Testing the Candidates

Care about education? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the Illinois governor’s race

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.

Between the candidates’ barbs, and the back-and-forth over tax breaks and toilets, the candidates for Illinois governor have occasionally been spotted talking real policy. One such occasion: When Chalkbeat Chicago teamed up with the education team at WBEZ 91.5 Chicago for in-depth conversations about schools with Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker.

In pre-interview questionnaires and live discussions, we pushed for their positions on everything from boosting the state’s profile in early childhood education to stemming the exodus of undergraduates from Illinois.

Click here to listen to the interviews.

Here’s what we learned.

On K-12 funding

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 a big backlog of bills from its two-year budget impasse — is supposed to free up more money.

Rauner said he would find additional funding for schools 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.

Pritzker leaned on his progressive income tax proposal, which would wring more from wealthy residents and less from people in middle- and low-income brackets. In the short term, he told us in the Chalkbeat/WBEZ interviews that he’d look to legalize  sports betting and recreational marijuana while working on a plan to reduce incarceration.

Both proposals have flaws: Rauner’s savings from Medicaid have not exactly been realized yet, because the revamp is just in its first year. Pritzker’s ambitious income tax plan has plenty of foes. And 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.

On 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, who supports charter expansion, said he’ll personally contribute “more and more” of his own millions to the tax-credit scholarship program. “I’d like to have a billion-dollar program, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” he told us.

Pritzker, meanwhile, said he’d wind down the tax-credit scholarship 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.

Early childhood education

Both candidates have deep ties to early childhood education, with Rauner’s wife, Diana, steering the advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, and Pritzker supporting efforts 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.

Since the interviews, Chalkbeat has chronicled other problems with the state’s child care assistance program for working families. A spokeswoman from the department that oversees the program said that the state is trying to hold providers who receive public dollars accountable to the same standards as private providers. You can read our coverage here.

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.

An elected school board for Chicago

Rauner would veto a bill to restore an elected school board in Chicago, while Pritzker would sign it.

Electing school board positions “removes board members’ ability to make the best decisions for Chicago schools without the burden of re-election,” Rauner told us.

Boosting the state’s flagging university system

Pritzker told us he’d work to make college more affordable by increasing financial aid and restoring funding for colleges and universities to “pre-Rauner levels.” He’d also work on shoring up the credit transfer system so that community college credits transfer to public universities.

Rauner described his plans for a Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago, which he has described as a research institute that would bring together colleges and universities across the state with the goal of spurring business and entrepreneurship.

 

 

New leader

District chief Joris Ray named Memphis schools’ interim leader

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Joris Ray, center, was appointed interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

Joris Ray, who started his 22-year career as a teacher in Memphis schools, will be the interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

The school board voted 5-4 Tuesday evening to appoint Ray, who as a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet oversees the district’s academic operations and student support. An audience composed mostly of educators applauded the announcement.

“A lot of people call Dr. Ray, and he gets things done,” Hopson said at the meeting.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Dorsey Hopson and Joris Ray, right.

Ray could be at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for anywhere from 8 months to 18 months, as the board looks to hire a permanent leader, Board Chair Shante Avant said. Hopson is leaving the 200-school, 111,600-student district after nearly six years; he will lead an education initiative at the health insurer Cigna, effective Jan. 8.

Hopson will still help Ray transition into his new role a few weeks after his resignation takes effect because of his current contract terms.

Ray, a graduate of Whitehaven High School, said he intends to apply for the permanent position.

“I’m about pushing things forward. No sense in looking back,” told reporters Tuesday, noting that his goal, as he gets started, is “to listen, to get out to various community groups and transition with the superintendent … but also I want to talk to teachers and I want to talk to students because oftentimes they’re left out of the education process.”

The other two nominees to serve as interim superintendent were Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance, and Carol Johnson, a former superintendent of Memphis schools.

Hopson commended both Lin Johnson and Ray as “truly my brothers in this work.” He also acknowledged the work Carol Johnson has done in recent years to train teachers in her role as director of New Leaders in Memphis.

Some school board members wanted to preclude the interim appointee from applying for the permanent post — especially if the interim selection was an in-district hire — but a resolution formalizing that position failed in a 6-3 vote.

“If it were me… I’d think twice about going up against that person to take the job. I really would,” Teresa Jones, a board member, said. But she said she wants to create an environment “where individuals feel where they can come forward and apply” for the superintendent job.

The appointment comes one day after Hopson presented a plan to combine 28 aging school buildings into 10 new ones. Ray said he will look to get community input before pursuing the plan while he is at the helm.

“We need to continue to unpack the plan,” Ray said after the meeting. “And I rely on the community to get their input. But most of all, it’s what’s best for students.”

There’s more from the meeting in this Twitter thread:

Movers and shakers

These Colorado lawmakers will shape education policy in 2019

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Colorado House of Representatives

When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control both chambers for the first time since 2014. That shift in the balance of power, along with a lot of turnover in both chambers, means new faces on the committees that will shape education policy.

The incoming committee chairs in both chambers  — state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora — are former teachers themselves and experienced lawmakers. One of the incoming members, representative-elect Bri Buentello of Pueblo, is currently a special education teacher. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, is also a former teacher and school superintendent. He’s the only Republican returning to the committee from the previous session.

In the House, Democrats now hold a three-seat majority on the committees responsible for deciding which bills will advance to a floor vote. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote advantage on most committees.

The new Democratic majorities open the possibility of advancing issues that once stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, like funding full-day kindergarten — a priority of incoming governor Jared Polis — and expanding access to mental health services in school. But these decisions will have to be made without major new revenue and in competition with other budget needs. Democrats may also have to grapple with disagreements among their own ranks on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and school choice, issues that have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus. 

But one newly appointed member of the Senate Education Committee won’t serve out his term. State Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, recently announced he’ll resign in January following accusations that he repeatedly used a women’s restroom in the state Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, has announced his intention to seek the vacancy and could take Kagan’s place on the education committee.

The other new Democrat on the Senate committee, Tammy Story, has a long record as an education advocate in Jefferson County. She worked to recall school board members there that supported charters and performance-based teacher pay.

Senator-elect Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is a former member of the State Board of Education and served on the House Education Committee. State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the ranking Republican on the committee, is the former chair.

House Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango

Vice-Chair, rep.-elect Bri Buentello, Pueblo

Rep. Janet Buckner, Aurora

Rep. James Coleman, Denver

Rep.-elect Lisa Cutter, Jefferson County

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Julie McCluskie, Dillon

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City

Republicans:

Ranking member: Rep. Jim Wilson, Salida

Rep.-elect Mark Baisley, Roxborough Park

Rep.-elect Tim Geitner, Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Colin Larson, Ken Caryl

Rep. Kim Ransom, Littleton

Senate Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Nancy Todd, Aurora

Vice-Chair: sen.-elect Tammy Story, Conifer

Sen. Daniel Kagan, Cherry Hills Village

Republicans:

Ranking member: Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs

Sen.-elect Paul Lundeen, Monument