Future of Schools

Skeptical at first, these Ritz supporters are now optimistic about McCormick

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Jennifer McCormick’s campaign for state superintendent last year left many voters wondering what side of the education reform debate she was on.

Supporters rallied around the Yorktown Republican for her experiences as a public school teacher, principal and superintendent. And while she raised an impressive sum of money from donors who had previously backed the choice-based reform star Tony Bennett, she maintained she wasn’t Bennett 2.0.

Her critics — often Democrats — weren’t so easily convinced, particularly given those deep-pocketed contributors, which included Hoosiers for Quality Education (the political arm of the school-choice advocacy group Institute for Quality Education) and Christel DeHaan, the founder of the network of Christel House charter schools.

But now, almost a year after she beat Glenda Ritz in an election night upset, some of those Ritz supporters who were skeptical have changed their tune. Maybe she’s not so bad after all, they said.

In her policies and recent comments since taking office, McCormick has just as often clashed with her Republican colleagues and pro-school-choice funders as she has been aligned with them. Yet even during the election, there were few policy areas where McCormick and Ritz had major departures.

That became especially clear at an event hosted by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education last month, where McCormick voiced her support for increased transparency and accountability for charter schools and private schools that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers.

MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, an Indianapolis attorney who has been skeptical of choice-based school reform efforts, said while she thought McCormick was qualified for the position, she was initially quite worried about the influence of those who financed her campaign.

“My fear did not come from anything that I specifically knew about her,” Schlegel Ruegger said. “My fear came from which organizations or individuals were providing much of her campaign financing. Unfortunately we’ve learned in Indiana over the last several years that money does seem to be talking very loudly.”

Over time, and after listening to her testify before the Senate Education Committee on testing, Schlegel Ruegger said she was pleased that McCormick seemed to distance herself from the views of her contributors, especially at the recent ICPE event. Schlegel Ruegger is a member of the group.

“I’m eager to see what else she may say” about charter and voucher transparency, Schlegel Ruegger said. “I’m interested to hear her say things like that in front of audiences who aren’t as eager to hear it as the audience Saturday.”

Kristina Frey, a Washington Township parent who leads the Parent Council Network and also an ICPE member, said she thinks she was wrong to jump to conclusions so early. Frey said Washington Township came out strongly for Ritz, as the district where she was an educator, and she appreciated McCormick’s willingness to come out and meet parents in her district, even if they might be skeptical.

“I was wrong in my fears,” Frey said. “I have a lot of respect for Jennifer based on what I’ve seen so far. I think it took real guts to actually stand up in front of the General Assembly and have her say things that are contrary to what the leadership of the party believes.”

Both women said they hope McCormick can take a less passive approach with the legislature this session. Compared to her predecessors, McCormick’s administration was much more quiet during last year’s session, testifying far less on bills and declining to share a legislative agenda.

“I’d love to see her be — I think what schools call it is be much more of a ‘critical friend’ with the legislature,” Schlegel Ruegger said. “She is at a very interesting vantage point — between the views of her funders and her own experiences as a superintendent in public schools. And I would love to see her use that vantage point to critically look at legislation that comes through.”

Frey pointed out, however, that the power of the state’s schools chief is limited. That will be particularly true come 2025, when the governor will make the elected position an appointed member of his cabinet. Lawmakers voted to make the change this past year.

“Just like with Glenda Ritz we learned that the superintendent of public instruction has a limited role in actually setting policy, so though I am very happy with some of her public stances, I still believe that it will be very difficult for her to really do much to impact those things,” Frey said.

It’s unclear whether voters’ perception of McCormick will carry over to the legislature. McCormick opted to mostly promote the few education policies Gov. Eric Holcomb backed this year, but since then, her comments around supporting full-day kindergarten and school choice are largely at odds with what Republican education power players have typically supported.

House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, was vague about the extent to which that tension has entered into work between the General Assembly and the education department.

“Nobody is going to always agree on everything,” Behning said. “There are differences, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get along.”

Callie Marksbury, a Lafayette teacher and a former treasurer for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she hopes there aren’t as many roadblocks thrown up at McCormick as there were for Ritz in terms of impact on state policy. During the election, the state’s teachers unions primarily backed Ritz.

“Please let the legislature leave her alone,” Marksbury said. “Let her do what she said she’s going to do.”

Current law says Indiana would appoint its schools chief in 2025. This story has been corrected to reflect that. 

Controversy

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.

departures

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.”