Legislators grill Brizard on school closings, turnarounds

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SPRINGFIELD — Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and members of his staff were grilled for more than two hours by legislators who sharply questioned the district’s decision-making on school closings and turnarounds and called for a summit of the CPS facilities task force.

Brizard, who appeared respectful but assertive at the hearing last week, agreed with legislators about the ultimate goals for schools, neighborhoods and children and responded calmly to the harsh interrogation with seemingly full command of his facts. But he failed to quell 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.

The legislators accused CPS 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.

So the war is not over. After the hearing, House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee Chair Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia told Brizard that more testimony is required, especially 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.

Brizard apologized Thursday for not appearing at a previous committee hearing on March 26, saying “The last thing we want to do is disrespect any members of this committee.” He cited some CPS successes, such as the 94 schools that made the Illinois Honor Roll. But, he noted, “Too many of our schools have for too long failed to help our children succeed academically.”

He went on to note statistics, such as the fact that more than 120,000 students attend low-achieving schools, dropout rates remain high and the achievement gap between students of color and white students is “climbing to the high double digits, bucking national trends.”

“This is my 26th year [in education] and what I’m seeing is a system that’s doing well for some kids and not doing well for a lot of other kids,” Brizard said.

Dispute over community input

Recalling his arrival at CPS last May, Brizard 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.

At that point, Brizard may have lost Martinez, who, in a rare occurrence, was permitted to sit in on the House committee and question witnesses. Martinez was the chief sponsor of SB 630 (now P.A. 97-474), which requires CPS to adopt an Educational Facility Master Plan to guide its school closing and turnaround actions.

“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.”

For example, referring to a co-location of two existing schools into the same building, Martinez said “You can’t put a Level 3 school [the lowest-performing category] into another Level 3 school. Our anger with this process is that we don’t think that everything was carefully looked at.”

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. Martinez and Soto both have filed bills this year calling for a moratorium on school actions through the 2013-2014 school year.

“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 asserted. To that, the audience applauded and Chapa LaVia made the first of several request for participants to be “more respectful.”

Brizard fought back. “We had a hundred meetings before the actions and a hundred after the guidelines were distributed,” he told the committee. “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.”

While a school closing or turnaround can affect “sometimes entire families,” Brizard said his administration wanted to do something quickly to improve schools. Some of the decisions did not require much deliberation, he suggested, pointing out that one of the recently closed schools “had been listed for years as the worst school in the entire state of Illinois.”

Martinez was pretty harsh with Brizard, but no harsher than other legislators in the room.

Rep. Kenneth Dunkin commented at length, returning over and over to the need for CPS to “show some respect” for citizens and the General Assembly. Rep. Luis Arroyo challenged CPS to testify before legislative committees as a condition of receiving state funds. Current law does not require CPS to testify, but Arroyo filed a bill this year to change that policy.

Rep. Monique Davis complained about the narrowing of curricula at CPS schools. “There’s a lot of scripted lessons and there’s a lot of testing going on. The children are not being allowed to grow as whole people,” Davis said. “They’re not learning poetry. They’re not participating in drama. They have no art.”

Race becomes an issue

Davis also 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.”

And on it went. Rep. Mary Flowers charged 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?”

Brizard said that race and ethnicity are unrelated to decisions about interventions, but Flowers continued on a roll. Brizard tried to respond, but could not.

Children are not being prepared for college or for jobs, Flowers said, a situation that will cost the state down the road because they won’t have jobs and pay taxes. No other industry, she added, can produce as many “defective products” as CPS and “continue to command the audience that you do and receive the monies that the state gives to the Chicago Public Schools and/or to the Board of Education.”