PURE’s FOIA stories

Many thanks to Enrique Perez for including my article, “FOIA Power,”
in today’s Enrique’s Community Updates.

FOIA Power!

Grass roots advocates in Illinois have become more interested in using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as an advocacy tool since Attorney General Lisa Madigan strengthened oversight and monitoring of the FOIA compliance of public bodies.
Here are some examples of how PURE has used the FOIA in our fight for an equal,
high-quality education for all children. It has taken a lot of persistence, but we believe
that the results have been well worth it.

1. April, 2008: Using FOIA to debunk Renaissance 2010
 

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) leadership insists that Renaissance 2010 schools are superior to regular neighborhood schools, in part because they are “more accountable.”
CPS uses that reasoning to justify massive school closings and teacher firings,
which PURE believes are destabilizing and detrimental to children’s education.

So, we thought we would find out how accountable Renaissance 2010 schools really are.
We sent FOIA letters to all 85 Renaissance 2010 schools asking for the minutes, by-laws
and board of directors lists of their governing boards for that year. Only one-third of the
schools responded, even after they received a follow-up letter from the Attorney General
stating that they were required to comply. We concluded that two-thirds of Renaissance 2010
schools do not have legally-mandated governing boards. This looks to us like a major lack
of accountability. Our report on these findings has been a useful tool in our ongoing critique
of Renaissance 2010.

2. January, 2009: Using FOIA to hold CPS accountable for school closings
 

In 2007, CPS agreed to make an annual report to the public on how school closings and other
such changes affect students. They made this promise in part to convince State Representative
Cynthia Soto to pull a bill off the table that would have reformed CPS’s facilities planning process. Rep. Soto reintroduced the bill this year because CPS had not kept the promises made in 2007.

To highlight this problem, PURE sent a FOIA to CPS requesting the annual reports that were
promised in their 2007 school closing policy. The first letter went out on January 6, 2009.
CPS requested an additional 14 days but then sent nothing. We sent a follow up letter on
February 6 and a follow-up e-mail on March 18th. There was no response. We then sent a
letter to the Attorney General and visited House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie’s office
on March 30, seeking her assistance. Rep. Soto’s new bill, HB 363, was up for a vote in the
House that week. CPS assured Rep. Currie’s office that the report was “in the mail.” That was
three weeks ago and we just received the report today (April 16, 2009). Read my comments on
a disappointing report.
 

We hope that Rep. Soto’s bill, HB 363, will result in a legal obligation on the part of CPS to monitor and report on how Renaissance 2010 affects students. No accountability requirement could be more
needed.

3. My favorite FOIA story so far: Curie principal “could care less about the FOIA”

In his ongoing efforts to dismantle local democratic school governance, Mayor Daley provoked a media firestorm in 2007 when he proclaimed it a “national disgrace” that the Curie High
School Local School Council (LSC) decided not to renew their principal’s contract. His claims
that she was a “star principal” were met with silence by the LSC, which was legally barred
from discussing details of her performance in public.

However, I had seen some video footage of Curie LSC meetings showing a side of the principal
that made the LSC’s decision more understandable. Unfortunately, the videos belonged to the
school and were under the principal’s control! So, I sent the school a FOIA request for the video
of one particular meeting. The principal did not respond. I sent a letter to Arne Duncan, as the
supervising official. The CPS law department stepped in and arranged for the principal to speak
to me. I told her that I had been requesting the video and she said, “We don’t make copies of
videos!” I said,”Well, under the Freedom of Information Act, you are required to.” Her response
was, “I could care less about the Freedom of Information Act!”
 

It took a few more days and more help from the CPS Law department, but I eventually got
the video and posted it on YouTube. We believe it is a good example of why LSCs remain a
critical element of school improvement in Chicago. Look at the video and judge for yourself if this
was a good use of the FOIA law.

Support HB 1370 to strengthen FOIA laws in Illinois: HB 1370, a bill drafted by Attorney General Madigan and others and sponsored by Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie to strengthen Illinois’s FOIA
law has passed the House and now needs support in the Senate.
 

The Attorney General’s web site offers a lot of useful information about FOIA including a sample FOIA request form.

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.