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After 11th hour plea from Mayor Brandon Johnson, Senate president likely to put school closing bill on hold – Chicago Tribune


SPRINGFIELD — After a last-minute plea from Mayor Brandon Johnson, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon is expected to put the brakes on legislation that would extend a moratorium on public school closings in Chicago.

In a letter to Harmon on Thursday, Johnson wrote that the legislation, originally aimed at protecting selective enrollment schools from closures, “seeks to solve problems that do not exist,” and promised that selective enrollment schools are not being targeted.

“The District will not close selective enrollment schools nor will the District make disproportionate budget cuts to selective enrollment schools,” the mayor said in the letter. “The District will maintain admissions standards at selective enrollment schools. Any narrative to the contrary is patently false.”

The bill had passed overwhelmingly in the House and had no opposition in a Senate committee. But sources said Harmon is not likely to call the bill for a vote before the full Senate before the General Assembly adjourns its spring session. Both Johnson, who once worked for Harmon an aide, and the Chicago Teachers Union have staunchly opposed the legislation.

A spokesman for Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, declined to comment on his plans for the bill.

But Sen. Robert Martwick, an ally of Johnson and the CTU, said he was glad to see the issue resolved without the city’s hands being tied by legislation, because “the mayor has made it very clear that his intention is to wait for the fully elected school board to take place before major changes are made.”

“As the mayor has publicly provided assurances that there will be no dramatic changes to the role of selective enrollment and magnet schools in the school district, the need for the legislation is obviated,” Martwick, a Chicago Democrat said. “We don’t need it anymore.”

Under the bill, the Chicago school board would be barred from approving “any school closings, consolidations, or phase-outs” until February 1, 2027, instead of January 15 of next year. The measure also says that funding of selective enrollment schools should not be “disproportionate” compared to other CPS schools, and bars any changes to admissions standards at selective enrollment schools until February 1, 2027.

The legislation was filed by state Rep. Margaret Croke after Johnson’s school board last year announced its intention to focus on neighborhood schools in a forthcoming five-year plan. School choice advocates feared that approach would lead to selective enrollment schools being shut down, despite denials from the board which Johnson reiterated in his letter.

“With regard to disproportionate budget cuts to selective enrollment schools, I can say unequivocally that there never has been any statement by the Board or my administration that selective enrollment schools will be disproportionately harmed relative to neighborhood schools,” Johnson said in the letter to Harmon. “My vision for CPS is not one where some students suffer at the expense of others. It is to ensure that we have a system that is geared toward the benefit of all students, and this of course includes our students enrolled at selective schools.”

Senate President Don Harmon, center, listens to speakers during a Chicago CRED meeting on Feb. 1, 2024, at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)
Senate President Don Harmon, center, listens to speakers during a Chicago CRED meeting on Feb. 1, 2024, at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago. (Vincent Alban/Chicago Tribune)

As for the provision of the bill calling for no changes to the admissions processes for selective enrollment schools, Johnson wrote “the Board has made no mention of eliminating testing and other criteria for admission to selective schools.”

“What I and the Board are committed to is ensuring that testing remains an important part of the admissions process and that we will fulfill our responsibility to CPS families to continually evaluate our system to ensure that our schools offer every student a chance to succeed,” Johnson wrote. “A system that has seen a precipitous decline in Black and Latine students as well as those who qualify for free or reduced lunch at some of our highest-performing and most well-resourced schools is not a system that reflects my values as mayor, or our values as a city.”

In a statement to the Tribune, Croke, a Chicago Democrat, said she hopes “the Senate realizes that this letter falls horribly short from how it is being spun that they will reconsider and run this bill.”

“I am deeply disappointed to learn that President Harmon may not call this bill. While his letter agreement with the mayor contains some concessions, it does not protect magnet or charter schools and still allows for changes in admissions criteria for selective enrollment schools,” Croke said. “The CPS school budgeting process has been hidden from both the public and from Springfield legislators, and I fully expect that disproportionate cuts will be made to magnet schools and charters will eventually be closed.”

A moratorium on closing CPS buildings is set to expire in January 2025 under the 2021 state law creating an elected school board. But after extensive haggling on how to implement an elected board, Gov. J.B. Pritzker in March signed a measure that won’t put a fully elected, 21-member school board in place until January 2027. Beginning in January 2025, the board will be composed of 10 elected members and 11 others, including the board president, appointed by Johnson.

Pritzker had expressed support for Croke’s legislation, saying any decisions about school closures should be made by a fully elected board.

State Rep. Margaret Croke, D-Chicago, speaks at an event on Aug. 24, 2021. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
State Rep. Margaret Croke, D-Chicago, speaks at an event on Aug. 24, 2021. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Last year, Harmon introduced legislation supporting a fully elected board to be installed by 2025. But in March he acquiesced to the House’s hybrid plan after receiving a letter from Johnson urging that model. The hybrid plan was also supported by the Chicago Teachers Union, where Johnson once worked as an organizer.

Croke’s bill was passed by the House in a 92-8 vote on April 18, with all eight “no” votes coming from Democrats. The vote was viewed as a resounding slap at the CTU, which labeled the legislation “racist,” much to the consternation of legislators who supported it.

Earlier this month, the Senate Executive Committee passed Croke’s bill without opposition, the same day Johnson came to Springfield to lobby Pritzker and lawmakers for more funding that’s critical to Chicago’s operations. Asked during a press gaggle if he felt snubbed that the bill passed through committee on the same day as his visit to the Illinois State Capitol, Johnson said, “there’s a process that the General Assembly goes through. I understand that process. And we’re going to stick to that process.”

In Thursday’s letter, Johnson sought to assure Harmon that no selective enrollment school would be closed before the fully elected board is seated in January 2027. He also said none of those schools would experience “a disproportionate resource decrease” if budget reductions are required to be made before the seating of the fully elected board.

“Selective enrollment schools will remain among the highest achieving schools in the state while the district strives to improve diversity and expand opportunities for ALL of Chicago’s students and schools,” the mayor wrote.

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