Union Vote

Cary Kennedy ‘aligns with all of our issues and values,’ teachers union president says in endorsement

Two influential teachers unions have endorsed Cary Kennedy in the Democratic primary for governor. 

The Colorado Education Association and the Colorado chapter of the American Federation of Teachers both gave Kennedy their blessing Wednesday.

It’s the first time that CEA has endorsed in a gubernatorial primary, according to union president Kerrie Dallman. This is also the first competitive Democratic primary for governor in two decades. 

“Cary blew us out of the water,” Dallman said. “She aligns with all of our issues and values that our membes share and our hopes for what public education can be in the state of Colorado.”

Ellen Slatkin, president of the Metropolitan State Faculty Federation and AFT-Colorado, described Kennedy as someone with a precise mind and a big heart when it comes to education issues.

“A lot of candidates are good on the issue of education,” Slatkin said. “They care about kids, and they care about higher education opportunities. But Cary knows how to get it there. She knows what it takes to work legislative pieces, how to mobilize constituencies. She’s just so thorough, and at the same time, she’s just so kind.”

Kennedy is a former state treasurer and chief financial officer for the city of Denver who was the author of Amendment 23, a measure that requires the state to increase educational funding every year. The state doesn’t fully comply with that requirement because it can’t afford it. Union representatives cited Amendment 23 and the Building Excellent Schools Today program, which provides grants for school construction and renovation, as examples of what Kennedy has already done for education in Colorado.

Kennedy has made increasing teacher pay a key part of her education platform, which also also calls for universal access to preschool and full-day kindergarten. She says her ultimate goal is have every Colorado student in college or in the workforce by age 19. 

“As governor of Colorado, I will make public education our state’s top priority,” Kennedy said. “It doesn’t make any sense that our economy is one of the top-ranked economies in the country and our investment in our schools ranks at the bottom. We pay our teachers among the lowest salaries in the country. Teachers can’t afford to work here. They can’t afford to live here. And every day we’re losing great teachers from our classrooms.”

Kennedy acknowledges that enacting this platform would require changes to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to keep more revenue. TABOR is considered nearly sacred in Colorado politics, but she thinks there is enough support among local Republican leaders to overturn it at the ballot.

“As governor, I will lead a bipartisan coalition to pass permanent TABOR reform so that we don’t have to keep cutting our school budgets,” she said. “Nearly every local government in the state has obtained voter approval to keep local tax revenue, notwithstanding TABOR’s limits, and I will lead the statewide effort to allow the state to keep tax revenue generated by growth in our economy to invest in our schools and our infrastructure.”

These endorsements come as anti-immigrant hardliner Tom Tancredo announced he was withdrawing from the Republican race for governor. Tancredo was seen as a likely spoiler in the governor’s race, and in announcing his withdrawal, he declared he did not think any Republican can win.

With Tancredo out of the race, many observers believe current State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who beat Kennedy to get the job he holds now, is the Republican frontrunner.

Dallman stressed that she believes Kennedy can win in the primary and the general election, and she said her association’s 35,000 members would be making phone calls and knocking on doors to get the word out about their candidate.

Education has been a major issue in the Democratic campaign. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is a former chair of the State Board of Education, and Mike Johnston, a former state lawmaker and educator, has drawn significant support from education reform advocates. Businessman Noel Ginsburg runs a program that provides apprenticeships for high school students.

With his close ties to the education reform community, Johnston was never in the running for a union endorsement. Of Polis, Dallman said, “He just didn’t align with us on all of our issues.”

Ready Colorado, the primary conservative voice on education issues in the state, does not plan to endorse in the Republican race. It’s not clear if Democrats for Education Reform will take a position in the Democratic race.

Chalkbeat’s Nic Garcia talked at length with Kennedy about her education ideas last year. You can read that interview here.

This story has been updated with comments from the announcement and interviews.

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.

Future of Schools

Chicago mayoral hopeful Gery Chico has regrets — and big plans for schools if elected

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Mayoral candidate Gery Chico, former school board president.

Former school board president Gery Chico has said that if elected mayor, he would oversee the largest ever expansion of technical and vocational education at Chicago Public Schools.

That’s a very different approach than the one he presided over during his tenure amid a rush to expand rigorous academic programs like the International Baccalaureate and selective enrollment schools that left a lot of families on the outside looking in, especially in black and Latino communities.

Related: Who’s best for Chicago schools? A Chalkbeat voter guide to the 2019 mayor’s race

“We’re losing people from the city over this issue today,” said Chico, board president from 1995 to 2001. “If an African-American parent doesn’t feel that their child who didn’t get into [selective enrollment high school] Whitney Young is going to be served well by the alternatives — they’re out of here. They leave. They may go to the south suburbs or if the change they seek is more dramatic, they may go to Dallas or Atlanta.”

Chico, who also pledges to open eight new selective enrollment high schools if elected, said he wishes he had anticipated how popular selective enrollment and IB programs were going to be, so that the district could keep up with demand. Just as when Chico ran the school board two decades ago, top academic schools and programs still are disproportionately clustered in wealthier and white neighborhoods, and fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools and programs.

Related: 5 tough questions a new report puts front-and-center for Chicago’s next mayor

Despite some regret and criticism of his tenure at the district from detractors like the Chicago Teacher’s Union, Chico counts balanced budgets, test score gains and scores of opened schools among his accomplishments running the district alongside then-schools chief Paul Vallas, another mayoral contender. After leaving the Chicago Board of Education, Chico went on to serve as board president for the City Colleges of Chicago, and later at the Illinois State Board of Education, experience he says provides him a rare vantage point to steer Chicago schools toward improvements.  

If he emerges from the crowded field of candidates in one of the most competitive mayoral elections in recent memory, he said he’d use his power as mayor to open several new trade schools every year for each year of his first term with the goal of spurring Chicago’s “largest ever” expansion of vocational and technical education. His plan is to repurpose closed schools or build new ones to house the specialized career-focused schools.

Related: In one Chicago neighborhood, three high schools offer dramatically different opportunities

Chico wouldn’t say how much it would cost.

He did say he would pay for the plan with budget savings, public-private partnerships with businesses in the trade industry, and surplus economic development dollars from the city’s tax increment finance program. Like other candidates, he’s said he would press downstate lawmakers in the state capitol to fully fund Chicago schools.

“I’m not going to do 20 in one year,” he said. We’re going to phase it in and ramp it up, whether we’re repurposing buildings, or building new buildings, largely with the money of the trade unions. It doesn’t have to break the bank.”

Related: Chicago’s mayoral candidates differ on how they’d improve outcomes for students of color

But Chico’s vocational plan doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the proliferation of rigorous curricula. He said he would expand IB programs from 50 schools to 150.

“This is not one size fits all. Some people want just neighborhood high schools, some people want IB in that high school, some communities like the South and West Sides are clamoring for a selective-enrollment school,” he said. “You have to follow the communities, listen, and then we’ll figure out the best direction based on that dialogue.”

Chicago’s municipal election is Feb. 26.

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