Debating the issues

Are Chicago schools too focused on a ‘college or bust’ culture? Some mayoral hopefuls think so.

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Chicago's mayoral hopefuls were split into two groups to discuss the issues presented by the Women Take Action Alliance. Pictured here, from left, are moderators Angelique Power of the Field Foundation and Julia Stasch of the MacArthur Foundation. Candidates, from left, are Garry McCarthy, Lori Lightfoot, La Shawn K. Ford, Susana Mendoza, and Bob Fioretti.

Is Chicago’s “college or bust” culture undermining its neighborhood schools? At a forum on Saturday, several mayoral candidates pledged that, if elected, they would re-evaluate the selective enrollment, or test-in, model and steer more resources toward neighborhood schools and vocational programs.

Lori Lightfoot, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor, was among those pledging to “reorient” the Chicago school district’s approach. “The focus is so much on ‘college or bust’ and selective enrollment that we’ve gotten away from the core mission of making sure we have good quality schools everywhere,” she said.

An alliance of nearly 50 women’s groups sponsored Saturday’s forum, held at the Chicago Temple in the Loop and attended by 11 of the 15 mayoral candidates. Education was the first subject area addressed, but the event also covered economic development, crime, and gender equality. Candidates were divided into two groups for the interviews and not every candidate was asked every question.

Of the front-runners, only Bill Daley, the former U.S. commerce secretary and former Obama chief of staff, did not attend.

In the last few weeks of the contentious mayoral race, the topic of building up Chicago’s neighborhood schools has become a familiar theme. Neighborhood schools must accept any child living in their attendance boundary.

A new capacity report shows that 233 of the district’s schools are underutilized, according to a district formula; most of the schools on that list are open-enrollment schools.

In contrast, Chicago’s selective enrollment, or test-in, schools are among the top-rated and most in-demand programs. Federal civil rights data show that, as a whole, they tend to enroll more white students and, at the high school level, offer more AP and college-preparation courses than their neighborhood counterparts.

In addition, critics say, the district’s focus on test-in schools has been at the expense of neighborhood programs.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said she’d boost neighborhood schools by explaining her 50NEW program, which would turn 50 under-utilized campuses into community centers, complete with robust after-school programs and job training classes for parents at night. She also pledged to “close the achievement gap by 50 percent.”

Mendoza said she’d pay for her initiative with extra dollars wrung from the state’s revamped education funding formula that netted hundreds of millions more for Chicago’s schools this year.

“We have stopped magnetizing our high schools,” said Paul Vallas, a former Chicago budget director and schools chief who has also led school districts in New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. “We need to put programs in our neighborhood high schools to make them attractive.”

The youngest candidate in the race, 30-year-old Chicago Public Schools graduate John Kozlar, took the most extreme position, saying he’d abolish the K-12 system and implement a K-10 system that would ask students to choose, after their sophomore year, a career track or a college track.

“We aren’t teaching our students about the trades. We’re telling them they have to go to college,” he said. “That’s a 20th century way of thinking.”

Gery Chico, a lawyer who worked in the Richard M. Daley administration and later served as Chicago school board president and state school superintendent, said he’d expand both vocational education and the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program from “50 schools to 150 schools.” Several neighborhood schools offer IB tracks in addition to vocational programming to give students options; the district is currently offering its first request-for-proposals for schools that want to add IB and other enrollment-boosting curricula.

Chicago’s mayoral race is still largely unpredictable. Several of those considered front-runners have raised large sums of money but recent polls show that significant percentages of Chicago voters remain undecided.

Until recently, all but one of the candidates for Chicago mayor have skirted the question of whether they’d retain schools chief Janice Jackson if they are elected. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is among the front-runners and is backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, took a moment Saturday to lavish praise on the homegrown schools chief and touted the need for “stability” in the city.

“I have confidence in Janice Jackson,” she said, in response to a question that asked two candidates to evaluate the district’s handling of a sexual abuse scandal that reveals widespread policy lapses that date back decades. “She’s done a great job leading our public schools.”

In a recent Chalkbeat Chicago candidate questionnaire, only one, policy consultant Amara Enyia, answered “no” to the question of whether they’d retain the schools chief.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.