election day

Nationally known early childhood supporter J.B. Pritzker will be Illinois’ next governor

PHOTO: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
J.B. Pritzker spoke to Chicago high school students in October alongside his running mate, Lieutenant Governor candidate Juliana Stratton.

J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire philanthropist who has funded early childhood education efforts nationally and in Illinois, will be the next governor of the state. 

Gov. Bruce Rauner conceded shortly after the polls closed Tuesday night. In his speech, he called for bipartisan reform efforts and thanked veterans, law enforcement, and educators. “God bless our teachers,” he said.

As a businessman who spent a record setting amount on his own campaign, Pritzker galvanized support for the technology incubator 1871 — an accomplishment he touted along the campaign trail. His education efforts may not have been featured as prominently, but he’s been as formidable an influencer in early childhood education circles as in the venture capital realm.

He organized the White House Summit on Early Childhood Education for President Obama in 2014 and helped expand federal school breakfast grants to low-income school districts. And he has supported the powerful national Early Childhood Innovation Accelerator, the Chicago-based advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, and the First Five Years Fund.

The race pitted him against incumbent Rauner, who had strong ties to the early childhood advocacy world: His wife, Diana Rauner, is the longtime chief of the Ounce of Prevention. But Rauner has been criticized during his tenure for undercutting a state child care program for working families by tightening income qualifications and rolling out a training protocol that led to a precipitous drop in providers.   

In an October interview with Chalkbeat Chicago and WBEZ, Pritzker described an early childhood plan that would expand birth-to-3 services and, in his own 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 pricy, 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.”

Here’s what else he said about key education issues:

K-12 funding: Currently, 713 of Illinois’ nearly 850 districts are funded below the “adequacy targets” established in a state education funding formula, which tries to level the playing field for districts that don’t collect much through property taxes, or those like Chicago, Rockford, and Peoria that serve predominantly low-income students.

The estimated cost of closing the gap? $6.8 billion. But it’s never been clear where Illinois would find that money.

Pritzker campaigned on a progressive income tax platform that would wring more from wealthy residents and less from people in middle- and low-income brackets. He says that the graduated income tax would free up more funding for schools. 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.

Elected school board: Pritzker has said he supports an elected school board for Chicago.

School choice: Pritzker told us he would impose a moratorium on charter school expansion. But asked directly 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.” Adequate funding for district schools, he said, should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

The state’s tax credit scholarship program: He has been consistent in his opposition to school vouchers and said he opposes taking state money away from public schools for the state’s private school tax credit scholarship plan, which was a pet project of Rauner’s. Reporting from WBEZ found that 28 percent of the first-year recipients were not considered low-income even though the program was touted as a way to help low-income students attend schools they couldn’t afford otherwise.

Shoring up the flagging university system: Pritzker has said he’d push for increasing financial aid and restoring funding for colleges and universities that was cut during the Rauner administration. He said he’d push for making sure that community college credits transfer to public universities and work toward expanding career and technical education programs.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.