Who Is In Charge

State board faces common core decision

The strength of Colorado’s Race to the Top bid will be in the hands of the State Board of Education Monday when it decides whether to adopt the Common Core Standards in language arts and math.

One board member, Peggy Littleton, R-5th District, has been campaigning for rejection of the standards, and at her request a public hearing will be held at 7:30 a.m. Monday before the board formally convenes  to hear a recommendation from education Commissioner Dwight Jones, discuss the issue and vote.

Rejection of the standards could trim points from Colorado’s R2T application.

While several state boards around the country have adopted the standards without controversy, Colorado’s vote is surrounded by a little more drama.

It’s tough to predict how the board will vote, given that one member is in favor, two are leaning against and three more say they haven’t made up their minds – or they aren’t showing their cards in advance of the meeting. One member hasn’t responded to a question about his position.

The meeting originally was scheduled as a teleconference. But, at least three members are expected to show up in person for the hearing and four for the vote.

At a July 21 board teleconference Jones praised the openness and care with which Colorado has reviewed the common standards but said a decision hadn’t been made on his recommendation. But it’s widely expected he will propose adoption.

The standards were developed under the leadership of the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School officers, of which Jones is a member. State Department of Education officials were involved in the discussions and drafting that led to the common standards.

And, the state’s R2T application states, “Colorado also has embraced the rigorous Common Core Standards, which will be presented to the State Board of Education for adoption in August 2010.”

During that July 21 meeting, CDE officials and a consultant said the common standards are 90 percent aligned with the new state language arts and math standards adopted by the board last December and that the two sets are about equally rigorous.

Officials also indicated they believe taking parts of the common standards and adding them to the Colorado documents would constitute “adoption.” (More details on the common standards and the board’s July 21 meeting.) The position of the governors’ association is that the standards must be adopted in their entirety and that state’s can add 15 percent additional material.

Adoption of the common standards is worth 20 points in the 500-point scoring system for R2T grants. Earlier this week Colorado was named one of 19 finalists for round two of R2T.

All the finalists except Colorado and California have adopted the standards. California’s state board also will meet Monday to vote on adoption, which has been recommended by an advisory panel.

All 19 finalists scored more than 400 points each, although specific scores haven’t been released because they may change based on state delegations’ interviews the week of Aug. 9. Loss of points could put Colorado at a disadvantage.

Overall, 31 states have adopted the common standards, Iowa being the latest to do so on Thursday (see map). Florida’s board unanimously adopted the standards on Tuesday. It’s predicted that as many as 40 states could adopt. Alaska and Texas declined to participate in the common standards project.

State Board of Education member Peggy Littleton, R-5th District.

Littleton has been trying to rally opposition to the common standards based on the argument that they’re part of a creeping federalization of K-12 education, echoing concerns by some other conservatives around the country.

“Colorado has put together a good reform plan without Race to the Top,” Littleton said in her statement. “The [Race to the Top] application should include a ‘meets or exceeds’ box for us to check for the standards, because our state’s new standards, that were just adopted after an 18 month long process which was clear and transparent and included citizen input from all over the state of Colorado, and are at least as rigorous as the proposed Common Core, and without the risk of undermining our freedom and local control.”

She predicted 100 people will show up at Monday’s hearing to oppose the standards. CDE has received about 500 e-mails on the issue.

Here’s what some board members currently have to say about their positions:

Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District – “I am voting for common core.”

Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District – “I’m waiting for more information from staff right now.”

Marcia Neal, R-3rd District – “I will probably vote to oppose,” she said. In a recent blog post,  she praised the rigor of the national standards but also wrote, “What are the downsides to this adoption? Is the money that we would gain worth the exchange? … Will this acquiescence lead to further demands, to loss of Colorado’s greatly valued local control? (Full blog post). Neal attended the annual Colorado Association of School Executives convention in Breckenridge this week and said small-district administrators “are almost unanimous in their opposition.”

Details on Monday’s meeting

Public comment will be taken from 7:30 to 9:15 a.m. in the first-floor boardroom at CDE, 201 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Testimony will be limited to three minutes per person. The board’s meeting is scheduled from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.

To listen to the proceedings online, go to the board webpage and use the link at the bottom labeled “Click here to listen live to the State Board Regular meeting.”

Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District – Didn’t respond Thursday to a message. As chair, Schaffer signed the state’s R2T application.

Littleton – In a statement Thursday, she said she opposes the standards because “Adopting these national standards would invite greater federal intrusion into the education of Colorado students. It would open the doors to national standards in other areas, like science (currently underway) civics and health, while moving us closer to national assessments and national curriculum.”

Vice Chair Randy DeHoff, R-6th District – “I am being heavily lobbied by both sides (not unexpected, nor unappreciated). This is shaping up to be one of the most difficult votes of my 12 years on the board.”

Jane Goff, D-7th District – “We’ll be discussing some options on Monday, so that’s when I’ll get to a final decision. This is really hard!”

In August 2009 the board unanimously passed a resolution supporting Colorado’s participation in the common standards project. Jones and Gov. Bill Ritter had announced in June that the state would join the effort.

Some board members expressed concerns at that time that the common standards could one day turn into federal mandates, so the resolution was carefully worked to read, “Colorado along with each state throughout the country will make its own determination as to the voluntary adoption of the Common Core Standards.”

Littleton said at that meeting, “The states are the ones defining what it is our children are learning, and it is not the federal government’s responsibility to do that.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s R2T regulations that made the common standards part of the competition weren’t published until November 2009.

Littleton is running for El Paso County commissioner and will face Democrat Mike Merrifield, the powerful outgoing chair of the state House Education Committee, in November.

Schroeder, who was appointed to her seat, is up for election, and Littleton and DeHoff will be leaving the board. There are contested races in both districts.


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.