Race and equity

Here’s some advice for CPS’ future Chief Equity Officer in year one

PHOTO: Bettmann/Getty Images
A third grade class recites the "Pledge of Allegiance" at Franklin Elementary School, which is now Franklin Fine Arts Academy, in September 1963

When a small group of central office staff met earlier this year at Chicago Public Schools headquarters to discuss a grant, the conversation went from how the district could support students’ social and emotional development to a bigger discussion about the world children are growing up in. CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the talks inside district headquarters at 42 W. Madison St.  soon “blossomed into a full blown commitment around race and equity.” 

On Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on CPS’ 2018-19 budget, which lists a new four-person Office of Equity as a $1 million line item. The board also plans to vote on a proposed revision to its student code of conduct to help address racial disparities in suspensions.

Equity officers are a small but growing cadre of school administrators working on diversity and inclusion. Districts in Los Angeles and New York don’t yet have a cabinet-level official who reports directly to the schools chief. But smaller urban districts like Jefferson County Public Schools, in Kentucky, and the Oakland Unified School District, have been doing the work for years.

“This is a good start, we’re excited about the direction we’re going in,” Jackson said.

In a racially equitable school, all students would get what they need to be successful, and race wouldn’t predict any child’s success or outcome. But how does a chief equity officer go about digging out so many deep-rooted problems at CPS?

In Chicago, one of America’s most diverse — and segregated — cities, few institutions illustrate racial inequity like the public school system. About 90 percent of CPS students are of color, but half of all teachers are white. White students, most of whom live on the North Side, comprise just 10 percent of students but are nearly all clustered at top rated schools (Level 1+ and Level 1). Black and Latino students, who are concentrated on the city’s South and West sides, also trail their white peers when it comes to test scores and college readiness.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This chart shows the “racial achievement gap” or “opportunity gap” in composite state standardized test scores.

The consequences of racial inequity in schools can follow students their entire lives. Jackson knows that all too well. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, graduated from public schools, and returned as a teacher and principal.  

Now chief of the district, Jackson said the equity chief’s primary focus in year one would be bridging gaps in test scores between black and Latino students and their white peers.  “All tides are rising,” she said, citing academic growth at the district, “but the achievement gap still exists.” And while she said it’s too early to pinpoint every equity goal and standard, Jackson detailed some initiatives the new official would work on, starting with diversifying CPS’ workforce, ensuring resources are distributed equitably across the district, and supporting CPS efforts to award more contracts to minority- and woman-owned businesses.

To better understand what a chief equity office could look like, Chalkbeat interviewed school equity experts in several areas. While no school district has eradicated the problem, a savvy equity chief is starting to make a major difference in some cities.

Lessons from the Bluegrass State

PHOTO: Abdul Sharif
Chief Equity Officer John Marshall with students at Mill Creek Elementary’s student Leadership Academy convocation.

John Marshall grew up in a family of educators and attended failing schools in Louisville, Kentucky. After a high school suspension he felt was unfair, he vowed at a school disciplinary hearing to one day change the school system from the inside. Today, he’s the chief equity officer at Jefferson County Schools, which encompasses Louisville and is Kentucky’s largest district with more than 100,000 students, about 46 percent white and 37 percent African-American.

He said that a $3.6 million budget his office assesses the practices, policies, and behaviors of the school system, with a focus on access to academic programs, teacher recruitment, discipline and student achievement. He has spearheaded the creation of an equity institute to train employees and provide professional development. Last year, the school board approved creating a school for men of color with lessons taught “from an Afrocentric lens,” rather than the Eurocentric instruction prevalent at many American schools.

Marshall has some tips for CPS CEO Jackson as she seeks a chief equity officer: choose somebody who is organized, data-driven, research focused, and who understands the business of public education. That means not just hiring a bureaucrat, business person, or political operative — but snagging a candidate with experience teaching at and leading schools.

It’s also important to hire a person who can build bridges between the administration and community groups and enlist help in building momentum for racial equity work.  And, he said, it wouldn’t hurt to have candidates who have experience in the same school district they hope to improve.

“Do you need them to be from Chi-Town? Not really, but it’s helped me being from Kentucky,” he said.

One of the most vital qualities a chief equity officer should have, Marshall said, is a deep understanding of race and history. Tackling racial inequity means wrestling with the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racial discrimination.

“What [equity officers] have to do is look at the system as not broken,” Marshall said, “but as doing what it’s created to do.”

Year one: a scorecard

When Marshall was hired in 2012, he said he focused on creating an equity scorecard loaded with critical data that grades the district via four metrics: literacy, college-and-career readiness, school climate and culture, and discipline. He said the data has helped focus the community conversation and strengthened efforts to improve outcomes for certain students. For example: The district saw some increases in the number of low-income students considered to be college and career ready between 2013 and 2016.

The data-laden equity scorecard has been a powerful guide in other ways, too.

For instance, Marshall said that his office recognized that students of color were being suspended at a disproportionately high rate. He worked with community groups to come up with a remedy, redefining the categories of conduct that were generating suspensions, namely, disruptive behavior. “This subjective infraction was being given to black males of color in alarming and disproportionate ways,” he said.

The disparities in discipline he mentioned are also a problem in Chicago. While the district has revised its suspensions policy and seen a steep decline since 2012, black boys are still the most likely to be suspended.

But none of this will work if the people who run schools can’t speak honestly about race. Lee Teitel runs a program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education that sends graduate students into schools to coach teachers and administrators on issues around race and equity. The students report back that it’s challenging, Teitel said. The problem is that it’s hard for some people to confront their personal issues with race — and comprehend the impact racism has across institutions like public schools. That’s the sort of education an equity chief must bring to school communities, networks, and central offices.

“You’ve got to change attitudes and beliefs, and you also have to give people the tools to do that, because dismantling racism in the schools is just as hard as it is dismantling it in the larger society,” Teitel said.

Listening tours

Christopher Chatmon, deputy chief of equity for the Oakland Unified School District, has his own advice for Chicago’s equity officer. Do a listening tour that spans anywhere from six months to a year, and interview students, parents, teachers, principals, central office staff, school board members, and community organizations.

That’s what Chatmon did after his office opened in 2016. It grew out of the district’s Office of African-American Male Achievement, which he helped found in 2010. Chatmon previously had worked as a principal at an alternative school in San Francisco and served executive director of Urban Services at the Oakland YMCA. Oakland Unified serves about 50,000 students and is 46 percent Latino, 24 percent black, 13 percent Asian, and 10 percent white.

“As we began to go deep into the work, we realized the evolution of that work would have more legs and tentacles,” Chatmon said. “We began to see that not only do we need targeted strategies for black boys as  way to elevate access and performance, we also could benefit from having differentiated and targeted strategies for Latinos, Latinas, indigenous students, Asian and Pacific Islander students.”

In his first year, he drafted an equity policy that declared the district’s commitment to identifying and eliminating racial bias, and outlined ways to reach that goal. Now, his office is laying the groundwork for the plan and thinking through teaching and learning, professional development and curriculum (“the content is still extraordinarily Eurocentric,” he said), teacher recruitment and retention, parent engagement, budgeting, and social-emotional supports for children.

He has about 20 staff, including researchers and data analysts. In a district budget of about $780 million, his office has a $2.1 million slice.

The office spends money on outreach to parents, students, other community engagement events, and training teachers. The office also works on “narrative change,” sharing the stories of diverse students via newsletter, and informing people about accomplishments made by the office.

It’s a subtle way to counteract negative narratives about students of color, LGBTQ students and other marginalized people, Chatmon said. It also lets the public know the district’s values and keeps people abreast of its work.

“Otherwise,” he said, “you can be doing good work but it gets either suppressed or it doesn’t get lifted up.”

“CPS is stepping up”

Chicago’s equity officer won’t have an easy job. This new hire will step into several heated debates around racial equity, especially how CPS plans to spend $1 billion on improving school facilities, adding annexes, and shiny new buildings. He or she will also have to address teacher pipeline issues: The racial makeup of CPS’ teacher workforce doesn’t reflect the student population or that of the city as a whole. 

Source: Chicago Public Schools

A recent WBEZ analysis found CPS’ proposed capital budget invests disproportionately more in buildings serving significant white populations and schools on the north side. And Chalkbeat Chicago reported last week that the proposal shows a skew toward investments in and near high-growth, gentrifying areas of the city. Critics are inflamed by what they say is the lack of an intelligent, fair or transparent process for prioritizing community needs.

At capital budget hearings last week, residents had mixed feelings about how CPS is allocating resources. Some applauded the district, while others cried out for more help.

Jackson said the district already has laid some equity groundwork, such as the Great Expectations Mentor Program, which grooms African-American men and Latinos interested in senior leadership roles at CPS. She also mentioned investments in under-enrolled schools, which tend to be in black communities that have been losing population.

“CPS is stepping up and and saying this is important, and while we have always prioritized equity, it’s important to have a cabinet level official [focused on equity],” Jackson said.

Even if Chicago’s chief equity officer transforms schools, public education is only one expression of racial inequity. Marshall, in Kentucky, emphasized that fixing a school system doesn’t change discrimination in banking, criminal justice, or housing. That doesn’t mean equity chiefs should throw their hands up in resignation. On the contrary, he said they should sit on anti-gun violence panels, address laws that perpetuate mass incarceration, and tie these issues back to schools, especially the school-to-prison pipeline.

“A school system is one link in the chain of change,” he said.

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.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”