Gov. J.B. Pritzker expresses support for expanded CPS school closing moratorium; House sends bill to Senate

DECATUR, Ill. — Putting himself at odds with Mayor Brandon Johnson’s school board, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday expressed his support for extending a moratorium on closing any public schools in Chicago by two years to coincide with a fully elected school board that’s set to be in place in early 2027.

The moratorium extension is included in a bill sponsored by state Rep. Margaret Croke that was initially aimed primarily at protecting selective enrollment schools, which school choice advocates feel are threatened after Johnson’s school board late last year announced its intent to focus on neighborhood schools in a forthcoming five-year plan. The legislation also would prohibit any admission changes for selective enrollment schools until 2027.

Croke subsequently filed an amendment that would apply the moratorium to all of Chicago Public Schools. The House passed the bill late Thursday in a 92-8 vote, with all eight no votes from Democrats. The bill now goes to the Senate.

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During the floor debate, Croke said the new legislation is necessary because there will only be a hybrid board in place next year instead of a fully elected board.

“This bill is about democracy and I understand that democracy is not convenient, but … I do not believe that means we circumvent it,” Croke said.

Earlier, school board Vice President Elizabeth Todd-Breland voiced opposition to Croke’s initial legislation and said the board remains fully committed to funding selective enrollment schools.

“This bill in fact is a proposed remedy to a problem that actually does not exist,” Todd-Breland said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

“In restricting the board’s ability to make decisions about admissions and enrollment the bill as written negatively impacts CPS students across the entire district. Without the ability to reexamine selective admissions and attendance policies, selective schools may become more and more racially and economically segregated and create barriers to access for the majority of CPS students,” Todd-Breland said.

A moratorium on closing Chicago Public Schools buildings is set to expire in January under the 2021 state law creating an elected school board. But after extensive haggling on how to implement an elected board, Pritkzer last month signed a measure that creates a board composed of 10 elected members and 11 others, including the board president, appointed by Johnson beginning in January 2025. A fully elected 21-member board won’t be in place until January 2027.

Given that, Pritzker said extending the moratorium is the right call “so that decisions can be made by people who are representative of the people of Chicago.”

“I think it makes sense as we wait for the elections for the elected school board in Chicago, and then the elected school board will be able to make the decisions about what the future of those (selective enrollment) schools is,” Pritzker said during an unrelated event in Decatur. “But I think making sure that we don’t make major changes between now and then with the appointed board when the intention is to have (a fully) elected board makes perfect sense and I think Representative Croke has made the right decision to include all public schools, including the selective enrollment ones.”

School closings have been a flashpoint in Chicago ever since dozens of buildings were shut down under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration in the early 2010s.

The five-year plan expected to be taken up by the Chicago school board later this year will guide investments in Chicago Public Schools as districts across the country face a fiscal cliff. Federal COVID-19 emergency relief funds that buoyed CPS in recent years will be expiring in September and the district faces a budget shortfall of at least $391 million next school year.

The sense of scarcity — and misinformation that selective enrollment schools might close as a result of the plan — prompted selective enrollment school parents and proponents to decry the board’s stated goals of transitioning from policies that “drive student enrollment away from neighborhood schools” and ensuring that neighborhood schools are “fully-resourced.”

CPS officials have said repeatedly since December that they have no plans to close selective enrollment or magnet schools. And, in launching the 2024-25 budget, CEO Pedro Martinez told the Tribune that the new approach to funding — which guarantees every school a minimum number and ratio of support staff and teachers in core subjects like reading and math, as well as in arts and physical education — protects the robustness of the city’s “strongest schools,” while ensuring those in high-poverty areas aren’t starved of resources.

Central office expenses, rather than any school-level costs, are being cut to make the “much more equitable, much more transparent” funding strategy possible, Martinez said.

With no plans on the horizon to close selective enrollment schools, charter schools may stand to gain the most protection if a moratorium covering all schools is extended through early 2027.

CPS’ efforts last year to revoke the charter of the troubled Urban Prep charter school network following allegations of financial mismanagement and sexual misconduct by a former administrator were rebuffed by a Cook County judge, who ruled CPS would be violating the existing moratorium on school closures through 2025 if it absorbed Urban Prep’s two campuses as district-run schools.

And in renewing contracts with 49 charter schools this year, CPS has begun subjecting charters to more scrutiny, extending renewal terms as short as a year when audits show shortcomings in charter schools’ academic and financial performance and supports and services provided to diverse and English language learners.

Croke, a Democrat from Chicago’s North Side, said she was aware CPS officials opposed expanding the moratorium to include all schools.

“They didn’t go into explanations of why they didn’t want that,” she said. “I assume it’s because there’s a worry about budget impact.”

“When I was speaking with my colleagues, we had this conversation about how I’m really not trying to necessarily say selective enrollment is perfect or how we’re trying to preserve selective enrollment for the rest of time as it is now,” Croke said. “This is about democracy. This is about waiting until we have a fully elected school board before we make significant changes to the largest school district in the state.”

The moratorium extension in Croke’s bill was approved without opposition earlier this week in the House Executive Committee.

The Chicago Teachers Union did not provide its position on an expanded moratorium, instead pointing to comments CTU President Stacy Davis Gates made earlier Thursday at an unrelated student roundtable at Collins High School, a neighborhood school.

Davis Gates said that Croke “seems to be unaware that her bill hurts families and neighborhood schools in her district,” and that efforts to help families with children in selective enrollment schools would be better spent in finding the funds to restore transportation for selective enrollment students whose bus service has been cut.

Macaraeg and Guffey reported from Chicago.