the CPS CEO and Board President and other top officials, to comments from some legislators suggesting that CPS’ state funding should be held up, to remarks that perhaps the General Assembly should re-visit whether Mayoral Control should remain in place.”
Martinez noted that she and Soto worked for 18 months with the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force to identify “best practices” for effective school interventions and suggested that CPS ignored those findings in its hurry to close and turnaround schools. The task force made its final recommendations in March, reported Catalyst Chicago.
“Some of the things that you said as far as engagement and going to public hearings in these schools – that did not happen, you know it and I know it,” Martinez emphasized.
Brizard, however, fought back stating, “We had a hundred meetings before the actions and a hundred after the guidelines were distributed,” he continued with, “I am not an arrogant person. I will never tell you we can’t do better. It can. It has to get better, because this stuff is never easy.”
One of the largest issues facing CPS’ closures and turnarounds is race. Legislators have not been the only one’s addressing this concern, parents and community members believe this is a deep rooted issue that needs resolving.
Jitu Brown, education organizer for Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and an Austin resident, said there are too many examples of good-performing public schools that have been destabilized as a direct result of neglect from the school district, “or just from CPS actions that were disproportionately in poor African-American neighborhoods.”
Another was Rev. Paul Jakes, president of the Christian Council on Urban Affairs, which he said represented over 100 churches.
“We certainly believe there has been a violation of our equal rights,” Jakes said, before asking CPS to help defray the cost of funerals for young people who are killed if the school closures and phase-outs contribute to gang violence. That has happened in the past, as students must travel through different neighborhoods to get to their new schools.
Rep. Monique Davis criticized the district for having too few people at the decision–making table “with a cultural sensitivity to the people being served.” As a parting shot, she demanded that the district “stop pushing out older African American teachers. I want you to stop it. Stop it.”
Rep. Mary Flowers accused that the schools CPS has closed have been on the south side of the city or have affected just “Latino or brown” communities. “Can you tell me what European or Caucasian school that you have closed or turned around?”
House members made it clear they also want to hear from the top officials at CPS like Mayor Rahm Emanuel. A Joint Session of the House Appropriations Elementary and Secondary Education and Elementary and Secondary Education Committees has been called; the Senate Education and Appropriations Committees were invited to join them.