Future of Schools

On returning school control to voters, Chicago mayor candidates are split

PHOTO: Chicago Public Schools/Youtube
From left to right: School Board Vice President Jaime Guzman, President Frank Clark and board member Mahalia Hines.

More than 20 years ago, then-mayor Richard M. Daley secured the power to handpick who sits on the Chicago Board of Education. Ever since, whether or not to establish an elected school board has been an ongoing political dispute, one that has intensified amid unpopular decisions by Daley and his successor,  Rahm Emanuel, such as charter school expansion and mass school closings.

With Emanuel’s decision to not seek reelection, the school board is becoming a political litmus test, and candidates are staking out their positions early.

Chalkbeat Chicago reviewed and compiled candidates’ stances on the elected school board question.

As of Wednesday, 15 of 21 candidates responded to our inquiries or released statements about whether they would support an elected school board, which would require a change to state law. And while the majority said they support an elected board outright, two of the candidates who’ve raised the most cash in the race so far — Bill Daley and Gery Chico — each described visions of a “hybrid” school board whose majority would be appointed by the mayor, while community members would select the remainder.

It’s unclear how much power community members would actually have under a hybrid model. Some critics fear that the mayor’s appointees would function as a bloc or allow the mayor too much sway over the board, undermining democratic choice.

But, it’s important to note: Researchers lack consensus about whether elected school boards or mayoral control results in better fiscal management and student performance. Many factors affect those outcomes, like student demographics, funding levels, and quality of leadership at schools, districts, and in city and state government. But, as noted in this 2016 analysis of school governance systems by Pew Charitable Trusts, “there is broad agreement on at least one conclusion:

“Governance systems that produce uncertainty, distrust, and ambiguous accountability can impede districts’ progress on any front,” regardless of how they are constituted.

Here’s a closer look at where the mayoral candidates stand:

“Hybrid” elected school board supporters

Five candidates support creating a school board with some members appointed by the mayor and the rest chosen by community members:

  • Bill Daley
  • Gery Chico
  • Susana Mendoza
  • Garry McCarthy
  • Paul Vallas

This camp includes candidates with ties to former Mayor Daley: his former budget director and schools chief Paul Vallas; Daley’s first board appointee Gery Chico; and Daley’s brother Bill Daley, who like Mayor Emanuel, once was chief of staff to former President Barack Obama.

On Monday, Bill Daley proposed a seven-member school board with four members, including the board president, appointed by the mayor, while three board members would be recommended by Local School Councils.

“CPS has taken steps in the right direction under mayoral accountability, including rising graduation rates,” Daley said in the statement. “Removing mayoral accountability would result in multimillion-dollar politicized elections and risk derailing tentative progress at a time when we need to take big, bold steps for the future of our kids.”

When Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza appeared Tuesday morning at a breakfast for the City Club of Chicago, whose membership includes business and civic leaders, she characterized a fully elected school board as “just plain bad policy.”

“A purely elected school board, that leaves the mayor out and lets the mayor, frankly, off the hook,” said Mendoza, who served as a campaign surrogate on Emanuel’s 2015 re-election bid. “And we need more accountability from the mayor, not less.”

Similarly, Chico’s platform proposed “a hybrid elected-appointed school board,” where the majority of members would be appointed by the mayor, “so that the mayor is held accountable for the educational outcomes of the district throughout the city.”

Former police chief Garry McCarthy, who was both hired and fired by Emanuel, supports “a partially elected school board where three members are elected by neighborhood voters and three are appointed by the mayor,” according to his website.

Vallas proposed “a hybrid elected and appointed school board,” with nine members, according to a statement. Four would be elected by the community, and five appointed by the mayor, including the chairperson. Vallas promised one of his appointees would be recommended by the disability community. The pledge comes amid a state takeover of the district’s special education program, which was found to be denying and delaying student services. Vallas also pledged to appoint a board member recommended by the Chicago Teachers Union, which is endorsing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the mayor’s race.

Fully elected school board supporters

Most candidates for mayor support a fully elected school board:

  • Catherine Brown D’Tycoon
  • Amara Enyia
  • Bob Fioretti
  • LaShawn K. Ford
  • Ja’Mal Green
  • Jerry Joyce
  • Lori Lightfoot
  • Toni Preckwinkle
  • Neal Sales-Griffin
  • Willie Wilson

Preckwinkle, one of the most visible mayoral candidates and backed by major unions, blasted the school board’s 23 years of mayoral control.

In a statement outlining her education platform, she alleged mayoral appointees have failed Chicago in various ways, from skipped pension payments to no-bid contracts, “and presided over multiple scandal-plagued administrations” at Chicago Public Schools. Like other supporters of an elected school board, she argued that an elected body will be more accountable to residents rather than to special interests or the mayor.

In 2015, Chicagoans voted overwhelmingly in favor of an elected school board, via a non-binding referendum. Since then, the state legislature has sought several times to return the board to voter control, but those attempts sputtered amid opposition from school officials, Emanuel, and outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Fioretti, a former alderman, maintains that elected school boards empower and return control to people. Every other district in Illinois has one, Fioretti said, and denying Chicago theirs “was part of a grand scheme by a Daley in the first place,” referring to the 1995 state law backed by Daley that granted him power over the school board.

Enyia, a policy consultant and organizer endorsed by Chance the Rapper, backs an elected school board for many of the same reasons other candidates mentioned, that it’s a fairer, democratic process, that the current board lacks transparency, and that an elected board is more likely to follow the will of the people.

She recalled the contentious school closings in 2013 and multiple district scandals: the district’s mishandling of student sexual abuse cases, delays and denials of services to students with disabilities, and school leaders implicated for corruption or ethics violations.  However, “some people have the sense that [an elected school board] will solve all the city’s problems, and it will not,” she said.

“But what it’s responding to is the lack of responsiveness and accountability parents sense from the board.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Susana Mendoza as a supporter of a fully elected school board and mischaracterized her political ties to the Hispanic Democratic Organization. The article has been updated.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.