New agenda

School funding, pensions, pre-K: Here are 8 education issues J.B. Pritzker will face as governor

PHOTO: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Steinmetz High School in northwest Chicago, where Emily Jade Aguilar graduated last year, had just four school counselors. In a school of more than 1,200 students, that simply wasn’t enough.

“We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, who spent Election Day knocking on doors with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, “to have at least a safe space for 15 or 30 minutes where I could let someone know what is going on.”

Aguilar is 19, identifies as a trans woman, and voted for the first time on Tuesday. She has a clear demand for Illinois’ new governor, billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker: more funding for counselors, social workers and art therapy programs to help young people deal with the trauma and difficulty of navigating their lives in Chicago.

If Pritzker doesn’t deliver, Aguilar said, he’ll hear from her and other Chicago students. “I want to tell the governor he should be ready to pay attention to us,” she said.

Now that the victory speeches have ended and the confetti has been swept away, Pritzker faces a host of critical public education issues, from the mental health needs of students and teachers, to a dire educator shortage, to finding the funding required to help the state’s struggling districts.

And while local decision makers still wield a lot of power, the governor holds the purse strings. Pritzker will have plenty of influence beyond appointing the five members of the State Board of Education whose terms expire in January.

Here are eight issues that advocates and education policy experts are hoping to put on his to-do list.

Closing the K-12 funding gap

Pritzker’s most ambitious task will be getting the state’s fiscal house in order. That includes raising enough money to close the $6.8 billion gap between what Illinois spends on K-12 education and what it should be spending while contending with a general backlog of bills that has topped $7 billion.

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, said creative ways to generate revenue, such as legalizing marijuana, might help some, but won’t be enough. While Pritzker’s vision of a progressive income would take years — and a state referendum — to realize, Martire would like to see Pritzker push other measures, such as expanding the sales tax to consumer services, or simulating a progressive income tax by hiking taxes on wealthy residents while offering tax credits to middle- and low-income families.

But, Martire said, “job No. 1 is refinancing the pension debt.” In the last legislative session, lawmakers from both parties strongly supported refinancing the debt. Pritzker could lead on the issue as early as spring if he decides to, Martire said.

“The main thing the governor can do is utilize his post as a bully pulpit.”

Fixing the eroding child care assistance program

A state program that provides affordable child care to low-income, working families is losing children and providers. Early child care advocates like Maria Whelan, of Illinois Action for Children, say the governor’s office urgently needs to shore up that effort, while surfacing longer-term solutions such as more resources and better coordination within all of the state government agencies responsible for the state’s youngest — and most vulnerable — citizens.

“We are only reaching a teeny percent of youngest citizens in our state,” said Whelan, who wants to push Pritzker to create a cabinet-level early childhood office with real authority. “We have a huge way to go.”

A benefactor of some leading early childhood advocacy organizations in the state and nation, Pritzker has pledged to expand birth-to-3 programs and pave a path for universal pre-K statewide for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Enrollment has dropped across Illinois in programs that serve 3- and 4-year-olds. At the same time, there has been growth in publicly funded care for infants and toddlers.

Tackling racial gaps in education

Black and Latinos, as well as English language learners, continue to fall behind their white peers in critical metrics such as graduation rate and performance on the college entrance exam SAT. Across the state, for example, nearly half of white students met or exceeded state standards on the English language portion of the SAT, while only 13.8 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students did.

A new state ratings system tied to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act can penalize schools where one group of students struggles compared with their peers. But the first batch of ratings have left some educators scratching their heads, since a single metric can plunge an otherwise average school into a lower performance category, triggering state intervention. Some insiders question if Pritzker will push to revisit the state’s plan for ESSA, as the federal program is known, with an eye toward tweaking the ratings system.  

Building a better relationship between the state and Chicago schools

The relationship between the governor’s office and Chicago Public Schools has often devolved into a rhetorical boxing match, despite the symbiotic relationship between the largest city in the Midwest and the state that houses it.

State Rep. Sonya Harper, a Democrat from Chicago, said she wants the new governor to build a solid relationship with the city’s new mayor and show he cares about city schools, “to make sure schools were funded equitably and more transparently.”  

Harper said she hoped the governor would be in “full support” of an elected school board in Chicago — an idea that Pritzker has said he supports.

Beyond that, Harper said the governor needs to show he cares about and is knowledgeable about issues like school closings, charter school expansion, and what happens with Chicago schools’ special education program and the state monitoring efforts there.

“A governor up to date on those issues is the governor we need,” she said.

Figuring out next steps for school choice

In 2017, Illinois introduced a new private school scholarship funded by independent tax credits. Pritzker has said he does not support the program, but it is not clear whether he would cap it or eliminate it entirely. Thousands of families rely on the program to pay their bills at private schools across the state.

Pritzker also has said he would support a moratorium on charters, but spoke favorably of the idea of school districts having a school choice portfolio. Good charters, he told Chalkbeat Chicago, are “worthy of support.”

Building out a more robust special education monitor’s office 

Chris Yun, an educational policy analyst with the disabilities rights group Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, said that the governor should marshal more resources for the independent state monitor overseeing Chicago’s special education program. A state investigation earlier this year found the district routinely delayed and denied students services in violation of their rights.

Yun’s group and various advocate organizations have been working with the state since the inquiry was announced. She said the advocates asked for a robust six-person office to monitor schools and attend the regular parent meetings mapping out each child’s lessons, but instead got one monitor and several part-time support staff. Mandatory letters and guidelines for receiving compensatory services have reached parents only slowly.

“I find their speed very unsatisfactory and disappointing,” Yun said.

Addressing a dire teacher shortage

The state board recently released a report sounding the alarm over a growing teacher shortage, particularly among bilingual and special education teachers and also in rural areas. But solving it will take creative approaches, said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

“It’s not just Chicago — it’s the suburbs, it’s downstate. And we can’t talk about the teacher shortage without talking about the conditions” that are putting pressure on the profession, he said, from low wages compared with other professions to limiting pension benefits for new hires.

The shortage is critical, too, in early childhood care and education, said Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy at the Ounce of Prevention. Before Pritzker can realize his vision of a universal pre-K system, he’ll have to figure out how to recruit more people to staff centers and programs. That will start with better compensation. Child care providers generally earn less than their K-12 counterparts, and the profession tends to see high turnover.

Confronting poverty

One in three Illinois children grows up in a household that is within 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

“We all have to double down to make sure we’re not excluding kids who face the most challenges,” said Gasner of the Ounce of Prevention.  

Improvement could mean freeing up more funding that districts could use for social workers and counselors — as Emily Jade Aguilar, the student, advocates. Or tackling broader economic issues, such as jobs and housing.

“School is one of the main interactions young people have,” said another Chicago schools graduate, Juan Padilla, who, like Aguilar, attended Steinmetz College Prep.

As the new governor assembles a transition team and plots out the first 100 days of his administration, Pritzker will have to wrestle with plenty of immediate challenges. But education policy experts and young people said they plan to keep calling attention to issues faced by schools and youth around the state.

As the beaming governor-elect said in his victory speech on Tuesday, “These are the things we stand and fight for.”


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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.