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Beyond School Closings

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The Chicago Public Schools' latest round of school closings (phaseouts, consolidations) and "turnarounds" -- coming on top of broken promises over past legislative initiatives -- has provoked a backlash in Springfield. A bill introduced by Rep. Cynthia Soto (D-Chicago) would put a moratorium on school closings and develop guidelines for school utilization, construction and repair, addressing longstanding concerns of critics of the school system.

A report at Community Media Workshop's Newstips details how CPS's imprecise measurements of space utilization -- which disregard students with special needs and enrichment programs at schools -- are used to close good neighborhood schools in order to free up real estate for new charters and other Renaissance 2010 schools. The pattern of school closings often indicates an agenda of promoting gentrification.

Despite past promises, students continue to be displaced multiple times by school closings, to their educational detriment.

Money for repairs and new construction is not allocated by greatest need but is funneled to charter and other Renaissance 2010 schools. Long-neglected neighborhood schools often get extensive repairs immediately before or after being turned over to private Renaissance 2010 operators. (Grand Boulevard Federation e-mailed news Wednesday that Abbott school, slated for closing, is being wired for internet access.)

The expansion of Renaissance 2010 schools (especially charters) even as state capital funds have disappeared, along with the mayor's TIF-funded Modern Schools program operating outside the CPS budget, have added to the confusion.

CPS critics have long advocated a comprehensive facilities plan that would provide transparency and accountability, ranking projects by need and ensuring that resources are distributed equitably.

In Bronzeville, where a rash of school closings has left the entire southern portion of the area devoid of neighborhood schools while a cluster of remaining schools around 50th street fall into disrepair, the Grand Boulevard Federation is spearheading a community task force on school utilization to attempt to fill the planning vacuum.

Soto's bill would establish a legislative commission that would hold hearings around Chicago and develop requirements for planning school repairs, construction, closings, consolidations, phaseouts, "turnarounds," and boundary changes. In the meantime, it would block school closings and "turnarounds" for the next year -- including any approved by the Board of Education later this month.

Soto is responding to the concerns of her constituents, particularly parents at Carpenter and Peabody Elementary schools, whose future is on the board's agenda February 25. Both schools perform better than "turnaround" schools that are supposed to be the new model. There seem to be Renaissance 2010 schools that are already eyeing their buildings.

Soto says she acted because CPS did not follow through on promises made two years ago, when Arne Duncan asked her to withdraw a bill that would have mandated six months notice for school closings along with guarantees for community involvement and protections for students.

That bill passed the House unanimously. CPS promised to implement its protections as policy if it were withdrawn in the Senate, Soto said. The new policy "did not happen," she said. "They do not keep their word."

The bill has attracted a large number of cosponsors including many Chicago Democrats, some of them representing districts where schools are closing. Legislators outside Chicago, where school districts often have facilities plans and no school is built or closed without extensive public discussion, are also supportive, Soto said.

"Chicago gets away with murder," she said. "Enough is enough. You have to listen to the people who live here."

The bill is endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Principals Association. It's been pushed by the surging movement of teachers, parents, and community organizations who have learned the futility of opposing school closings one-by-one and come to see it as a citywide political issue.

For Soto, the bottom line is that closing schools in low-income black and Latino neighborhoods is part of gentrification. "And this community and these voters are not going to stand for gentrification and racism," she said.

It's also about education. "We want to focus on learning from the good schools that we already have and improve the rest, not this constant, annual harm to students that's created by the Board of Education," she said.