Who's In Charge

How much power do Chicago aldermen have over schools?

PHOTO: Scott Olson

Chicago’s 50 aldermen don’t have obvious power over city schools. They don’t choose who sits on the education board, pick the schools chief, or have any say over closing schools. They don’t control budgets, contracts, or any personnel issues.

But as aldermanic candidates woo voters ahead of elections in February, many are still putting out education platforms. That’s because a concerned aldermen can still have a powerful impact on the quality and trajectory of schools in their ward.

“Many aldermen are still important as advocates for schools or can play an ombudsman role or organize communities to help their Local School Councils work better,” said Dick Simpson, a former alderman and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Having a platform on schools and showing you have done things for schools are important.”

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Each alderman also controls a $1.32 million annual infrastructure fund that some choose to use for upgrades or small projects benefiting schools; there’s also “aldermanic privilege” — a concept that’s now under challenge in wake of longtime Ald. Ed Burke’s naming in a federal corruption probe — that lets them give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect enrollment. Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

Aldermen also have an education committee at City Hall. But it rarely meets and has limited power. Committee Chair Ald. Howard Brookins didn’t respond to requests for comment, but an outspoken committee member did. Ald. Sue Garza, a former teacher and member of the Chicago Teachers Union, said each alderman has a responsibility to voice concerns on behalf of schools in their ward. Ideally, she added, the education committee should provide another layer of oversight for schools. But, it doesn’t.

One example of the committee’s negligible powers: When schools chief Janice Jackson declined to address a council hearing last year about sexual abuse at the district, and sent subordinates instead.

“We have no teeth to actually get anything done at CPS,” Garza said. “As aldermen we can voice our concerns, we can call for hearings, but the powers that be at CPS don’t even have to show up.”

While every community has schools, public education is a more contentious issue in some parts of the city, especially those where schools have closed in recent years or where aldermen have been perceived as being on the wrong side of controversial decisions.

A closer look at two ward races reveals how much influence aldermen can have — and the limits of their power.

The 3rd Ward

The South Side 3rd Ward includes parts of Bronzeville, Fuller Park, and the South Loop. It is home to the National Teachers Academy, a top-rated predominately black school on West Cermak Road that the school district had planned to close and convert to a high school — before parents won an injunction to halt the plan. Incumbent Ald. Pat Dowell backed the plan, even after the court decision. 

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd)

Dowell didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

But in a statement last month about the court decision, she maintained that she was still committed to bringing a high school to the South Loop community, which is relatively diverse but more affluent and white than the population attending National Teachers Academy.

“It is a goal I still firmly believe can be accomplished together for the benefit of all students,” Dowell said.

Alexandria Willis, candidate for 3rd Ward alderman.

At least one of her opponents, Alexandria Willis, has leveraged Dowell’s stance on the National Teachers Academy plan against her on the campaign trail.

“That plan should have never been a part of the conversation, period,” she said. “The incumbent helped orchestrate that.”

Willis, one of two candidates running against Dowell, sees aldermen as liaisons between local school councils, principals, and the school district who can argue their interests and needs when it comes to investments in programs.

“People move into and out of areas because of schools, so you really should be listening to constituents about what they think the needs are for their kids,” she said.

The 46th Ward

In the 46th Ward race on the North Side, another incumbent’s stance on a contentious school decision has come up in the race. The 46th Ward includes most of the Uptown community, where the school district closed Stewart School, sold it to a private developer for $5 million and replaced it with $4,000-a-month lofts. Incumbent Ald. James Cappleman, oft-criticized by affordable housing activists and advocates for low-income and homeless Uptown residents, has taken some heat over the outcome amid accusations that he didn’t put up much of a fight.

PHOTO: 46th Ward
Ald. James Cappleman (46th)

But Cappleman said after he was elected in 2011 he needed more time to help the school, because enrollment had already been on a downward spiral. He and the Metropolitan Planning Council hosted three meetings on what to do with the closed campus. Many residents wanted a community center or affordable housing, but with no way to pay for either, the school board sold the property, Cappleman said.

He said he helped win a concession that the new owner include a community garden in front. He said he couldn’t block the luxury lofts even if he wanted because the developers didn’t need a zoning change.

Cappleman said many voters think aldermen have more power than they actually do.

“There’s still some confusion that aldermen are in charge of CPS, they think I’m in charge of City Colleges of Chicago as well, and the park district, and they also think I can tell state elected officials to do what I want as well,” he said.

One of his opponents, teacher Erika Wozniak, questioned whether Cappleman in fact tried his best to save Stewart or to ensure reuse of the school would more directly benefit less advantaged community residents. Wozniak, a teacher endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, supports a freeze on new charter schools, and said she plans to coordinate with Local School Councils and community groups to create a coalition to plan and advocate for local schools.

Erika Wozniak, 46th Ward candidate for alderman.

She said she would advocate for more nurses, social workers and psychologists at neighborhood schools, and help address the district’s enrollment crisis by building more affordable housing — not just public housing for low-income households, but dwellings that working and middle-class families can afford.

“He’s the one approving the developments happening in the ward,” Wozniak said of Cappleman. “I don’t believe he’s been an advocate for the working class and working families of the 46th Ward. I think he’s been a great advocate for the developers.”

Cappleman argues that Uptown has had abundant government-subsidized affordable housing. He said that families in subsidized buildings have still been reluctant to send their kids to Uplift, a district-run high school on Wilson Avenue that accepts students from across the city. Uplift, serving about 150 pupils, is a Level 2-rated school (the second lowest possible rating) that the district characterizes as needing “intensive support.”

Cappleman said he has worked with the school’s principal to promote it to parents. He’s also fought decisions he thought would harm the school. In 2016, Noble Academy backed off plans for a charter high in Uptown following protests and opposition from Cappleman, who argued that the move would harm Uplift. Cappleman blames the school’s steep slide in enrollment on unwarranted stigma.

In the 50th Ward, Cassandra Kaczocha, who has two students at Boone Elementary, would like to see aldermen understand the needs of schools in the community, amplify parent voices, and use their connections at City Hall “to make happen what we need to happen.”

She said that hasn’t always been the case. When she asked Ald. Debra Silverstein for assistance in getting a grant to help schools renovate deteriorating and flood-prone playgrounds, she was told it was the school district’s responsibility to tackle the issue, not hers.

Yet Kaczocha saw aldermen in other wards helping parents get grants or dipping into their own infrastructure budget.

“Aldermen have power— that they have to decide to use,” said Kaczocha, who began documenting the playground issues to press the district to solve them.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.