Friday, February 03, 2012 10:54 AM
The Chicago Tribune recently criticized lawmakers for daring to ask questions about planned school closings. Now, State Sen. Iris Martinez explains why she and others are so concerned with the plans and why the Tribune should be, too.
Below is the full response from Sen. Martinez and State Rep. Cynthia Soto.
RESPONSE TO CHICAGO TRIBUNE JAN 26, 2012 EDITORIAL,“DON'T PROTECT FAILING SCHOOLS”
The Tribune’s Editorial, “Don’t Protect Failing Schools,” telling lawmakers not to “meddle” in the future of our public schools is astonishingly uninformed about the General Assembly’s Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force and the reform law that Chicago Public Schools has yet to live up to. To be clear, no Chicago legislator serving in the General Assembly – especially not the legislators and other appointees to the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force—are defending the collective failure of so many of Chicago’s schools. Ironically, it was the public outcry to improve all of our public schools that led to the creation of the Task Force. The reforms which are now the law grew out of a year-long process of deliberations at dozens of meetings, input from focus groups and hearings, analysis of CPS’ own data, and a study of national best practices. The Task Force and the public put thousands of hours of work into identifying constructive reform proposals, precisely to ensure that all schools improve.
To characterize “lawmakers in Springfield” as “meddlers” in what “rightly” should be local decisions exposes the Tribune’s fundamental lack of understanding of the General Assembly’s state constitutional obligations to ensure high quality educational opportunities for all our State’s children. It is also a factually inaccurate characterization of the people who are involved.
The Tribune would like the public to think that the legislators on the Task Force are outside intruders in our Chicago Public Schools. The reality is that 11 of the 15 seats on the Task Force are filled by Chicagoans, 4 of whom are elected representatives of Chicagoans. We live and spend the vast majority of our time in Chicago, not in Springfield. Most of us graduated from public schools. We visit the public schools in our Districts; meet with our local principals; and frequently get calls from the teachers, parents, and community groups “on the ground” in our schools, striving to improve them each and every day. We all support expanded funding for education. We documented and publicized the uncomfortable finding that Illinois ranks near the bottom of all states in school facility investment, and recommend increasing it.
Then there are the non-legislators on the Task Force: Does the Tribune regard the 4 non-profit organizations-the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, two community-based organizations deeply involved in their local public schools, and a non-profit that’s worked in Chicago’s public schools for over 30 years—as meddlers and Springfield carpetbaggers? Does the Tribune know that the CTU, the Chicago Principals & Administrators’ Association, and CPS itself are all represented on the Task Force, and have been actively engaged since its inception in 2010? The truth is that the CEFTF reflects and represents the wide spectrum of stakeholders in public education.
The Tribune moreover is clearly uninformed about the reforms passed in the 97th General Assembly (P.A. 97-0474, formerly SB 630). Thus far, CPS has complied with formalities required by the law, but not with the letter or intent of the law. While we praise their efforts thus far, CPS has a lot of work to do to ensure that School Actions occur in an equitable manner and that students’ needs will be met.
A few examples: CPS’ new School Action Guidelines were supposed to establish transparent criteria for determining when a school may be subject to an action. Instead, they are vague, one-size fits all, and non-specific; and sweeping in their reach. CPS did not make a single revision even after public comments and Task Force recommendations were provided, to clarify, quantify and improve them to meet the standard set by the law.
The law requires CPS to maximize public input from each local school in facility-related decisions. But consider the case of Guggenheim, where the public hearing process was nearly pre-empted by an Acting Principal (in place only a few days) over the Winter Recess, who tried to convince parents that the school would close in February. The Acting Principal even discouraged them from having their students return for classes on Jan. 9th, and instead urged them to transfer their children mid-year before the building was shuttered. Parents produced CPS transfer forms they hadn’t requested, already filled out with their student’s name. All this occurred before the public hearings were held. Did the Acting Principal act on his own to convince parents that Guggenheim’s closing was a “done deal”? Perhaps; but CPS is responsible and obligated by law, to carry out the public hearings and maximize local input in the process. After Guggenheim parents complained to members of the Task Force, CPS did intervene and later said it was all an unfortunate misunderstanding.
Clearly CPS could do more to maximize local input. For example, in holding hearings for each proposed School Action, CPS chose to hold 2 of 3 public hearings away from the affected schools; the third was held at CPS’ Central Office. CPS held none of hearings at the proposed Receiving Schools. CPS has not met with the schools that are proposing alternative self-improvement plans. It has even ignored input from “Community Action Councils,” regional planning groups that CPS set up a year ago. CACs presented their school improvement proposals to Mr. Brizard in person last Fall. But the “CACs” are still awaiting his response.
Then there’s the emerging potential scandal that some avowed supporters of CPS’ plans had to pay people with no students or stake in these schools to come to the public hearings. It doesn’t matter who ultimately is culpable for this travesty, the public hearing process now has a terrible cloud hanging over it. While we may never know exactly where the cash to fund these efforts came from, what’s important is that someone was systematically striving to manipulate the outcome of a legally required public participation process.
The Tribune’s characterization of the people asking questions is just wrong. Parents and educators are not blinded by some irrational passion to protect failing neighborhood schools. The parents who are asking questions have the most to gain or lose and they all want better schools for their children. The parents and educators from the schools facing Actions or Turn-Arounds are the first to tell you they need help to succeed and change the direction of their performance. They will also tell you that for years, and yes, even now, help has not arrived.
The Tribune dismisses the idea that CPS could work with the struggling schools and “flood” them with new programs and resources. But why not? Educators and parents have testified there hasn’t even been a trickle to these schools in all the years they’ve been on academic probation. Schools chosen for Actions and Turn-Arounds have shown the CEFTF that CPS has taken away resources and programs from their schools, making their plight worse rather than better. CPS has not provided any hard evidence to the contrary. Yet CPS immediately found $20 Million for proposed Turn-Arounds in its cash-strapped budget, while making no such dollar-specific commitment for schools proposed for Actions or Receiving Schools.
The CEFTF has pointed out CPS failed the new law’s requirement to write evidence-based transparent School Action Guidelines. CPS was to consider its past actions, examine non-academic factors such as student safety, school climate, and current school leadership. CPS provided no data, evidence or analysis for any non-academic criteria. They are mentioned in passing in a single sentence in the Guidelines. CPS has yet to specify what criteria, data, and evidence it considered in selecting these particular schools, for these particular changes. Over 200 struggling schools could have met CPS’ new School Action criteria, and for any type of School Action. Parents and educators are not being unreasonable, given the law’s requirements for transparency, when they ask, “Why these schools now, and not some of the others?” CPS’ own data on school performance shows scores of schools performing as poorly as or even worse than the schools selected. Is this evidence-based, transparent decision making? The law says it is not. But the Tribune calls it a “careful process”.
We all recognize the reality that nearly one in three CPS students attends underperforming schools. But the reality is also that such failure isn’t a matter of stubborn refusal to acknowledge problems, or whole school communities that just don’t want to improve their schools. CPS placed these schools on academic probation, then cut their programs, staff, and resources. Where is the CPS’ data and money trail showing what resources CPS has provided to low-income, predominantly Minority schools to move off probation? CPS’ new Administration has not produced the data, and now isn’t even sure if it has the information. Let that sink in.
Let’s move forward together. CPS must follow the law. The Task Force stands ready to work with them to achieve that. In the meantime, the students, families, educators, and communities directly affected by what the Board of Education decides on February 22nd have every right to a robust dialogue, and opportunities to be heard and supported if and when they propose viable solutions for themselves. If CPS does not have the evidence to back their proposed Actions and “nuclear options,” then maybe it is time to consider a pause so CPS can do its homework, and work with these schools on local improvement strategies the schools propose and will embrace.