election 2019

Chicago mayoral hopefuls vow to invest in schools, but skirt enrollment crisis

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Five mayoral candidates invited to a labor forum on Nov. 19, 2018, discussed the exodus of black families from Chicago.

The five candidates for Chicago mayor who appeared at a labor union forum Monday night all pledged to invest more in neighborhood schools, despite an enrollment crisis that has left some with fewer than 100 students.

All five all also said the city should invest more in mental health services, especially for youth and in schools.

While the union-backed forum focused on the exodus of black residents from Chicago, education found its way into the conversation. After all, the troubling trend of fleeing families has caused school enrollments to plunge, budgets to shrink and schools to close.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Gates said at the top of the event that, besides no booing, there’d be little tolerance for continuing “to talk about how to close schools in the city.”

The five mayoral contenders whom the union invited Monday night — out of 18 declared mayoral candidates — included former schools chief Paul Vallas, ex-prosecutor and former police board chair Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and policy analyst Amara Enyia, director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Each promised in one way or another that they’d unify a city they painted as unequal and segregated, starting with stemming the daily toll of violence and improving public education.

Preckwinkle touted her bonafides as a former high school teacher who understands the challenges educators face, and said she’d focus on supporting local schools as she did in her 20 years as alderman.

“I want all of our children to have good public schools in their neighborhoods,” she said, adding that too many schools are underfunded or have been closed in many areas.

Mendoza, the latest candidate to enter the race, said she supports a two-year moratorium on school closings and boasted of her efforts in the state capitol pushing Gov. Bruce Rauner on “evidence based school funding,” which determines the cost of educating students based on certain factors, considers school districts’ resources, and tries filling the gap with state dollars.

Lightfoot emphasized preventing violence and looking at its impact on children in Chicago. She cast Emanuel as “a mayor who has learned on the job in dealing with public safety,” and touted her experience cracking down on police misconduct, an issue that has galvanized black youth.

Vallas characterized himself as someone who has devoted his life to public service, from his time in Chicago to stints running school districts in Philadelphia and in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. He bashed the current mayor for the city’s financial state, escalating violence that Valles tied to shortages in police, especially detectives, and lack of investment in communities.

Amara Enyia emphasized her work fighting school closings, including the National Teachers’ Academy, a top-rated elementary school that is slated to close at the end of the year to make way for a high school, and her support of the No Cop Academy movement led by youth activists like Good Kids Madd City.

The candidates cited everything from crime and lack of jobs to uneven economic development and a lack of affordable housing as reasons why Chicago is losing population. They agreed on a lot, generally speaking, including the need to get the city’s fiscal house in order, create more jobs and reduce violence, deploring a shooting at a South Side hospital several hours earlier that left four dead.

On education, the candidates offered different paths for improving Chicago Public Schools’ financial stability. Preckwinkle said she supports a progressive state income tax, which she said could help produce more revenue that could help public schools. Vallas said reforming the teachers retirement system could free up more funds.

Enyia, who said black Chicagoans have been encouraged to leave the city because of a lack of affordable housing and economic investment, said she would press the philanthropic community to invest more in black and brown communities, and push initiatives to train people in the jobs of tomorrow.

“In our public schools we have to invest in those school career technical education and training programs,” she said, a point also made by Lightfoot.

Enyia charged that the school district doesn’t consider equity in its capital projects and program investments, and said “without an equity lens we cannot ensure every child has access to a high-quality education.” She said she would review how practices such as test-in high schools and school boundary lines entrench segregation and racial inequity.

Vallas tried to portray himself as the most fiscally astute candidate when it comes to schools, saying he left the district in a better financial state after his 1995 to 2001 stints. He suggested that the city do a better job of recruiting police who attended Chicago public schools, especially ROTC alumni, so that more police come from communities they serve. He advocated for universal prenatal and early childhood programs.

Preckwinkle was the only candidate to explicitly support an elected school board. She also said she would freeze charters and school closings, and seek more funds to support professionals in schools.

The mayor’s office wields broad powers over city departments and agencies, especially schools. The mayor appoints the schools chief and members of the Chicago Board of Education, which begs the question of whether or not schools CEO Janice Jackson, board President Frank Clark, and other district leaders will keep their jobs once city government gets a new boss.

That didn’t come up at the forum.

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.”