education power players

Signaling a city-state thaw, Pritzker names Chicago schools chief to transition team

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel/Chalkbeat Chicago
Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson speaks at the announcement by Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker, behind Jackson, that she will lead his education transition team. Pritzker named the team Nov. 27, 2018, at Genevieve Melody Elementary School on the city's West Side.

Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson headlines a 35-person advisory group formed by Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker to build and support his education agenda for the next four years.

Pritzker, Jackson and other advisers gathered Tuesday morning at Melody Elementary School, in the Garfield Park community on the West Side, to announce an “Educational Success Committee” that include education leaders, lawmakers, advocates, and academics.

Pritzker said the committee would produce a report on improving the quality of education in Illinois schools, but that “their work isn’t over” once their findings go public around his inauguration in January

“I’m going to need everybody behind me on each of the transition teams to continue to advise me through the course of the administration,” said Pritzker, a billionaire philanthropist, venture capitalist, and heir to the Hyatt fortune.

His appointment of Jackson and other big names from Chicago sets a more collegial tone in the relationship between Chicago and Springfield. Chicago has often been pitted against the rest of the state in funding for schools and in the debates over the state basing school funding on student need — a change that has benefited Chicago and other districts with high populations of low-income and immigrant students.

Pritzker’s education transition team differs markedly  from the one current Gov. Bruce Rauner picked for his transition, which included only one Chicago-area education leader — Chicago International Charter School CEO Beth Purvis.

Jackson leads Pritzker’s committee with co-chairs state Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) , state Rep. Emanuel Welch (D-Hillside), and Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin.

“We must acknowledge the fact that not every single student and every community has access to the same education, and we intend to fix that, not only in our great city, but throughout the state of illinois,” Jackson said.

However, Jackson, Pritzker, and others warned that equity will be hard to come by unless the state bridges the gap between what it invests in K-12 education and what the state has acknowledged that districts need to provide every child a quality education.

The committee of mostly Democrats was notable not only for its members, but also for whom it omits. Pritzker skipped over Illinois state school board chief Tony Smith, who chaired Rauner’s education transition team.

Earlier this month, Pritzker defeated incumbent Rauner by 15 points in one of the most expensive gubernatorial races in U.S. history. The next day, he added two big names in education to his transition team: former Chicago Board of Education Vice President Jesse Ruiz and early-childhood expert Barbara Bowman, co-founder of the Erikson Institute and mother of Valerie Jarrett, who was former President Barack Obama’s senior adviser.

From early childhood to beyond, Pritzker will face a host of critical public education issues once he takes office in January, including 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 while tackling poverty and racial gaps in education. Pritzker said in interviews with Chalkbeat and WBEZ that he supports an elected school board for Chicago, opposes school vouchers, and would impose a moratorium on charter school expansion.

At Melody on Tuesday, Pritzker said, “I’m not opposed to charter schools existing, but at the moment, we have enough.” He stressed that the state should take a closer look at how it’s managing current charters and should focus more on the K-12 funding gap.

As expected, Pritzker’s transition team also draws from advocates of early childhood education, which he supported philanthropically before taking office.

Among those are Christina Pacione-Zayas and Aisha Ray, both veterans of the pioneering Erikson Institute; Phyllis Glink, co-chair of the public-private partnership responsible for steering much of state policy directed at early education; and University of Chicago author James Heckman, whose research into the benefits of quality early experiences undergirds many of the economic arguments for investing public dollars in quality infant, day care and universal pre-K.

Here’s the roster of Pritzker’s Educational Success Committee:

  • Michael Amiridis, chancellor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Carmen Ayala, superintendent, Berwyn North SD 98
  • Christine Benson, retired superintendent, Mendota High School
  • Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, state senator, Illinois General Assembly
  • Dale Chapman, president, Lewis and Clark Community College
  • Brent Clark, executive director, Illinois Association of School Administrators
  • Fred Crespo, state representative, Illinois General Assembly
  • Will Davis, state representative, Illinois General Assembly
  • Larry Dietz, president, Illinois State University
  • Kenneth Ender, president, Harper College
  • Jennifer Garrison, superintendent, Sandoval CUSD 501
  • Phyllis Glink, executive director, Irving B. Harris Foundation
  • James Heckman, professor, University of Chicago
  • Ed Hightower, executive director, Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities Foundation
  • Kimberly Lightford, state senator, Illinois General Assembly
  • John Miller, vice president, Illinois Federation of Teachers
  • Mary Morten, board chair, Safe Schools Alliance
  • Zena Naiditch, president and CEO, Equip for Equality
  • Ginger Ostro, executive director, Advance Illinois
  • Kevin O’Mara, professor, Concordia University
  • Cristina Pacione-Zayas, policy director, Erikson Institute
  • Sylvia Puente, executive director, Latino Policy Forum
  • Aisha Ray, retired professor, Erikson Institute
  • Mimi Rodman, executive director, Stand for Children Illinois
  • Kevin Rubenstein, president, Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education
  • Jane Russell, vice president, Illinois Federation of Teachers
  • Juan Salgado, chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago
  • Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, president, Chicago State University
  • Gloria Trejo, principal, Pioneer Elementary School
  • Maria Whelan, president and CEO, Illinois Action for Children
  • Barbara Wilson, executive vice president for academic affairs, University of Illinois System

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.