Who Is In Charge

Once more into the breach on school finance


Most of us like to kick back a bit over the summer, but 10 Colorado legislators will devote part of their summer (and autumn) to the brain-twisting task of studying the state’s labyrinthine system of paying for public schools.

It’s the second time in five years that a legislative interim committee has tackled that job. A 2005 panel, aided by a large advisory committee of experts and interest-group representatives, compiled an extensive body of data and recommendations, but no significant legislation resulted. (That regularly happens to all kinds of interim committees.)

The 2009 committee begins work this Thursday with an unofficial “listening” meeting at which representatives of education interest groups – and anyone else – can speak about what the committee should do.

Despite the recentness of the 2005 study, and regardless of whether the 2010 legislature acts on what the committee eventually recommends, many in education agree the time is right to at least restart the big conversation about school finance. There are several reasons, among them:

The 1988 School Finance Act was designed to achieve financial equity among school districts, not to support a system that hopes to achieve proficiency for every student, as is now the direction of both national and state education policy. (And, some experts note, the average state school finance law lasts about seven years.)

Part of the current Amendment 23 school funding formula, the requirement for a 1 percent annual increase on top of inflation, expires in 2011. Referendum C, the five-year timeout from some Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights limits that gave the legislature some additional money to spend on non-education programs, also expires in 2011.

The restructuring of the K-12 system envisioned by the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids likely will cost money to be effective. (A separate outside study of that isn’t due to begin for several months.)

And, the state’s dismal revenue situation is putting pressure on the school finance/A23 structure.
A 2008 base increase of about $20 per student was rolled back this year because of the state’s fiscal situation.

Some legislators have talked about redefining (i.e., narrowing) the base of the funds on which annual increases are calculated.

The legislature is holding $110 million of school funding in “escrow” until January and will release it only if financial conditions improve.

Months before it convenes, the 2010 legislature already face the need to find more than $800 million in cuts, fund transfers and revenue increases to balance the 2010-11 budget.

Low inflation rates could turn the Amendment 23 formula into a diet rather than a boost for school districts.

The drop in property values is expected to shortly show up in reduced tax collections in parts of the state, putting more pressure on the state to cover the loss of local district revenues.

Also meeting this summer is another committee on overall state fiscal stability, whose recommendations also could have an affect on school finance, given that more than 40 percent of state general fund spending goes to K-12 schools.

Some lawmakers feel a Colorado Supreme Court decision earlier this year gives lawmakers a window in which they can raise revenue by closing tax loopholes – without voter approval. But many experts still feel significantly improving education revenues will require going to the voters. Many observers now don’t see that happening before November 2011.

So, all in all a sober prospect for the 10 members of the school finance interim committee, which includes several legislative education experts. Here’s the lineup:

Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora (chair) – A former State Board of Education member, Middleton also has expertise in higher education and in non-profit management and has become influential on education issues.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver (vice-chair) –  With background as an investment banker and in charter school management, Romer is an outspoken (some of his colleagues think too outspoken) advocate for education choice and at-risk children. He’s a proponent of the idea that the legislature can raise revenue by closing tax loopholes without voter approval. He was a leader of the 2000 campaign to pass A23.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins – Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Bacon has long legislative experience. Before that he was a teacher and school board member. He’s seen as something of an elder statesman on education issues.

Sen.-elect Mike Johnston, D-Denver – Principal of the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts and a sometimes-advisor to the Obama administration, Obama has street cred among education reformers but is brand new to the legislative process. He was just appointed to replace former Senate President Peter Groff, a leading reform voice now working in Washington.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs – The operator of an early college charter school, King has long legislative experience, has carried several school finance bills and is a master of legislative procedure. He’s also a vocal advocate for at-risk students.

Rep. Tom Massey, D-Poncha Springs – With varied experience in education issues and groups, Massey often is a voice for rural districts. He usually works harmoniously with Democrats and is considered a leading GOP figure on education issues.

Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs – A retired music teacher and chair of House Education, Merrifield is an influential voice for more traditional views about public school structure and administration, and for teachers. He’s in his last term.

Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon – A school board member in Summit County, Scanlan has played a key role on important education bills such as last year’s CAP4K program and this year’s contentious school finance bill. Like Middleton, she’s seen as something of an up and comer.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial –  Long a GOP leader on education issues, Spence is a formal Cherry Creek school board member and a longtime advocate for school vouchers of various kinds. Spence is known for candor sometimes rare among lawmakers.

Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument – Chair of the House GOP caucus, Stephens doesn’t have the Statehouse education background of the other interim committee members. She formerly worked on pubic policy and youth issues for Focus on the Family.

Except for Johnston and Stephens, all panel members also are members of the House or Senate education committees. You probably noticed that all but two of the members represent Front Range districts.

Bacon, King, Merrifield and Spence were members of the 2005 committee, and Middleton was on the task force that advised that panel.

Thursday’s hearing will run from 10 a.m. to no later than 3 p.m. in the State Board of Education meeting room on the first floor of 201 E. Colfax Ave.

The committee wants to hear from witnesses on issues they’d like to see addressed by the panel, suggested areas of focus for committee working groups and feedback about the 2005 interim committee. Each witness’s testimony will be limited to three minutes.

Do your homework

• Go to the legislature’s website to read the 2005 committee’s report and other documents and listen to recordings of its meetings.

public comment

Chicago sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C. Sullivan High School

Asked and answered

Why Rahm Emanuel and his schools chief believe an elite curriculum can resuscitate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn

Chicago is doubling down on a big bet that the International Baccalaureate program can be boon to its struggling neighborhood schools. We asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson to explain their calculus in a recent joint interview. Here’s what they told Chalkbeat contributor Steve Hendershot. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Chalkbeat: Why does it make sense to you to expand IB’s presence in Chicago?   

Janice Jackson: We’ve made investments in IB schools for a number of reasons: first, believing that schools need high-quality academic programs and a curriculum aligned to that, in order to really raise the bar for students and make sure that they are being presented with grade-level appropriate materials.

But in the case of IB, it’s rigorous and grade-level appropriate, but also takes a global look, which we think is one of the things that students should be focused on.

When we look at our metrics, we’ve already seen a dramatic improvement in schools that have a wall-to-wall IB program [offering only IB and not other curriculum], and we’ve seen that outlined in a few different ways at the high school level. It has resulted in higher graduation rates at some of our neighborhood schools that have adopted wall-to-wall programs.

And more important, at the elementary level, we’ve seen an improvement in standardized test scores for students that have access to a full IB program. So there’s demonstrated success that we can point to.

But the thing that I personally appreciate as an educator is the training that comes along with that. The teachers become a part of a network of highly accomplished teachers and they receive this training that is world-class. And then our students right here in Chicago and our neighborhoods get the benefit of that.

Rahm Emanuel: There’s two things I would say. One, for the parent’s side, what we’re trying to do is create what I call IB neighborhoods. So if you want to go to the Lincoln Park neighborhood or the Back of the Yards neighborhood, you can now go there and have your children in an IB literally from first grade to 12th grade, and there’s a continuum, there are feeder schools. Rather than parents moving out to the suburbs, they have one of the most sought-after academic programs. We have more people trying to apply, both principals and parents, to get the IB.

Second, I want to echo something Janice said and then underline it — the teachers love it because it frees them up to be the educators that they chose to be. The students get a rigorous education and the teachers get liberated to be educators. So that’s why I think it works.

Chalkbeat: That’s something I heard from IB’s parent organization as well — freedom from teaching to the test.

Emanuel: Listen, there’s a number of teachers I talk to regularly, and they’ll tell you that the moment their school went IB, the creative juices, the creativity, the collective energy that happened. It’s not an accident. Parents are flocking to it, parents are seeking it and principals get it because it sparks something. And then obviously our students are the beneficiaries of that.

The University of Chicago study from 2012 indicated that IB’s great postsecondary outcomes don’t depend on whether students actually earn the IB Diploma. Still, Chicago lags there — in the year of the study only 20 percent of CPS students earned the IB Diploma compared with 70 percent nationwide. Is that a number you’re focused on improving?

Jackson: Definitely the IB Diploma is the North Star. But if we could just take a step back, the plan that the mayor announced a couple of weeks ago around creating these IB programs which includes feeder schools that would feed into our high school programs is our effort to better prepare kids for the rigor of the IB program at the high school level.

So in many of our schools, when we launched, we started with the Middle Years Program, but now more and more we’re seeing the need to start at the primary level. So we’re looking to expose students a lot earlier, believing that that will make the IB diploma program more accessible to them.

Emanuel: I know a family with twins where one child got accepted to one of the top selective-enrollment schools in the city and the other one did not, but got accepted to the IB. They’ve now graduated. And first, the IB was more rigorous than the selective-enrollment academically. And second, both twins went to the University of Wisconsin and in their freshman year, the IB child was cruising.

I don’t want to over-color this because they’re both succeeding, but the adjustment to college was harder for the child who came out of one of the top selective-enrollment schools. That only underscores what the original U of C study in 2012 told us.

I want to underscore one other piece of data. When we started this, the goal was to make the International Baccalaureate not a backup to the selective enrollment, but a competitive, qualitative choice. In the district’s GoCPS enrollment portal, almost a quarter of the kids that got into our best selective-enrollment schools — 23 percent pick IB or artistic schools.

It’s becoming a true qualitative choice and competitor to the selective-enrollment schools. I think that’s good for the city. It’s good for parents, it’s good for the students and it picks up everybody else’s game.

Jackson: Let me add one thing from the teacher’s perspective. As we traveled throughout the city to host roundtables with teachers, [we heard that] teachers don’t want to spend a bunch of time developing curriculum, spending their whole weekend pulling out assessments and lessons for the students.

With the IB program, a lot of that work has been done for them. It’s research-based and it has a history of success, so it gives them more time to spend assessing their kids, working directly with them and allowing for that freedom and creativity, and we know all kids thrive in that type of an environment.

Chalkbeat: Do you think IB’s teacher training and framework pay dividends beyond the IB classes themselves? I’ve heard the idea that there’s a noticeable effect schoolwide.

Jackson: Yeah, it is definitely one of the outcomes. Because if you start with the Middle Years Program, if the teacher is implementing it with fidelity, they’re going to start to push on those intermediate grades and those primary grades to make sure that the students are prepared. And so it’s one of those cases where we raise the bar and students rise to the occasion, and it starts to really push throughout the building.

The other piece that I would say you really see in a lot of our schools with IB programs is that [students] are focused on global thinking. That’s something that all of us want our children to be thinking about, but quite frankly, it’s not happening in every single school. In our IB schools, the kids talk about not only their coursework and the content, but they talk about their place in the world, which I think is one of the unique features of the IB curriculum.

Chalkbeat: This is an interesting moment for IB within CPS because just as you’ve introduced the idea that a child can study IB from pre-K through the Diploma Program, the mayor — an IB champion — announces he’s leaving office. How can a parent because sure that IB will still be available 10 years down the road when their child is ready for the Diploma Program?

Emanuel: Two things. One, parents want it. Principals, teachers want it. We have basically 10 to 11 percent of the kids in CPS in IB. That’s a built-in constituency. Look, somebody else will have their own interests, et cetera, but I don’t believe they’re going to walk back from this because you have a built-in constituency of principals, teachers and parents who want this.

You’re going to have a fight on your hands. There’s plenty of fights to go around when you’re mayor, and you’ve got to pick the ones you want. This is not one I would recommend because I know the parents that are invested in this — and the teachers and the principals. There’d be holy hell to pay if you try to mess with it. Yeah. That’s the cleanest way I could say. And I think I know something about politics.

Jackson: I wholeheartedly agree with and support this approach. As long as I’m there, I’m going to continue to push for expansion and make sure this vision around these IB cluster neighborhoods comes to fruition.

I really do think if you look at the maps that we put out a couple of weeks ago and where we have added programs under Mayor Emanuel’s tenure, you can really see not only the expansion of programs, but really equity in distribution. We have prioritized some of our neighborhoods that needed this programmatic investment and the schools are better off as a result of this.