Chicago lawmakers file bills to rein in school closings, class sizes

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SPRINGFIELD –  When Chicago catches a cold, the Illinois General Assembly coughs.

The state legislature has been hacking like a two-pack-a-day smoker over school actions in the Chicago Public Schools—closings, phase-outs, changes in attendance boundaries and other moves that critics say are disruptive for students and the surrounding neighborhoods.

(Find the district’s facilities plan online.)

Legislators responded in 2011 by enacting a law requiring CPS to develop a detailed five-year facilities master plan on school construction and interventions. That bill also created the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force to review the district’s progress on facilities reform and report back to the General Assembly. But the task force has questioned the district’s decision-making, accusing it of “playing games” and now wants a moratorium on closings altogether.

State Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago), chair of the task force, has proposed HB 4487, which would bring all closings, consolidations and phase-outs on facilities to a screeching halt through the 2012-2013 school year.

Previous proposals for a closings moratorium in Chicago have failed.

Another bill, posted for a hearing in Springfield this week, was filed by state Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago) and seeks to force CPS officials to “testify every year before the General Assembly” concerning the district’s budget request for the following fiscal year, including “plans to build or repair schools and to close or consolidate schools.”

Arroyo’s HB 3871 would link CPS’ eligibility to receive block grant funding from the state to the requirement that the district spell out its facilities plans to state policymakers.

Proposed school closings, conversions or turnarounds that were determined to be appropriate could not be implemented before the 2013-2014 school year and would be “subject to any new set of requirements adopted by the General Assembly.”

Soto’s bill would require CPS to focus its attention on academic issues. “During this moratorium period, the district shall establish polices that address and remedy the academic performance of schools in which Illinois Standards Achievement Test scores reflect students performing at or below 75%.”

The district’s policies would have to be linked to its facilities plans and would include “encouragement of multiple community uses for school space.”

Rep. Soto’s bill was filed Jan. 31, too late for a hearing this week. The next opportunity for the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee to consider it will come after the Legislature, which is taking next week off, returns on Feb.  21.

Class sizes

A third bill, filed last week by Rep. Marlow Colvin (D-Chicago), would prevent increases in class sizes in Chicago schools—something that the Chicago Teachers Union has long complained about but has no power to negotiate over in its contract. Primary grade classes would be set at 18, classes in grades 4-8 at 22, and high school classes at 25. HB 4455  has not yet been posted for a committee hearing.

Another bill posted for a hearing this week does not concern CPS facilities planning but might be seen as a dig at the school district. HB 209, sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Dunkin (D-Chicago) would make it state policy that the CEO of CPS have a master’s degree in education and hold a valid teaching certificate.

But as Julie Woestehoff, director of the school parents’ advocacy group PURE and fierce critic of CPS school facilities actions, recently blogged, current CEO Jean-Claude Brizard not only holds these credentials but has used his teaching certificate.

“It has been 26 years since the [non-interim] top “educator” running the Chicago Public Schools had a teaching credential,” Woestehoff wrote.

The Chicago Teachers Union has also delivered a round of applause – not for Brizard or CPS, but for what CTU President Karen Lewis called the “courageous” legislators who filed bills to curb the district’s penchant for closing schools.

“These bills come at a time when teachers, paraprofessionals and school leaders are under tremendous assault by anti-public education and anti-labor forces that have used the law and media to attack our profession, our pensions and our schools,” Lewis said.

Jim Broadway is the founder and publisher of State School News Service.