Testing the Candidates

Rauner and Pritzker are at odds over most education issues — but agree on this one point

PHOTO: Courtesy of WBEZ
Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker, left, and Gov. Bruce Rauner talked education policy with Chalkbeat Chicago and WBEZ education for the series Testing the Candidates.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner would veto a bill to restore an elected school board in Chicago, while his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker would sign it.

Rauner would extend the reach of a controversial $100 million tax credit scholarship “to a billion” dollars if he could, while Pritzker would curtail the new program, which diverts public tax dollars to tuition at private schools for some 5,600 Illinois students.  

But plowing more money into public education — from early childhood through college — came up as a rare point of agreement in back-to-back candidate conversations Chalkbeat Chicago conducted in partnership with WBEZ 91.5 FM.

Click on the audio below to hear each candidate explain his position on some key education issues facing the state.

When it comes to K-12 funding, predictably, Rauner and Pritzker each told us that relying on property taxes isn’t the answer. Rauner said he’d look for a temporary freeze on property taxes in effort to “shock the system” while his opponent would roll them back.

But put simply, neither had an immediate solution to plugging the massive gap between the $8.4 billion Illinois spends on K-12 public schools and projections of what adequate school funding would cost. A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the estimated $6.8 billion gap. But it’s never been clear how Illinois — which is staring at an even bigger backlog of bills from its two-year budget impasse — is supposed to free up more money.

Currently, 713 of Illinois’ nearly 850 districts are funded below the “adequacy targets” established in the formula, which tries to even the playing field for districts that don’t collect much through property taxes, or those like Chicago, Rockford, and Peoria that predominantly serve low-income students.

Rauner said he has added $400 million to early childhood education and K-12 schools this year, and plans to find additional funding for subsequent years by wringing enough savings from his revamp of the state’s Medicaid program. He said he’d also plug the gap by growing the state’s tax base through aggressive business recruitment.

After standing his ground during a rocky budget impasse and seeing his support wane, “what I’ve certainly learned is that change needs to be incremental,” Rauner told us.

“Every year we’re going to put hundreds of millions of dollars more into our education system. I’m reversing decades of damage, decades of inequitable funding, and the way to do it is a combination of making government more efficient and, most importantly, by getting our economy to grow faster. We can expand our tax base rather than our tax rates and have much more money.”

He said in a pre-interview questionnaire the state has already saved $500 million by revamping Medicaid; however, the office that manages the program says it can’t provide an estimate since the state isn’t even a year in. He did not elaborate on that point in the interview.

Pritzker, meanwhile, has traveled the state touting a progressive income tax that would wring more from wealthy residents and less from people in middle- and low-income brackets. But even if such a plan were to pass through the Legislature, it would require a state referendum — a process that would take until at least 2020.

In the short term, Pritzker said in the Chalkbeat/WBEZ interviews that he’d look to legalizing sports betting and recreational marijuana while working on a plan to reduce incarceration.

“You’d have to get some of those things passed in the first legislative session to see revenue,” he acknowledged. “But in order for us to change the way we fund schools, I want to remind you that, in the average state in the United States, about half the money comes from property taxes and about half comes from state taxes. But we’re at about 25 percent from the state and 75 percent from property taxes. We need to directionally head toward 50-50.”

Here’s what the candidates said about other key education topics.

School choice

The candidates’ diverging views on school choice include charters as well as the tax-credit scholarship program squeezed into the school funding bill last year without public debate. Rauner saying he’ll personally contribute “more and more” of his own millions to the program. A WBEZ report found that 28 percent of the students in the first wave to benefit from the bill were not considered low-income, as the program had been described.

That didn’t budge Rauner: “I’d like to have a billion-dollar program, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” he said. “We started with $100 million — let’s expand it every year. This is a great community effort to increase support for our low-income parents who deserve options.”

Pritzker, meanwhile, said he’d wind down the program and put a moratorium on charter growth, even though he supports the concept of “choice” in districts such as Chicago, where students can choose between neighborhood schools, test-in schools, magnets, and charters.

Asked if he would curtail the authority of a state charter commission established to work as an appellate body for denied proposals, he demurred, saying that there are good charter schools “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

This past spring, Rauner vetoed a bill that would have curbed the commission’s authority.

Teacher shortage

A new state report sounds the alarm over a dire teacher shortage, particularly in rural areas and in bilingual and special education.

Rauner said the answer to the teacher shortage is not raising salaries — he vetoed a bill that would have set a minimum teacher salary at $40,000 — but rather sending more state money that districts can use for raises if they choose.

“One size does not fit all,” said Rauner, who also pointed to his record on easing restrictions on out-of-state teachers coming into Illinois. “We cannot look at cost structure and teacher compensation in Chicago and compare it to a tiny rural district with a very low cost of living and very limited resources and say you have to pay what’s in Chicago.”

On the contrary, Pritzker said he’d support a minimum wage bill for teachers. He also confront the shortage issue by examining the state’s existing teacher-prep opportunities and investing more in higher education. He was mum on whether he’d support eliminating a basic-skills test for licensing — one idea that has recently resurfaced as state education leaders consider options for recruiting more mid-career candidates to classrooms.  

Early childhood education

Both candidates have deep ties to early childhood education efforts, with Rauner’s wife, Diana, steering the advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, and Pritzker supporting through his philanthropy the national Early Childhood Innovation Accelerator as well as Ounce of Prevention and the First Five Years Fund.

Rauner touted his record on raising early childhood funding and pushing for quality standards across the web of private and public providers who receive state dollars. Asked about a change in eligibility requirements that knocked tens of thousands of families off of public child care assistance programs, Rauner blamed the budget impasse and said, if elected, he’d work in a new term to bring in even more funding.

“You touched on some damage done during the budget impasse, that was all of us in elected office letting down young people in the low-income families in this state,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened; it was completely unnecessary.”

Pritzker, meanwhile, has put out an early childhood plan that would, in his words, pave a path to universal 3- and 4-year-old preschool — something no other state has been able to fully execute. Asked why he’d shift scarce resources toward something so pricey, while also allocating more money toward the K-12 funding gap, he said it was a down payment on a continued investment.

“Over the course of a kid’s education, they are way more likely to graduate from high school, way more likely to graduate from college, to get a job, and less likely to get incarcerated when they get quality preschool and child care. Let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.