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Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn gives coup de grace, kills 'Soto Bill' by veto ... Last hope is a veto override to save a law that had already been 'gutted'

Less than seven months ago, the Illinois House and Senate unanimously passed the so-called 'Soto Bill', for which hundreds of Chicago teachers, parents and communit activists had worked. The trouble was, the 'Soto Bill' (named after State Rep. Cynthia Soto, who sponsored the bill) was not the original 'Soto Bill' when it was finally passed by the House and Senate in Springfield. What had happened? The reason for the vast outpouring of work to pass the bill came because a huge grassroots coalition of community activists and activist teachers, led by CORE, had been told that the bill would place a 'moratorium' on school closings in Chicago — and that the 'moratorium' would be retroactive so that the school closings (phase outs, consolidations, and turnarounds) that had been passed by the Chicago Board of Education on February 25, 2009, would be rescinded by law.

That wasn't what happened.

Valencua Rias of Designs for Change (above left, speaking) told the press she was disappointed that Governor Patrick Quinn had vetoed the 'Soto Bill,' which generated so much hope among activists last winter and spring. Above, Rias is speaking at a crowded press conference held at the offices of State Rep Cynthia Soto on February 2, 2009, when Rep. Soto announced that she was introducing legislation that would impose a moratorium on school closings by CPS and create an independent committee to oversee CPS facilities decisions. By the time the Soto Bill passed the Illinois General Assembly (unanimously in both houses), the moratorium had been taken out, but some activists hoped that the facilities oversight committee could slow down the school closings under Mayor Daley's 'Renaissance 2010' program. The August veto of the legislation by Governor Patrick Quinn ended that hope, although activists still say that there is hope the legislation can get through via an override of the Governor's veto. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Instead, the legislation was passed by both houses, minus the moratorium. When some members of the coalition that had worked on the bill pointed out that the 'Soto Bill' minus the moratorium wasn't what people had lobbied for, they were told by the dwindling number of supporters of the revised legislation that half the loaf was better than none. At least, the argument went, the bill established a committee to review any Chicago Board of Education facilities plans. And, they said, the committee would include some 'independent' community people.

Although part of the original GEM (Grassroots Education Movement) coalition that had supported the Soto Bill when it contained the moratorium, Substance was hesitant to support what was left of the legislation after it was 'gutted' by the elimination of the moratorium. [See 'Soto Bill' Gutted, then Passed in Illinois House of Representatives. No Relief for Schools on 2009 Hit List..." by Jim Vail, SubstanceNews, April 5, 2009, on the April Substance Home Page via 'Back Issues' above].

In late August, even that part of the legislation was gutted, when Governor Patrick Quinn removed any independent members of the facilities committee, leaving behind only people working for Governor Quinn or Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Designs for Change, one of the groups that worked hardest for the original legislation (the one that would have included the moratorium) and then worked hard to convince people that the revised legislation was still a good thing, issued the following press release on August 27, 2009.

August 27, 2009--Governor Pat Quinn has unexpectedly refused to sign House Bill 363, which is aimed at helping to ensure that decisions about where schools are built in Chicago, which schools get priority for repair, and how schools are closed are made equitably and with genuine local involvement by parents, communities, and educators. Quinn has instead announced his "amendatory veto" of the bill. When House Bill 363 was passed unanimously by the House and Senate, chief sponsor Representative Cynthia Soto of Chicago's Near Northwest Side said, "This Act will lead to a framework of fair standards and procedures for decisions about Chicago school facilities. To this point, Chicago's lack of clear standards for facilities decisions has created two different worlds in which Chicago children are educated, worlds that are grossly unequal."

Anyone who had followed the career of Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn closely would have not been surprised when Quinn turned into a corporate style "reformer" following his assumption of the governorship after the Rod Blagojevich scandals. One of the many corporate schemes that Quinn supported was an expensive program called 'Hooked on Phonics' which had long been alleged to have taken money from poor families desperate to have their children learn to read better. On August 30, 2007 (above) Quinn announced 'Hooked on Phonics' day during a national marketing tour by 'Hooked on Phonics.' Above, Quinn is speaking at a 'Hooked on Phonics' media event at Chicago's Crispus Attucks Elementary School. Even after many consumer complaints about the program, Quinn praised Hooked on Phonics. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.House Bill 363 was sponsored by Representative Soto in the House and by Senator William Delgado in the Senate. The final version of House Bill 363 was passed 53 to 0 in the Senate and 117 to 0 in the House. The bill was supported by a wide array of groups, including the Chicago Principals Association, Chicago Teachers Union, and such community and Local School Council groups as Designs for Change, Grand Boulevard Federation, and South Side United Local School Council Federation.

"We are astonished that Governor Quinn, who speaks constantly about his commitment to public involvement, would create this roadblock in the face of unanimous House and Senate approval," said Valencia Rias, Senior Leadership Associate at Designs for Change. House Bill 363 establishes a Chicago School Facilities Task Force of legislators and neighborhood groups (appointed by legislative leaders), which also includes representatives of the Chicago Teachers Union, Chicago Principals Association, and Chicago Public Schools. The Task Force will consult with national experts about best practices for improving urban school facilities and provide extensive opportunities for concerned Chicagoans to identify problems and solutions. The Task Force will make specific recommendations to create a framework for a fair Chicago facilities policy. Interested legislators can then pass a second bill that will make some or all of these recommendations mandatory for the Chicago Public Schools. Representative Soto, the driving force behind House Bill 363, was motivated to introduce legislation after the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) did not follow facilities policies about closing schools that CPS had negotiated with her and a coalition of community groups. Further, the Chicago Board in spring 2009 voted to "phase out" a 97% low-income school in her legislative district (Carpenter Elementary School), at which 61% of students met state achievement standards on state ISAT Tests (very close to the Chicago average) — even though the school's rate of poverty substantially exceeded the Chicago average.

Others have pointed out that Chicago does not use specific objective criteria to decide where schools most desperately need to be built. For example, in June 2006 Mayor Richard Daley announced that 24 new schools would be built under a program called "Modern Schools Across Chicago" — without specifying what criteria he used to make these decisions. One school included on the list is a replacement for Ogden Elementary School on Chicago's wealthy Gold Coast, although the school is in good condition. (This spring, the reason that Carpenter Elementary School in Representative Soto's district was marked by Chicago's Board to be "phased out" was so that Ogden could establish a high school in the Carpenter building.)

Not included in Modern Schools Across Chicago was Gallistel Language Academy, a 1,400-student severely-overcrowded elementary school on Chicago's Southeast Side that is housed in three buildings, two of which are over 100 years old. Gallistel is plagued by leaking roofs, periodic power outages, and an ancient heating system that makes the temperature uncontrollable. Above the boiler room in one Gallistel building, the temperature in the kindergarten is often over 100 degrees. Gallistel has no gym, auditorium, or space for science or computer labs. Yet Gallistel didn't make the Mayor's list.

The heart of Governor Quinn's veto is his demand to decrease the number of legislators on the Task Force and to add three members appointed by Chicago's Mayor, three members appointed by the Governor himself, and two members from the Illinois State Board of Education. Governor Quinn would also appoint the Chair of the Task Force under his plan.

"We are distressed," said Ms. Rias, that Governor Quinn is giving Chicago's Mayor substantial power on the Task Force, when he controls the Chicago Board that is the source of many facilities problems that parents and educators have repeatedly asked the Mayor and his Board to resolve. For example, he has consistently refused to identify and act on facilities improvement needs through an objective process."

"We also don't understand why Governor Quinn stayed silent as the legislative session unfolded and the House and Senate unanimously approved House Bill 363. Further, Governor Quinn and his staff never discussed a desire to change the composition of the Chicago School Facilities Task Force with key supporters of House Bill 363...

"The Governor has hijacked a year-long Chicago school facility improvement campaign at the last minute, by stacking the Task Force and watering down its ability to come up with a strong fair policy. He has disappointed many who thought he was different from the typical Illinois politician."

In the legislative veto session in October, the legislature may either override Quinn's veto changes or approve them. If neither happens, House Bill 363 is dead. 



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