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'Soto Bill' Gutted, then Passed in Illinois House of Representatives. No Relief for Schools on 2009 Hit List

Some last minute lobbying by Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ron Huberman and Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott helped cut out the heart of a bill in the Illinois House of Representatives that was supposed to temporarily stop school closings and demand that communities have input into CPS’s arbitrary decisions to close schools.

House Bill 363 – otherwise known as the "Soto Bill" – passed unanimously 118-0 in the Illinois House of Representatives on Friday, April 3, 2009 and will head next to the Illinois Senate.

Illinois State Representative Cynthia Soto takes questions from the press at a well attended press conference on February 3, 2009, the day she introduced her bill to impose a moratorium on the 2009 school closings (phase outs, etc.) by the Chicago Board of Education. The "Soto Bill", as it became known, was a focus of many activists' work during the following 60 days, and the hope of 16 schools after the Chicago Board of Education voted to close (phase out, consolidate, or "turnaround") them at its February 25, 2009, meeting. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. A version of the legislation passed the House after a week of intense lobbing by a score of parents and community organizations who wanted to save the 16 Chicago public schools that have been closed (phased out, turned around, or consolidated) without any community input — versus the Chicago Public Schools who want to close as many public schools, it seems, as possible.

But the parents and their supporters were no match against the power of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s representatives — CEO Ronald Huberman and Board of Education President Michael Scott.

Scott and Huberman lobbied hard to take out the two most important parts of the bill. The most important part removed was a one year moratorium that would have been retroactive and re-opened the 16 schools closed by the Board of Education by a unanimous vote on February 25 of this year.

Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott (above, center) and Chief Executive Officer Ron Huberman (above right) joked with reporters at a "media availability" following the end of the heated public participation portion of the Board meeting on February 25, 2009. Two hours after the end of the media availability, Huberman and six of the seven members of the Board emerged from their "executive session" to vote unanimously and without debate to phase out, consolidate, close, or turnaround 16 Chicago public schools. During the last week of March and the first days of April, Huberman and Scott lobbied intensely against the original "moratorium" wording in the Soto Bill in the Illinois House of Representatives. They successfully gutted the legislation, removing the moratorium which would have forced CPS to rescind the closings it voted to do February 25. The gutted bill, which maintains the status quo and, many fear, may strengthen CPS in closing schools, was then approved by the House by a vote of 118 to zero. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. The moratorium would have been in effect until several parties — including parents, teachers, community groups, public school officials and public officials — weighed in on the controversial process.

Carpenter Elementary School still on Hit List

Maria Hernandez, a parent of two children at Carpenter School that is closing, said after her group spoke to House representatives last Tuesday in Springfield, Huberman then followed and convinced House Speaker Michael Madigan to change the bill’s language and remove the moratorium and arbitration process at the last minute.

Parents from Carpenter and Peabody elementary schhools, both of which are in Rep. Soto's district, were some of the main reasons why the legislation was introduced. Carpenter parents were outspoken in support of the Soto Bill, which was introduced in the House after their school was scheduled to close (under a process called "phase out") despite the fact they are succeeding academically and have an overall wonderful environment that the parents cherish. On February 23, CEO Huberman announced that Peabody (and five other schools) would not be closed, but Carpenter was still on what activists were calling the 'Hit List.'

Jessica Contreras (above, in red) told the February 3 press conference that the proposed phase out of Carpenter Elementary School, which some of her children attend, would disrupt and dispirit the community. Contreras and other Carpenter parents and community leaders have remained active in opposition to the replacement of Carpenter by an entity called "Ogden High School" despite repeated disappointments, the most recent of which is the gutting of the Soto Bill. Conreras is one of the leaders in planning the Holy Week "Camp Carpenter" that will continue the Carpenter fight to remain open and free of intrusion by entities that can be located easily elsewhere.Carpenter parents continue to fight after the Board voted to close their school and 15 other public schools across the city at the February 25 Board meeting. They will be camping out for three days beginning next Wednesday, April 8 until Good Friday (April 10) to raise awareness about their plight.

Some see passage as a positive development, others disagree

Despite the disappointment over the failure of the bill to pass with the inclusion of the moratorium, however, there are those involved in helping get the Soto bill passed who still believe the bill’s unanimous passing was significant.

Valencia Rias (above left, speaking as Rep. Soto looks on) of Designs for Change helped organize the February 3 press conference and much of the lobbying on behalf of the "Soto Bill." Many of the supporters of the Soto Bill maintained that the passage of the bill would terminate any action against schools that the Board of Education was taking in February and March 2009. The amended legislation that passed the Illinois House was stripped of any moratorium. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. “Once it gets to the Senate we can help write back in the important provisions of the moratorium and arbitration process to ultimately decide school closings,” said Don Moore, a member of Designs for Change who helped write the bill and lobby hard to pass it.

A close reading of the amendments, noted art teacher and CORE activist Garth Liebhaber, had a touch of déjà vu.

“That the Soto Bill will force CPS to have public hearings before schools can be closed/ consolidated/ phased out/ turned around makes me feel like I'm in the Chicago version of Ground Hog Day (the movie),” Liebhaber wrote on a CORE listserve after word got out about the bill’s passing.

CORE — the "Caucus Of Rank-and-file Educators", a caucus within the Chicago Teacher’s Union — helped organize heavy protesting against the school closings which resulted in CPS taking six schools off their “hit list.” CORE also attended every public hearing CPS conducted for the proposed school closings. CORE memebers attended more than 25 hearings in January and February, and spoke out at the February 25 school board meeting, questioning the legitimacy of the hearing process.

They noted that no Board members who voted to close schools last year ever attended them or even read the transcripts. This year, due largely in part to CORE as well as the CTU’s presence at the hearings, several Board members attended for the first time a few school closing hearings.

And in an unprecedented move, former Board President Rufus Williams even visited the next day Holmes Elementary School after hearing powerful testimony about the wonders of its dedicated staff helping students in a dangerous neighborhood where one student was gunned down just a block from the school.

Six schools dropped from Hit List

Holmes Elementary was one of the six schools taken off the list and Williams, despite losing his job to Scott who served as Board President for several years previous to Williams’ tenure, continues to visit Holmes and read to the students as part of a program he helped engineer called “Read Men Read.”

One part of the amended version of the bill included the following section that deals with serious concerns about the whole school closings procedure:

"The proposed law shall seek to minimize or eliminate student mobility; the transferring of students to lower performing schools, teacher mobility, insufficient notice and the lack of inclusion of decision making of local school councils, parents and community members about school facility decisions; and costly facilities related expenditures due to poor educational facilities planning.”

For many observers, this section highlights the contradictions — the fact that the Soto Bill has been gutted of the moratorium. CPS has refused to track the fate of students whose schools are closed going back to 2002, when former CEO Arne Duncan and then (and now) Board President Michael Scott pushed through the first three school closings. There are several cases known – perhaps many unknown – where children are being moved from school to school, further disrupting their academic progress. Several children were moved from Gladstone w hich closed last year, to Medill Elementary that will close this year, forcing them to move to a third school in three years. Research has shown that when children move from one school to another, they lose 6 months of academics.

However, the wording of the Soto bill does not guarantee that such a destructive practice will be eliminated. It only mandates that such a practice is “minimized” or “eliminated” – not simply eliminated outright.

Likewise, the concerns about teacher mobility and the lack of community input will only be minimized or eliminated, not eliminated. CPS can easily argue that the practice has been minimized, thus allowing such a flawed process to continue due to the new wording of the Soto bill.

One significant change that could be seen as a positive step in terms of demanding more transparency behind the process is that a report on the proposed impact of such changes would have to be made public by Oct. 30th of each year.

There are those such as PURE — Parents United for Responsible Education — who see the powerful symbolism of passing a bill that is criticizing a process that has communities very upset.

The vote to close (phase out, turnaround, and consolidate) 16 Chicago public schools took place so quickly on February 25 that many parents and students did not realize their schools had been voted out of existence. Above: two parents from South Chicago Elementary School, like Carpenter a very successful "small public school", were stunned to learn that the Board of Education had just voted to close their school without even mentioning it. A moment later, the girl in the photo, a pre-school student at South Chicago, began to cry "Why are they taking my school". Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. “Passage of the bill makes it clear that the state legislature no longer trusts CPS to make fair, sound school facilities decisions, and they feel they need to step in to fix the mess CPS has made,” Julie Woesehoff, director of PURE, declared in a written statement on her website.

But the fact remains that the votes of the Chicago Board of Education still determine the fate of the 16 schools that were voted for closing on February 25, 2009, and additional schools that the Board voted to change radically at its meeting of March 25, 2009. And despite the optimism of some, the passage of the gutted "Soto Bill" has not placed any restrictions on the power of the Board to destroy Chicago's successful public schools without restraint and without even listening to the cases made by those who are at the schools on this year's of any future "Hit List." 

Posted April 5, 2009, to SubstanceNews Service at www.substancenews.net. Organizations, news organizations, blogs, Internet realities, and individuals who choose to reproduce this article or any of its graphics, are asked to please credit as follows: "Copyright 2009 SubstanceNews, www.substance news.net, all rights reserved." Partial permission for reproduction is granted here, but those who do so are requested to contact Substance by e-mail (Csubstance @aol.com) or telephone (773-725-7502) for details following usage. 



Comments:

May 27, 2009 at 7:28 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Editor, Substance

Now that the "Soto Bill" have passed the Illinois Senate (but is still to be signed by Governor -- Privatizer in Chief -- Pat Quinn) we'd like to see some discussion here about how the gutted legislation helps any of the schools that are being closed, phased out, turnarounded, or consolidated this school year. In one month, South Chicago Elementary, Davis Developmental, Fenger High School, and more than a dozen other Chicago public schools will cease to be. Most of them will watch their assets (including the buildings) given away to privatization and quasi-privatization.

The "new" Soto Bill supposedly will prevent that from ever happening again.

How?

All the "new" bill does is establish a "process" (which will probably be secret) whereby insiders get to play insider games. The Board has already proved that it can do "hearings" any time it wants. The Board has also proved that it will lie long enough to bamboozle a school into surrender, only to doublecross the school within a few months.

Andersen Elementary (from 2008) is an example coming back into public view.

Carpenter Elementary refuses to go away.

But Substance wants to hear from people -- here in "Comments" and for our subscribers in letters to our print edition -- explaining how thousands of hours of work lobbying for legislation that was supposed to stop closings, consolidations, phase outs, and turnarounds has become another law which makes those things easier for the Chicago Board of Education to do -- "legally."

May 27, 2009 at 7:31 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Soto Bill a Sellout?

Sorry I failed to make clear in the subject line what I want this thread to discuss if anybody out there is interested.

Basically, was the "Soto Bill" a sellout?

If so, who did what to get the bill that was supposed to force a moratorium on closings (etc.) this year morphed into a piece of law that makes the Chicago Board of Education stronger.

And at what point in that should the people who were mobilizing called the bluff of those who gutted the House version of the bill, broken with the bill, and demanded to know who gutted the moratorium out of the bill and left the public with a law that only the Chicago Board of Education can love?

September 2, 2009 at 1:32 PM

By: Alice McCree

Retired State Worker

It just seems to be that the problem started in 1995 when the school system was taken over by a man who placed other men over the school system.

The school system should be headed by women who understand children far more than men.

Society is getting worse due to many school sytems headed by men.

All the men need to be during construction work or work that will use up their pent-up energy. They are still boys making trouble.

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