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The Chicago Tribune and CPS’s Big Lie

Judging from the Tribune’s attack on its co-chair, the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force must really be raising some hackles among the editorial board’s friends at the Board of Education, in the mayor’s office, and among the coterie of rich folks who are pushing what’s come to be called “school reform.”

Though the task force passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on school closings and other actions, the Trib focuses on Rep. Cynthia Soto.  In their zeal to lash out, the editorialists get a lot wrong.

First of all, of course, it was the task force that issued the call for a moratorium, after a public hearing where – as happens every year – parents and teachers complained about a CPS decision-making process that ignores their input.

Second, the Trib declares that legislators shouldn’t meddle in school closing decisions.  But the task force is mandated by the legislature to monitor compliance with the new school facilities planning requirements, which the legislature passed in 2009.

It includes legislators along with representatives of CPS, teachers, principals, and community groups, and it represents a first step at giving the public a real voice in the process.

Prior to the task force, there was virtually no accountability for CPS decisions — not since mayoral control was established in 1995.  Clearly, some people want to keep it that way.

‘Not in compliance’

“CPS’s historic and continuing lack of transparency and evidence-based criteria for decisions resulted in the pervasive climate of public suspicion about what drives CPS to take school actions and allocate resources, often in ways perceived to be highly inequitable,” as the task force noted in a recent resolution.

The Tribune argues that school closing decisions should be made locally.  Sure they should.  But does that mean they should be made by downtown administrators with no input from the schools and their communities?  The Trib thinks so.  The task force says no.

The Tribune’s argument hinges on ignoring the real reason for the moratorium call.  The editorial cites a quote from Soto about the new administration needing time to get to know communities better.  It ignores the task force resolution, passed this month with only the dissent of the CPS representative, that the school district is “not in compliance” with the requirements of transparency and open process mandated by the law.

The task force maintains that the new CPS guidelines for school actions are just too sweeping.  It makes any school designated by CPS as “level 3” (or probationary) for two years eligible for any of five types of school actions, leaving the field wide open for central office administrators to pick and choose as they like.  There’s no way to tell why one school has been chosen over another, or why it’s being subjected to closure rather than any other action.  That’s not transparent.

The standard also raises serious questions about CPS’s performance policy, which uses arcane and often-shifting formulas under which better-performing schools can end up on probation.  And, as the task force has noted, it raises questions as to whether CPS has met its statutory obligations to plan and assist schools on probation.

The new facilities law requires CPS to consider non-academic factors, but the new guidelines merely list factors to be considered, with no indication of what standards will be applied.  That’s not transparent.

For example, how exactly is CPS “considering” student safety – when it’s closing Crane High School and sending students to other high schools where community leaders and elected officials insist they will be in danger?

A policy of disinvestment

Task force members say CPS violated the law when it took no account of public comments on its school action guidelines, and when it issued revamped school utilization standards that ignore the law’s requirements.

They say a $660 million capital plan that shovels money to turnarounds and charters and systematically starves struggling schools (making explicit a longtime practice) violates the facilities law’s requirement of equity in the distribution of resources.  CPS is cutting off schools “if we think there’s a chance” they might be closed in five or ten years, chief operating officer Tim Cawley said.

It certainly gives the lie to CPS rhetoric about “a great school for every child.”

On top of it all, the abuses at Guggenheim Elementary, where a new principal was suddenly replaced and an acting principal brought in by CPS set about telling parents the school’s closing is a done deal and they needed to transfer – and the appearance of outsiders paid (by whom?) to support school closings — raise serious questions about the integrity of the public hearing process.

The Tribune can write that “CPS officials followed [the facilities] law.” No doubt they heard that directly from CPS.  But the official body tasked with monitoring compliance with the law doesn’t think so.  That ought to count for something – a mention, at least.

The Trib argues that since it’s impossible to close every school CPS has declared “failing” – nearly of third of its schools – the only alternative is Jean-Claude Brizard’s “smart long-term strategy” of closing schools and creating charters and turnarounds.

Of course there’s another alternative to the CPS disinvest-and-close approach, articulated recently in a Neighborhood Schools Agenda put forward by a number of community groups – groups that have quite arguably had much greater success improving schools than CPS has.  Since the vast majority of CPS students attend neighborhood schools, they argue, CPS is obligated to invest in those schools.

The constant refrain of CPS officials to critics of school closings is that “we can’t wait another year” to send students to better schools.  It’s repeated so often that it bears close examination.

It could qualify as the Big Lie of school reform.  Even accepting the premise – ignoring the fact that 15 years of mayoral control, school closings, reconstitution and turnarounds have had no significant impact on achievement, or studies that show many minority students are actually worse-served by charters – this “smart, long-term strategy” forces the vast majority of students to wait, indeed to finish out their public school educations in schools which are being intentionally neglected.

Soto’s original school facilities legislation (contrary to the impression given by the Tribune) included a one-year moratorium along with thorough reform of facilities planning.  Soto thought it would take time to realign the process so schools and communities could have a real voice.

This year’s experience clearly confirms that judgment. It seems the CPS administration ain’t ready for real school reform.  Maybe, to paraphrase another local saying, they should wait till next year.

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Category: CPS, school facilities

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