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.

 

 

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.