Hurdles ahead, but activists band together on closings bill

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House Bill 363—a proposal to put a one-year moratorium on school closings—sailed through the House education committee yesterday, but faces much higher hurdles in the House and Senate.

One Chicago Teachers Union insider believes that the bill has more potential in the House than the Senate, saying state senators feel less pressure from local constituents. The union has vigorously supported the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago) and 19 other lawmakers.

Still, leaders of the grassroots movement that rallied around HB 363 say they are building a full head of steam. The Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) is urging House reps to send aides or statements supporting the bill to next week’s School Board meeting. The final list of closings, turnarounds and consolidations is slated to be announced then.

House Bill 363—a proposal to put a one-year moratorium on school closings—sailed through the House education committee yesterday, but faces much higher hurdles in the House and Senate.

One Chicago Teachers Union insider believes that the bill has more potential in the House than the Senate, saying state senators feel less pressure from local constituents. The union has vigorously supported the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago) and 19 other lawmakers.

Still, leaders of the grassroots movement that rallied around HB 363 say they are building a full head of steam. The Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) is urging House reps to send aides or statements supporting the bill to next week’s School Board meeting. The final list of closings, turnarounds and consolidations is slated to be announced then.

Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, says the tone of protests has changed significantly in the past year. Last year, residents turned out to fight for their own schools, but this year the focus is on crafting one policy that all activists can sign on to.

“Schools have to work together,” Moore says, “and we need comprehensive legislative resolutions.”

 Designs for Change is so central to the legislative effort that aides for Soto directed Catalyst to Moore when we asked for more information. The proposed bill would also mandate that CPS develop a master facilities plan.

Opposition to the proposal was light in yesterday’s committee hearing, says Moore, but several members did suggest that Soto should meet with new Schools CEO Ron Huberman to articulate her concerns and possibly avoid legislation. But Soto, whose district includes schools slated for closure, told the legislators that the board could not be trusted.

In 2007, Soto proposed a similar bill that mandated changes to the district’s school closing policy. But Soto sat on the bill after CPS officials assured her that communities would get more input in future school closing decisions.

Peabody and Carpenter elementary schools, both in Soto’s district, are slated for closure. But the loudest opposition seems to be coming from Peabody families.

Peabody Principal Federico Flores told the House education committee yesterday that test scores have increased in recent years. Mothers in Peabody sweatshirts have spoken out at a variety of recent grassroots meetings and demonstrations.

But Peabody and Carpenter simply have too few students and are too expensive to operate, say district officials. Peabody operates at 35 percent of capacity and Carpenter at 23 percent. 

Posted by Daniela Bloch & John Myers