Future of Schools

Ravitch tangles with school reformers on Butler panel

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Education historian Diane Ravitch and Friedman Foundation CEO Robert Enlow debated at Butler University last March.

A lively, and sometimes pointed, debate about how best to improve schools followed the premiere of a documentary developed by the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation tonight at Butler University.

Headlining the five-person panel was Diane Ravitch, the historian and one-time school reform advocate turned national spokesman against testing, school choice, test-based teacher evaluation and other proposals she says aim to privatize public schools.

“I’m opposed to testing and accountability,” Ravitch said. “The only thing we learn from testing is which families have the most income and education and which have the least. Then we punish the children of the families that have the least.”

But advocates for reform, including The Mind Trust CEO David Harris and Robert Enlow, CEO of the Friedman Foundation, argued that charter schools, vouchers, standardized tests and other strategies can help improve education in Indiana.

“To just assert that charters are bad doesn’t allow us to focus on policy issues,” Harris said. “I understand the frustration that caused people to want to make this movie. We in the reform community need to do a better job of having this conversation.”

The film interviewed a host of teachers and experts who criticized a series of reform the state has undertaken in the last several years. It made the case that money was being drained from public schools and that experiments like vouchers and charter schools were not working or unfair.

“Standardized tests are the new bully in school,” the narrator says early in the film, setting its tone. “Inspiration cowers in the corner.”

The 2,100 seat Clowes Memorial Hall on Butler’s campus was mostly full with an audience of educators and others who were sympathetic to the film’s themes. A huge cheer went up when the movie showed former Indiana state Superintendent Tony Bennett resigning from the equivalent post in Florida after charges surfaced from his Indiana emails that he and his staff raised a charter school’s grade.

The panel discussion was polite but neither side was able to say much to persuade the other.

Ravitch and panelist Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne schools, mostly argued for placing more trust in teachers and offering more support for traditional public schools. Harris and Enlow advocated for using a variety of approaches to improving education, including charter schools and vouchers, especially for benefit of poor children.

“There is no question poverty creates enormous challenges,” Harris said. “We also know, thank God, that kids from any background and circumstances, if given the opportunity to go to a great school, can excel as well as any other group of kids. There are schools out there doing that.”

Robinson, noting arguments in the film that Indiana public schools have seen tuition support decline since 1998 when adjusted for inflation, cited one of her best performing schools. A major factor in its success, she said, was tremendous community support to supplement the work of teachers.

“There are sometimes more adults than children in that school,” she said. “We are seeking community partners. Let’s not fool ourselves. Resources also matter.”

The most heated exchange came after Ravitch argued that public schools should be supported and paid for as a public obligation, like police, fire protection, parks and beaches, not turned into a market for companies to profit from.

Enlow responded that government often pays for its obligations while still allowing those who benefit to make choices. Food stamp recipients or Medicare patients, he said, can spend their government benefits at any grocery store or hospital, even private hospitals run by churches.

That brought a flash of indignation from Robinson.

“It’s insulting to equate public education with food stamps,” she said, promoting a roar of approval from the audience.

At the end, moderator Scott Sander of WISH-TV asked each panelist, what change in education should everyone get behind?

“Allow all testing to be done by teachers and eliminate all standardized testing,” Ravitch said.

Enlow said everyone should support allowing kids to go to a quality school of any kind. Robinson advocated for deciding what education costs and funding that amount. Harris wanted to move decisions out of the central office and to individual schools.

“Let’s step back and ask what’s truly effective in any school type,” said the fifth panelist, Greg Lineweaver, an English teacher at North Central High School. “Remove the politics.”


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.


As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”