Statehouse roundup

Online bill started with study, now proposes yet another study

Key bills related to online education and gifted and talented programs ran into headwinds Wednesday as nearly two dozen education bills were in play on the floor and in committee at the Capitol.

The day’s frantic pace of activity highlighted the perils some bills face and the surprises that pop up as lawmakers scramble to work through long calendars at the end of the session.

Sponsors of House Bill 14-1382, who saw the breadth of concern about their bill during a hearing earlier in the week, returned to the House Education Committee with a rewrite designed to soften objections.

“We hope we have captured their concerns and addressed them,” said Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley.

The major issue with the original bill by Young and Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, was a recommendation that the Department of Education be stripped of its authority to certify multi-district online schools and instead set requirements for and oversee school districts that authorize online programs. (See this story for more details about the bill and about Monday’s hearing on the measure.)

The Young/Wilson rewrite, which the committee approved 8-5, now merely would set up a task force to study authorization of multi-district online programs. Ironically, the bill itself largely was the product of small task force that Young, Wilson and two senators convened in late January to come up with possible legislation this year. Now it looks like the issue will be tossed to the 2015 legislature – if HB 14-1382 survives another House committee, floor debate and review by the Senate – all in the next two weeks. (Read the amended version of the bill here.)

Regulation of online education is a notoriously tricky issue, given the vocal and competing interest groups and the skilled lobbyists involved. There are longstanding concerns about the quality of some online programs, but no new legislation on the issue has been passed in several years, despite repeated promises by some lawmakers to pursue reforms.

Other bills stand on shaky ground

No education bills were killed Wednesday, and none took quite the haircut HB 14-1382 experienced, but other measures do face uncertain futures.

Some witnesses in the Senate Education Committee had plenty of criticism for House Bill 14-1102, a proposal that would increase funding for gifted and talented programs, require screening of all Colorado students for gifted and talented eligibility and require all districts to have certified coordinators for such programs.

Representatives from the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado BOCES Association were out in force, urging the bill be defeated.

“Our schools don’t need more mandates, they need more resources,” said Michelle Murphy, a lawyer who represents CASB.

Sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, announced before the hearing started that the committee wouldn’t vote Wednesday because he’s still working on amendments. (Kerr also chairs Senate Education.) The committee next meets on Thursday. Get more details on the bill in this legislative staff summary.

House Education passed two bills whose futures are uncertain.

House Bill 14-1376, a recently introduced measure, would require the Department of Education to analyze student “opportunity gaps” by gathering and reporting data on how students, broken out by ethnicity and other characteristics, are assigned to and perform in various core high school courses. (Get details on the bill here.)

The committee passed the bill 7-5. District lobbyists would like the bill at least to be amended so that it’s voluntary, not mandatory. Because most of the key lobbyists were tied up in Senate Education opposing the gifted and talented bill, they hope to amend or kill House Bill 14-1376 in the House Appropriations Committee or in the Senate.

House Education also voted 12-1 to send House Bill 14-1139 to the appropriations panel. The measure would require the state convert to the average daily membership method of counting enrollment. Approval of the bill is considered to be a courtesy to sponsor Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, by his fellow education committee members, and the bill isn’t expected to survive appropriations. Average daily membership originally also was part of House Bill 14-1292, the Student Success Act, but that’s been stripped from the bill, and ADM is considered to be a dead issue this session.

Amid the hubbub, other bills advance

Senate Education did pass three bills Wednesday.

House Bill 14-1287 would allow earmarking of some Building Excellent Schools Today funds for schools damaged by natural disasters, House Bill 14-1175 would require a study of minority teacher recruitment and retention, and House Bill 14-1294 would impose various student data security requirements on the Department of Education.

Some Republicans – and citizen activists – don’t think that bill goes far enough, but the legislature isn’t expected to pass anything more stringent this year.

About half a dozen education-related bills were laid over Wednesday, some because there wasn’t time during floor sessions or for additional work on amendments.

GOP senators oppose toothless immunization bill

The amended version of House Bill 14-1288 doesn’t impose any requirements on parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated, but that didn’t prevent a couple of Republican senators from seeing a threat to freedom in the measure.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, even appeared to question the science behind vaccinations, using phrases like “scientifically unproven,” “not actually serving the best interests of our kids” and “somehow assuming the science is settled” in urging colleagues to vote no.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, was skeptical of the bill’s requirement that the Department of Public Health and Environment set up an immunization information website. “The information I see from health officials is not complete … it gives you half the story.”

Several Democrats spoke in support of the bill, which in its current form sets up the education website and also requires schools collect and report data about the percentages of students who aren’t immunized. A Senate committee earlier stripped a provision that required parents who choose to opt out receive educational information before doing so.

With the rhetoric exhausted, the Senate voted 19-16 to pass the bill, with Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango the only Republican yes vote. The bill now returns to the House, where sponsor Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, said he won’t fight to keep the education requirement on the measure, according to The Associated Press.

All 17 Republicans voted against two other measures up for final consideration Wednesday, but the bills passed with support from all 18 Democrats.

Senate Bill 14-182 would require that school boards keep executive session minutes that include the subjects discussed and the amount of time spent on each. (An earlier bill that also included requirements for audio recording passed he House but was killed in a Senate Committee because of lack of support.)

Senate Bill 14-185 would create the Pay for Success Contracts for Early Childhood Education Services Program which would allow the Office of State Planning and Budgeting and school districts to contract with providers of early childhood development services – and then pay them later with savings realized from the program’s success.

On the way to the governor

The Senate gave 35-0 final approval to two House bills that weren’t amended in the Senate, so they now go directly to the governor for consideration. They are:

House Bill 14-1314 would require that charter schools be formally involved in district planning for tax override elections. But the measure leaves the final decision to school boards on whether to share new revenues with charters. The bill mirrors existing law requiring charters to be involved in planning for bond issues.

House Bill 14-1204 is intended to give small rural districts some modest relief from Department of Education paperwork requirements. Primarily it would allow such districts that are in the two highest state accreditation categories to file performance plans every two years instead of annually.

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.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.