Who Is In Charge

Respite on ed issues unlikely for Tuesday’s winners

From the White House to Capitol Hill, the winners in this week’s elections won’t have much time to savor their victories.

Image of voter putting ballot in ballot box.Even as federal policymakers sort out the political landscape, the remainder of 2012 and the early months of 2013 are likely to be dominated by divisive, unresolved issues with broad consequences for K-12 and higher education — some of which require immediate action.

Chief among them: sequestration, a series of planned, across-the-board budget cuts that are set to hit almost every federal agency Jan. 2, including the U.S. Department of Education, unless the president and a lame-duck Congress act to stop them.

And when lawmakers in the 113th Congress take office in early January, they also will confront a yawning shortfall in the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students attend college; grapple with a planned rise in student-loan interest rates; and pass a spending bill financing the federal government for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.

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On top of that, federal policymakers must cope with thorny implementation questions on major policy initiatives, including dozens of waivers that eased states’ obligations under the No Child Left Behind Act. And they must find a way to renew a laundry list of long-stalled K-12 legislation — most notably, renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the NCLB law — in what will likely remain a politically polarized Washington.

The work will begin well before Jan. 21 — Inauguration Day. As of last week, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney had sketched out a detailed plan for how to handle sequestration, which would result in an 8.2 percent reduction to most programs in the U.S. Department of Education. While some spending would remain untouched — such as federal student loans — the key formula-funded programs on which school districts depend would be cut.

“That is going to be a huge mess” for the occupant of the White House in the coming year, James W. Kohlmoos, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, in Arlington, Va., said in an interview before the Nov. 6 election.

A lame-duck Congress is “the most difficult and challenging and confusing time” to solve long-simmering problems related to taxes, spending, and entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, said Mr. Kohlmoos, who served in the Education Department under President Bill Clinton.

Looming fiscal issues

If sequestration “trigger cuts” are not averted, programs aimed at equity, including those for disadvantaged students, now funded at $15.75 billion, would be cut by almost $1.3 billion, according to an analysis by the White House Office of Management and Budget. And special education programs, now funded at $12.64 billion, would be cut by about $1.03 billion.

Still, most of the reductions to education spending wouldn’t hit in the middle of the 2012-13 school year, giving schools until next fall to figure out how to absorb them.

The one glaring exception: the $1.2 billion Impact Aid program, which provides money to 1,200 school districts, including those that are home to a high number of American Indian students living on reservations or students whose parents work at a military base in the district. It also helps districts that have lost tax revenue because they include big plots of federal land. Districts in the program would lose their aid Jan. 2.

The uncertainty has been hard on school systems that are heavily dependent on the impact funding, such as the 2,600-student Douglas district in Box Elder, S.D., which is located near Ellsworth Air Force Base. Thirty-eight percent of its students are connected to the military.

The district stands to lose about $500,000 to $600,000 on a $21 million overall budget if sequestration goes through, estimated Loren Scheer, the superintendent.

“The unnerving part for all of us is that we just don’t know,” Mr. Scheer said. “The sooner [lawmakers] make up their minds, the better off everyone is going to be.”

“It shouldn’t take an election” to force action, he said.

Mr. Scheer said he hopes Congress won’t “kick the can down the road again” by coming up with a temporary solution, which, in his view, could spell larger cuts later.

But Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington, said a short-term fix during a lame-duck session of Congress appears to be the most likely outcome.

“Even under a scenario that there’s some bipartisan agreement in the lame-duck, the best-case option is that they agree on a framework and we spend the next six months” sorting out the details, he said. That would “push off the real decisions until next year.”

And sequestration isn’t the only postelection spending challenge lawmakers are facing. Congress still needs to pass a final budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Since lawmakers were unable to agree on a spending plan in time, the federal government has been operating on a massive extension bill since then that expires in March of next year.

In spending bills drafted earlier this year, House Republicans sought to eliminate major Obama administration priorities, such as the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation competitions. Senate Democrats sought to keep funding for most programs at current levels.

Higher education headaches

Policymakers will also have to grapple with a roughly $7 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program. The White House and Congress will be under significant pressure not to cut the maximum Pell Grant of $5,500, analysts say.

Still, policymakers may make changes to Pell Grant eligibility. A budget proposal that has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives would trim the overall cost of the grants by refocusing them on the neediest students.

“Pell is very popular politically,” said Kevin Carey, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, in a pre-election interview. “It’s one of 15 or 20 things that defines a budget publicly. Whoever is president is going to have to find room to maintain Pell’s funding.”

Indeed, during the campaign, both presidential candidates made it clear that Pell Grants were a priority. Mr. Obama continually reminded voters that funding for the program had doubled under his watch. And, despite pledges to trim government spending overall, Mr. Romney singled out Pell Grants as an area he would like to expand.

Lawmakers will also have to decide how to cope with a planned rise in interest rates on federally backed student loans; the rate is scheduled to double, to 6.8 percent, next summer. Earlier this year, Congress passed a one-year extension of the lower rate of 3.4 percent — but not before a protracted, partisan battle over how to pay for the change. The issue became part of the presidential contest: Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney pressed Congress to keep the rate at 3.4 percent.

With all the emphasis on cutting and trimming, it is unlikely that whoever is president will have much money left over to pay for new initiatives, said Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Instead, any new policy initiatives will likely need to be financed with existing funds, he said.

Given the current, constrained fiscal situation, “the most you can do is take [an existing program] and redirect it to some other areas,” he said. “The possibility [is] of some internal reshuffling; [there’s] not much possibility of substantial new programs.”

Tackling waivers

Also in the balance: the waivers offered to states seeking wiggle room on complying with pieces of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have been approved for waivers. Some of those plans — including in Arizona, Georgia, and New Mexico — are based on teacher evaluation or accountability systems that haven’t yet been fully implemented.

That means “there are going to be lessons learned, tweaks needed,” said John Bailey, a co-founder of Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting firm in Washington, who served in the White House under President George W. Bush. (He also advised the Romney campaign, but spoke for this article only as an analyst.)

“There are going to be states that want to make changes to the waivers,” he said.

The waivers, which will only be in place for up to two years, will need to be renewed—or not—during the next presidential term, unless Congress is able to pass a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Education Department will also need to continue oversight of key Obama administration programs, including the dozen winners of the Race to the Top state grants, many of which have reworked their timelines when it comes to important pieces of their applications. Two states — Georgia and Hawaii — have had their grants, or parts of them, placed on high-risk status, jeopardizing their funding.

The reauthorization of the ESEA, which has been pending since 2007, remains on federal lawmakers’ to-do list. Neither party was thrilled with the process behind the waivers, which both Democrats and Republicans said stepped on congressional authority. But the partisan divisions in Congress have made it difficult for lawmakers to enact their own vision for renewal.

“The big sleeping giant is ESEA reauthorization,” said Mr. Bailey. “If the White House makes it clear that this is a priority, there could be a path forward in Congress.”

Lawmakers also must tackle a legislative logjam that’s held up renewal of laws dealing with higher education, special education, career and technical education, workforce development, and child-care and -development block grants.

Common Core rolls on

The results of the federal elections are unlikely, however, to have major implications for the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Although some conservatives have grumbled that the effort smacks of too much federal involvement, the standards appear to have support — or at least not a good deal of opposition — from leaders in both parties.

Mr. Obama took partial credit for the standards on the campaign trail. His administration made adoption of rigorous, uniform standards — including the Common Core — a condition for states seeking NCLB waivers. It also gave states that adopted the standards an edge in the Race to the Top grant competition and steered $360 million to the creation of assessments that align with the standards.

But key Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also support the effort. During the campaign, Mr. Romney said he would not require states to join the initiative and would not steer federal funding to bolster it, but he also made it clear that states should be able to adopt the standards if they wanted to. State elections are likely to have more influence on the future of the Common Core than the result of the presidential race will.

“It’s moved [so far] down the path that I think we would see the momentum carrying on,” said Mr. Kohlmoos of NASBE. “The key now is for states to feel a sense of ownership of Common Core.”

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this story.

Federal education decisions on the horizon

The victors — and, in some cases, the lame ducks — will have a long to-do list on federal education policy and budget matters awaiting them after the Nov. 6 vote. Lawmakers and the president will have to decide how to:

• Avert or come up with a plan to weather a series of 8.2 percent across-the-board cuts that are set to hit nearly every federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Education just after the turn of the year under “sequestration.” President Barack Obama and the lame-duck Congress will be under the gun on this issue.

• Make up, in the coming year, for a yawning budget gap in the Pell Grant college-aid program, estimated at roughly $7 billion.

• Cope with an increase in student-loan interest rates, which are set to double next summer.

• Oversee a series of waivers that give states relief from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for embracing the Obama administration’s education improvement priorities.

• Handle a series of pending reauthorizations of key education statutes, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the laws governing special education, career and technical education, and higher education.

Source: Education Week

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.