Testing the Candidates

Rauner and Pritzker are at odds over most education issues — but agree on this one point

PHOTO: Courtesy of WBEZ
Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker, left, and Gov. Bruce Rauner talked education policy with Chalkbeat Chicago and WBEZ education for the series Testing the Candidates.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner would veto a bill to restore an elected school board in Chicago, while his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker would sign it.

Rauner would extend the reach of a controversial $100 million tax credit scholarship “to a billion” dollars if he could, while Pritzker would curtail the new program, which diverts public tax dollars to tuition at private schools for some 5,600 Illinois students.  

But plowing more money into public education — from early childhood through college — came up as a rare point of agreement in back-to-back candidate conversations Chalkbeat Chicago conducted in partnership with WBEZ 91.5 FM.

Click on the audio below to hear each candidate explain his position on some key education issues facing the state.

When it comes to K-12 funding, predictably, Rauner and Pritzker each told us that relying on property taxes isn’t the answer. Rauner said he’d look for a temporary freeze on property taxes in effort to “shock the system” while his opponent would roll them back.

But put simply, neither had an immediate solution to plugging the massive gap between the $8.4 billion Illinois spends on K-12 public schools and projections of what adequate school funding would cost. A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the estimated $6.8 billion gap. But it’s never been clear how Illinois — which is staring at an even bigger backlog of bills from its two-year budget impasse — is supposed to free up more money.

Currently, 713 of Illinois’ nearly 850 districts are funded below the “adequacy targets” established in the formula, which tries to even the playing field for districts that don’t collect much through property taxes, or those like Chicago, Rockford, and Peoria that predominantly serve low-income students.

Rauner said he has added $400 million to early childhood education and K-12 schools this year, and plans to find additional funding for subsequent years by wringing enough savings from his revamp of the state’s Medicaid program. He said he’d also plug the gap by growing the state’s tax base through aggressive business recruitment.

After standing his ground during a rocky budget impasse and seeing his support wane, “what I’ve certainly learned is that change needs to be incremental,” Rauner told us.

“Every year we’re going to put hundreds of millions of dollars more into our education system. I’m reversing decades of damage, decades of inequitable funding, and the way to do it is a combination of making government more efficient and, most importantly, by getting our economy to grow faster. We can expand our tax base rather than our tax rates and have much more money.”

He said in a pre-interview questionnaire the state has already saved $500 million by revamping Medicaid; however, the office that manages the program says it can’t provide an estimate since the state isn’t even a year in. He did not elaborate on that point in the interview.

Pritzker, meanwhile, has traveled the state touting a progressive income tax that would wring more from wealthy residents and less from people in middle- and low-income brackets. But even if such a plan were to pass through the Legislature, it would require a state referendum — a process that would take until at least 2020.

In the short term, Pritzker said in the Chalkbeat/WBEZ interviews that he’d look to legalizing sports betting and recreational marijuana while working on a plan to reduce incarceration.

“You’d have to get some of those things passed in the first legislative session to see revenue,” he acknowledged. “But in order for us to change the way we fund schools, I want to remind you that, in the average state in the United States, about half the money comes from property taxes and about half comes from state taxes. But we’re at about 25 percent from the state and 75 percent from property taxes. We need to directionally head toward 50-50.”

Here’s what the candidates said about other key education topics.

School choice

The candidates’ diverging views on school choice include charters as well as the tax-credit scholarship program squeezed into the school funding bill last year without public debate. Rauner saying he’ll personally contribute “more and more” of his own millions to the program. A WBEZ report found that 28 percent of the students in the first wave to benefit from the bill were not considered low-income, as the program had been described.

That didn’t budge Rauner: “I’d like to have a billion-dollar program, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “We started with $100 million — let’s expand it every year. This is a great community effort to increase support for our low-income parents who deserve options.”

Pritzker, meanwhile, said he’d wind down the program and put a moratorium on charter growth, even though he supports the concept of “choice” in districts such as Chicago, where students can choose between neighborhood schools, test-in schools, magnets, and charters.

Asked if he would curtail the authority of a state charter commission established to work as an appellate body for denied proposals, he demurred, saying that there are good charter schools “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

This past spring, Rauner vetoed a bill that would have curbed the commission’s authority.

Teacher shortage

A new state report sounds the alarm over a dire teacher shortage, particularly in rural areas and in bilingual and special education.

Rauner said the answer to the teacher shortage is not raising salaries — he vetoed a bill that would have set a minimum teacher salary at $40,000 — but rather sending more state money that districts can use for raises if they choose.

“One size does not fit all,” said Rauner, who also pointed to his record on easing restrictions on out-of-state teachers coming into Illinois. “We cannot look at cost structure and teacher compensation in Chicago and compare it to a tiny rural district with a very low cost of living and very limited resources and say you have to pay what’s in Chicago.”

On the contrary, Pritzker said he’d support a minimum wage bill for teachers. He also confront the shortage issue by examining the state’s existing teacher-prep opportunities and investing more in higher education. He was mum on whether he’d support eliminating a basic-skills test for licensing — one idea that has recently resurfaced as state education leaders consider options for recruiting more mid-career candidates to classrooms.  

Early childhood education

Both candidates have deep ties to early childhood education efforts, with Rauner’s wife, Diana, steering the advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, and Pritzker supporting through his philanthropy the national Early Childhood Innovation Accelerator as well as Ounce of Prevention and the First Five Years Fund.

Rauner touted his record on raising early childhood funding and pushing for quality standards across the web of private and public providers who receive state dollars. Asked about a change in eligibility requirements that knocked tens of thousands of families off of public child care assistance programs, Rauner blamed the budget impasse and said, if elected, he’d work in a new term to bring in even more funding.

“You touched on some damage done during the budget impasse, that was all of us in elected office letting down young people in the low-income families in this state,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened; it was completely unnecessary.”

Pritzker, meanwhile, has put out an early childhood plan that would, in his words, pave a path to universal 3- and 4-year-old preschool — something no other state has been able to fully execute. Asked why he’d shift scarce resources toward something so pricey, while also allocating more money toward the K-12 funding gap, he said it was a down payment on a continued investment.

“Over the course of a kid’s education, they are way more likely to graduate from high school, way more likely to graduate from college, to get a job, and less likely to get incarcerated when they get quality preschool and child care. Let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face.”

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. Here’s the word from Denver Public Schools spokesperson Will Jones: “This was one of the items negotiated (Wednesday) night and early into the morning (Thursday). The result of that discussion was that teachers will not receive back pay.”

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”