mayoral challenge

Education candidate Josh Thompson challenging de Blasio with long-shot bid for mayor

PHOTO: Courtesy Photo
Josh Thompson, 31, is seeking the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor.

As a teen with an unstable home, Josh Thompson says a private school helped save his life. Now, he wants to make sure more kids have the same opportunity.

Thompson, 31, is seeking the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor. He joins a growing list of long-shot candidates lining up to challenge incumbent Bill de Blasio in the September 2017 primary.

Thompson supports school vouchers, charter schools and merit pay for educators — all contentious issues in New York City, where the teachers union is famously strong. He says he admires former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who worked with Mayor Michael Bloomberg to overhaul school accountability, but Thompson suggested he wouldn’t go out of his way to antagonize the unions.

“You take what works and you expand it — whether that is vouchers, whether that is a traditional public school,” he said. “We have the resources, we have the buildings and we have the innovation. It’s tapping into those things.”

A top official at New Leaders — a national education nonprofit that trains principals and other school officials — Thompson previously worked for the mayors of Washington, D.C. and Bridgeport, Conn.

He got his first taste of politics as a volunteer for Cory Booker’s mayoral campaign in Newark and considers Booker, now a U.S. senator, a mentor.

Thompson’s support for school vouchers can be traced back to his experience at Saint Benedict’s Preparatory, an all-boys Catholic school in Newark that he credits with turning around his life. Born in North Carolina, Thompson said he spent much of his childhood bouncing around the country as his mother tried to make ends meet. St. Benedict’s, nationally recognized for its work with inner-city youth, offered him housing and picked up the tuition bill.

Thompson wants other low-income students to have access to schools like his, though he’s likely to face obstacles if he tries to launch a voucher program in New York City. If necessary, Thompson said he would create a private fund with the hope of tripling the number of low-income students attending private schools.

“Most of us want choice for everything we do in life,” he said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “But when it comes to black and brown children and inner city education, we lose our backbone when it comes to choice.”

Thompson is also challenging the mayor on charter schools. While de Blasio must, by law, accommodate new charter schools within district school buildings or pay their rent, Thompson and others have accused the mayor of dragging his feet when it comes to making such decisions.

Thompson said de Blasio often waits “until the shot clock goes off” to accommodate charter school co-locations, and that, if elected, he would streamline the process.

Thompson also advocates for incentive pay for educators and more power for principals, concepts Mayor Bloomberg also supported.

New York City has already dabbled in both vouchers and merit pay; research showed that neither venture paid off as hoped. In both cases, student achievement failed to significantly improve.

As of July, Thompson’s campaign was about $23,000 in debt, though he said a new round of campaign finance reports due in January will show significant fundraising. The July report showed many small donations, with contributions from education reform advocates and individuals affiliated with charter school networks such as Achievement First, where his wife, Julia, is the founding dean of a Brooklyn charter school.

Jamaal Bowman, an outspoken principal in the Bronx, gave a $15 donation. He said he plans on giving to other candidates, too, but praised Thompson as “a supporter of public schools.”

“I believe he has a whole-child view of education. He’s not looking at a one-size-fits-all approach,” Bowman said.

De Blasio’s approval ratings slid last spring and summer amid investigations into his fundraising tactics, and they remain mediocre. But the mayor has tallied more than $2 million for his reelection bid and recently scored the early endorsements of some city council members and labor unions.

Though the United Federation of Teachers has yet to officially endorse a candidate, former president Randi Weingarten, now head of the American Federation of Teachers, is reportedly planning a fundraiser for de Blasio in January.

Chalkbeat reporter Monica Disare contributed to this report. 

Clarification (Dec. 21, 2016): This story has been updated to reflect that Thompson said the next round of campaign reports will show significant fundraising.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

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.