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.”


School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”