New agenda

School funding, pensions, pre-K: Here are 8 education issues J.B. Pritzker will face as governor

PHOTO: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Steinmetz High School in northwest Chicago, where Emily Jade Aguilar graduated last year, had just four school counselors. In a school of more than 1,200 students, that simply wasn’t enough.

“We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, who spent Election Day knocking on doors with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, “to have at least a safe space for 15 or 30 minutes where I could let someone know what is going on.”

Aguilar is 19, identifies as a trans woman, and voted for the first time on Tuesday. She has a clear demand for Illinois’ new governor, billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker: more funding for counselors, social workers and art therapy programs to help young people deal with the trauma and difficulty of navigating their lives in Chicago.

If Pritzker doesn’t deliver, Aguilar said, he’ll hear from her and other Chicago students. “I want to tell the governor he should be ready to pay attention to us,” she said.

Now that the victory speeches have ended and the confetti has been swept away, Pritzker faces a host of critical public education issues, from the mental health needs of students and teachers, to a dire educator shortage, to finding the funding required to help the state’s struggling districts.

And while local decision makers still wield a lot of power, the governor holds the purse strings. Pritzker will have plenty of influence beyond appointing the five members of the State Board of Education whose terms expire in January.

Here are eight issues that advocates and education policy experts are hoping to put on his to-do list.

Closing the K-12 funding gap

Pritzker’s most ambitious task will be getting the state’s fiscal house in order. That includes raising enough money to close the $6.8 billion gap between what Illinois spends on K-12 education and what it should be spending while contending with a general backlog of bills that has topped $7 billion.

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said creative ways to generate revenue, such as legalizing marijuana, might help some, but won’t be enough. While Pritzker’s vision of a progressive income would take years — and a state referendum — to realize, Martire would like to see Pritzker push other measures, such as expanding the sales tax to consumer services, or simulating a progressive income tax by hiking taxes on wealthy residents while offering tax credits to middle- and low-income families.

But, Martire said, “job No. 1 is refinancing the pension debt.” In the last legislative session, lawmakers from both parties strongly supported refinancing the debt. Pritzker could lead on the issue as early as spring if he decides to, Martire said.

“The main thing the governor can do is utilize his post as a bully pulpit.”

Fixing the eroding child care assistance program

A state program that provides affordable child care to low-income, working families is losing children and providers. Early child care advocates like Maria Whelan, of Illinois Action for Children, say the governor’s office urgently needs to shore up that effort, while surfacing longer-term solutions such as more resources and better coordination within all of the state government agencies responsible for the state’s youngest — and most vulnerable — citizens.

“We are only reaching a teeny percent of youngest citizens in our state,” said Whelan, who wants to push Pritzker to create a cabinet-level early childhood office with real authority. “We have a huge way to go.”

A benefactor of some leading early childhood advocacy organizations in the state and nation, Pritzker has pledged to expand birth-to-3 programs and pave a path for universal pre-K statewide for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Enrollment has dropped across Illinois in programs that serve 3- and 4-year-olds. At the same time, there has been growth in publicly funded care for infants and toddlers.

Tackling racial gaps in education

Black and Latinos, as well as English language learners, continue to fall behind their white peers in critical metrics such as graduation rate and performance on the college entrance exam SAT. Across the state, for example, nearly half of white students met or exceeded state standards on the English language portion of the SAT, while only 13.8 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students did.

A new state ratings system tied to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act can penalize schools where one group of students struggles compared with their peers. But the first batch of ratings have left some educators scratching their heads, since a single metric can plunge an otherwise average school into a lower performance category, triggering state intervention. Some insiders question if Pritzker will push to revisit the state’s plan for ESSA, as the federal program is known, with an eye toward tweaking the ratings system.  

Building a better relationship between the state and Chicago schools

The relationship between the governor’s office and Chicago Public Schools has often devolved into a rhetorical boxing match, despite the symbiotic relationship between the largest city in the Midwest and the state that houses it.

State Rep. Sonya Harper, a Democrat from Chicago, said she wants the new governor to build a solid relationship with the city’s new mayor and show he cares about city schools, “to make sure schools were funded equitably and more transparently.”  

Harper said she hoped the governor would be in “full support” of an elected school board in Chicago — an idea that Pritzker has said he supports.

Beyond that, Harper said the governor needs to show he cares about and is knowledgeable about issues like school closings, charter school expansion, and what happens with Chicago schools’ special education program and the state monitoring efforts there.

“A governor up to date on those issues is the governor we need,” she said.

Figuring out next steps for school choice

In 2017, Illinois introduced a new private school scholarship funded by independent tax credits. Pritzker has said he does not support the program, but it is not clear whether he would cap it or eliminate it entirely. Thousands of families rely on the program to pay their bills at private schools across the state.

Pritzker also has said he would support a moratorium on charters, but spoke favorably of the idea of school districts having a school choice portfolio. Good charters, he told Chalkbeat Chicago, are “worthy of support.”

Building out a more robust special education monitor’s office 

Chris Yun, an educational policy analyst with the disabilities rights group Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, said that the governor should marshal more resources for the independent state monitor overseeing Chicago’s special education program. A state investigation earlier this year found the district routinely delayed and denied students services in violation of their rights.

Yun’s group and various advocate organizations have been working with the state since the inquiry was announced. She said the advocates asked for a robust six-person office to monitor schools and attend the regular parent meetings mapping out each child’s lessons, but instead got one monitor and several part-time support staff. Mandatory letters and guidelines for receiving compensatory services have reached parents only slowly.

“I find their speed very unsatisfactory and disappointing,” Yun said.

Addressing a dire teacher shortage

The state board recently released a report sounding the alarm over a growing teacher shortage, particularly among bilingual and special education teachers and also in rural areas. But solving it will take creative approaches, said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

“It’s not just Chicago — it’s the suburbs, it’s downstate. And we can’t talk about the teacher shortage without talking about the conditions” that are putting pressure on the profession, he said, from low wages compared with other professions to limiting pension benefits for new hires.

The shortage is critical, too, in early childhood care and education, said Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy at the Ounce of Prevention. Before Pritzker can realize his vision of a universal pre-K system, he’ll have to figure out how to recruit more people to staff centers and programs. That will start with better compensation. Child care providers generally earn less than their K-12 counterparts, and the profession tends to see high turnover.

Confronting poverty

One in three Illinois children grows up in a household that is within 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

“We all have to double down to make sure we’re not excluding kids who face the most challenges,” said Gasner of the Ounce of Prevention.  

Improvement could mean freeing up more funding that districts could use for social workers and counselors — as Emily Jade Aguilar, the student, advocates. Or tackling broader economic issues, such as jobs and housing.

“School is one of the main interactions young people have,” said another Chicago schools graduate, Juan Padilla, who, like Aguilar, attended Steinmetz College Prep.

As the new governor assembles a transition team and plots out the first 100 days of his administration, Pritzker will have to wrestle with plenty of immediate challenges. But education policy experts and young people said they plan to keep calling attention to issues faced by schools and youth around the state.

As the beaming governor-elect said in his victory speech on Tuesday, “These are the things we stand and fight for.”


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.”