Schools 2019

In Springfield, ending the ‘Chicago vs. everyone else’ approach to schools

PHOTO: Getty Images
Illinois State House Capitol on a cloudy winter day - Springfield

Back in session for 2019, the Illinois General Assembly is staring down a series of tough education-related issues: unfunded pension obligations, a historic teacher shortage, and a new governor with a brand-new education plan.

Chalkbeat spoke to state Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, a Democrat who represents South Elgin, Batavia, and other Chicago suburbs in the 49th District and chairs the education committee, about creative solutions for education funding and the importance of “walking the talk.”

Before entering politics, Bertino-Tarrant was a teacher and a principal in Will County, and has also taught education at the University of St. Francis, Olivet Nazarene University, and Joliet Junior College.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Illinois is facing an education funding crisis. What do you see as the legislature’s role in providing equitable funding?

We have to make sure we are committed to the minimum-based funding. As you know with the formula it’s going to take nearly 10 years to completely fund [education in Illinois]. Ten years is not a reasonable number.

Where could the money to fill Illinois’ education budget hole come from?

It can’t be an all-cut system. We have experience with what it is like to cut to the bone. We have to start getting creative in how we look at funding. It’s a priority. Every person who is elected puts education on the top of their talking points, and we just need to start walking the talk here.

As head of the education committee, how will you help the legislature “walk the talk”?

I think it’s being cautious, especially when we are passing legislation, that we don’t create legislation that adds more expenses. Every time we do that it takes away from our current priorities. We need to be cognizant with what goes through the ed committee to not put additional demands on our school districts.

Gov. Pritzker has called for a progressive income tax, but that may not be enough.

It’s not the education dollars that are causing the crisis, it’s the years of not paying the pension debt. That’s our 800-pound gorilla — how we are going to pay down the pension debt. When we do that, the hope is that other things will even out. What will be different than before is we will be able to have these discussions more openly. We spent the last four years fighting other things [Illinois had a two-year budget impasse that ended in 2017]. Now we’re able to really start focusing on things that are priorities and that is education amongst other things.

With J.B. Pritzker in the governor’s seat, will there be an end to the traditional Chicago vs. Illinois struggle for influence and resources?

I think he has proven that in his campaign — he continues to make sure that people who surround him are from all parts of the state. I definitely think that that whole “Chicago versus everyone else” is going to go away. In reality we are one state for all our children, all our constituents.

How can the legislature help tackle the dire teacher shortage in Illinois?

It is going to be one of the top priorities that we will hear about. First and foremost we need a new attitude regarding public school and public school teachers. Demonizing them makes people hesitant to get in a profession. We need to look at why teachers are leaving. I’m going to be cautious to make sure we are looking at legislation to make sustained changes and not just Band-Aids. We need to recognize the noble profession it is and that starts at the top.

How does being a former teacher and principal impact your insight into the education challenges facing the state?

We have to start treating teaching as a valuable profession.We mandate a degree but don’t recognize that in how we pay our teachers. Now you have low pay and a poor pension, when teachers are in school we have neglected the mentoring and student teaching, there are demands coming from every direction on top of the fact you are there to provide a quality education. There are a lot of things we can look at to make the teaching career more plausible and exciting.

If you could pass any legislation tomorrow, what would it be?

I would give school districts all the funding they need. I would completely fund the evidence-based model. It’s a political decision. If you’re not bringing in more revenue, you have to look at other things that aren’t on the top priority, and those are hard political decisions for people to make.

The state charter commission’s power has been under threat in the legislature. Do you expect this to change?

We promote local control unless we don’t like it and then we go to the state for things. Communities elect school boards [with the exception of Chicago] and school boards are there to make the best decision. When they reject a proposal I think that should be the way the decision is made. We do not need an extra step to override that decision.

What should people know about your work as head of the education committee to help them understand how politics works in Illinois?

There is a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation. I always say people’s intentions are good, we all want what is best for the kids but we have to slow it down and ensure there are not unintended consequences. Schools are the only place you can get thousands of kids in one place but we have to understand that we expect our students to come out with certain skills so everything can be put into education. My job is having those discussions with members saying this may benefit just a certain area. We need to make sure it impacts all our students positively.


Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.