Keeping students safe

Chicago Schools’ background checks send many teachers into limbo just as school sets to open

PHOTO: Getty Images
Many teachers have not been cleared by CPS' renewed background checks and may not be able to teach next Tuesday.

Chicago Public Schools’ well-intentioned background checks appear to have snagged hundreds of employees — including some for minor offenses or dismissed charges — and delayed clearing their names, barring some from the first day of school next Tuesday.

The Chicago Teachers Union announced Friday that it has received dozens of phone calls this week from anxious teachers who were notified that they have not cleared background checks and are not yet allowed to teach. Union spokeswoman Christine Geovanis said the union estimates that hundreds of teachers have been effectively barred from teaching.

Chicago schools did not comment on that allegation. However, spokesman Michael Passman wrote in a statement, “CPS is doing everything in its power to create safer schools this fall, and the district’s unprecedented background re-check process will help ensure that all adults who serve our schools will contribute to safe educational environments.” He added that the background review is nearly complete.

The district said that if teachers who are not cleared arrive at work, they will be sent home until they are cleared.

In early June, the district announced that all adults working in Chicago schools — teachers, coaches, volunteers, and vendors — would go through renewed fingerprinting and background checks. The district imposed these re-checks as a response to a Chicago Tribune investigation that revealed years of district mishandling of student sexual misconduct cases.

Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s examination of the background re-checks here.

In mid-June, the district opened fingerprinting stations around the city and set a deadline of Aug. 3 for employees to get fingerprinted. But that deadline, for thousands of employees, left only a small window for clearing up any mistaken findings from backgrounds checks.

The screening is intended to block those who could pose a danger to children. It appears the district’s net is also catching employees with minor, cleared, and even non-existent offenses.

One teacher at a school on the Northeast Side said that she completed her fingerprinting on time but on Monday received a district email demanding further documentation about a 2-year-old arrest for trespassing. The teacher said that in response to the email, she submitted court documents showing that she was not charged in the Feb. 4, 2016, incident — stemming from a Chicago Teachers Union protest of pension cuts. Geovanis said several teachers were also flagged in background checks from this protest.

The district asked for the original arrest record as well, something that was going to take up to seven days to obtain from the Chicago Police Department.

On Friday, the teacher’s principal received a sudden notice that the teacher was cleared — before she had even gotten and turned in a copy of her arrest record. The Monday email had demanded a “certified disposition, police report, and letter of explanation” of the incident be hand-delivered within five calendar days. It threatened that “failure to deliver this information to CPS may impede your ability to be at work when students return to school on September 4, 2018.”

The teacher asked not to be publicly identified because she does not want to alarm parents. She said she has heard of other teachers who were arrested in the protest and have been cleared by submitting just the court documents that she did.

Four other employees in her building had not been cleared as of earlier this week, the teacher said, adding that her principal is requesting substitute teachers for next week.

The first day of school “is a day where children have heightened nervousness, and the best people to take care of this situation is the classroom teacher with the knowledge of the community,” the teacher said. “Substitute teachers have an incredibly difficult time on the first day of school.”

The school district’s emails did not state the consequences of teachers not getting cleared in time. Geovanis said the union does not know what the repercussions might be.

The renewed background checks come amid a host of new stringent protocols for teachers and school volunteers. In August, the Board of Education adopted new policies that bar teachers from communicating with students via personal phones and personal social media accounts. Some teachers say that these rules inhibit critical communications that allow teachers to develop personal relationships with students.

The board also adopted a new policy that requires all volunteers to be vetted by the district’s Office of Family and Community Engagement in Education. Previously, volunteers only needed to be approved by the principal.

Editor’s note, Aug. 31: The article has been updated to include a statement from Chicago Public Schools and to include the interviewed teacher’s sudden clearance.

Editor’s note, Sep. 2: The article has been updated to reflect the fact that Chicago Public Schools set up fingerprinting stations in mid-June, not mid-July.

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.