albany report

Advocates' "fact-finding" tour uncovers inequities as budget talks heat up

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

ALBANY — State lawmakers, funding advocates, and school district superintendents revisited a top education priority on Monday, urging a big boost in state school aid as budget negotiations heat up.

A recent “fact-finding” tour of 14 cash-strapped districts turned up instances where schools replaced elective classes with study hall periods to fill out the school day, or where Spanish and music instruction had become an either-or proposition. During a press conference to announce the results today, superintendents spoke of large class sizes and cuts to academic intervention for struggling students.

The tour — which did not include New York City schools — was organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that is calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase state school aid by $1.9 billion this year.

The extra money would go primarily to the highest-need districts, which AQE says would begin to put New York back on track after the economic recession toward meeting legally mandated funding responsibilities for low-income students.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to see state aid increased to the city, where more than 70 percent of students are considered poor, but he has focused most of his public lobbying in Albany on winning the right to raise taxes on the city’s highest earners to pay for pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.

But dozens of Democratic lawmakers, including Assembly Education Chair Catherine Nolan, have called for the $1.9 billion increase, which is more than double what Cuomo proposed in his budget.

The Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, and Senate, where power is shared between Democrats and Republicans, are preparing budget bills that are scheduled to be voted on March 12. State law requires them to negotiate a final budget with Cuomo by the end of the month, and school funding could wind up playing a role in the deal-making.

The funding issue sits alongside other contentious education policy issues being debated this legislative session, including funding for pre-K, possible changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law, and support for charter schools. Nolan said fixing the way the state funds low-income districts was something “we need to do to make sure that our children have what we want to see for them.”

 

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”

 

Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: