Who Is In Charge

State board opposes testing bill

Updated 4:15 p.m. April 27 – The State Board of Education has voted 4-3 to oppose Senate Bill 12-172, the measure that would require the board to join one of two groups that are developing multi-state achievement tests.

The board spent more than two hours on the issues, including a lengthy discussion with legislative sponsors of the bill. The exchange was friendly, but it doesn’t appear that minds were changed.

The board’s four Republicans voted to oppose the bill, while the three Democrats supported it.

Text of original Thursday story follows.

The low-grade disagreement between the State Board of Education and key legislators over the future shape of state testing is threatening to flare up as the legislature enters its final nine days.

Pencil on test paperThe spark is Senate Bill 12-172, passed 4-2 Thursday night during a Senate Education Committee meeting that was delayed for some four hours because of prolonged floor debate on the civil unions bill and a school discipline measure.

The measure would require the state board to choose between one of two groups that are developing multistate achievement tests in language arts and math.

Making such a choice would commit Colorado to using multistate tests instead of the developing its own, which is what the state board has wanted to do.

Colorado is participating in both the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, but it isn’t a governing member of either. States that join a group’s governing board have a greater say in test development – but they also commit to use that group’s tests. Both are expected to be available in 2015.

The bill doesn’t specify a consortium, nor does it set a deadline for the SBE to decide.

The legislation, introduced quietly just a week ago, seemed to catch some committee members by surprise. “I didn’t realize this bill would be up today,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

After sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, explained the measure, Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, said, “I’d like to know where the state board is on this.”

A little later in the meeting, he asked Anne Barkis, lobbyist for the board and Department of Education, to take the witness seat.

Barkis said the board hasn’t taken a position because it hadn’t met since the bill was introduced but that it was meeting Friday afternoon.

“I anticipate we will have a slightly divided board and that the majority will come out opposed to the bill,” Barkis said in very measured tones. “Generally speaking, the state board would prefer not to be told what decisions to make.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Senate Ed chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs
Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs / File photo

“It seems to me there should be some sort of collaboration between the state board and the legislature,” King said.

But Johnston, Bacon and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, all made the argument that the General Assembly is constitutionally superior to the board.

The state constitution says, “Their duties will be defined by law,” said Hudak, a former member of the board. “That means us.”

“I do see it as a function of this body,” said Johnston, noting that while the board can vote on what tests it wants, the legislature has to come up with the money to pay for them.

Money has been at the root of the testing dispute since last November, when the board requested $26 million to develop a full battery of new state tests to replace the CSAPs, which are obsolete because of new state content standards. The Hickenlooper administration requested exactly zero dollars for new tests, indicating the state could use the transitional TCAP tests for an extra year and then sign on to multi-state assessments.

The Joint Budget Committee fussed with the issue for months, with members complaining about the mixed signals from the board and the governor’s office.

Senate Education weighed in with advice to the JBC that a smaller amount of money should be spent on some specialized tests but that the state should develop its own reading and math assessments.

Coincidentally, the budget question was answered Thursday with final votes in the House and Senate on House Bill 12-1335, next year’s main state budget. The bill includes some $6 million for development of new social studies and science tests, plus Spanish language and special education tests.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster / File photo

Hudak, who last week tried to strip all testing money from the budget bill, voted for the final version Thursday. But she took five minutes at the microphone to criticize her former board colleagues.

While saying she understood the need for new science and other tests, “What troubles me is the $2.5 million to develop a whole new set of tests, the social studies tests.

“This is sort of a case of the tail wagging the dog. … That was a decision made by the State Board of Education in a discussion with the commission on higher education. We the legislature tell the state board what they must do. This is not what happened with social studies. They decided that they would like them, and now we are funding it,” Hudak told her fellow senators.

Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, sounded a similar note during the floor discussion.

While the legislature may have constitutional authority on its side, the state board could have a political ace up its sleeve. Lame-duck SBE chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, reportedly has been lobbying against the bill and could well have some influence with the Republican majority leadership in the House.

The measure’s prime sponsors are Johnston and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, plus the other three Democrats on Senate Education. But as yet the measure has no House sponsor from either party.

Senate Ed members struggled a bit when it came time to vote. Both King and Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, passed when the roll first was called, and paused a moment when their turns came up again.

Heath paused again and voted yes. King finally said, “I just don’t know which side of the fence to fall off of. … I think I’ll go no today, a weak no.” Also voting no was Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

Johnston, Hudak and Bacon all voted yes to send the bill to the full Senate.

The next round in the fight comes Friday at 2 p.m., when the state board convenes its regularly scheduled legislative meeting at the Department of Education, 201 E. Colfax Ave. The seven-member panel has four Republicans and three Democrats.


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.