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.”

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”