Who Is In Charge

SBE gets earnest earful from Common Core critics

The Common Core Standards, a hot topic for the State Board of Education three years ago, surfaced again Wednesday at the end of an otherwise-routine meeting when protesters showed up to oppose the new learning standards.

Opponents of the Common Core Standards picketed outside the Department of Education.
Opponents of the Common Core Standards picketed outside the Department of Education.

The group, about 20 people who said they were loosely affiliated, like-minded citizens, carried a single message: The standards represent an unwelcome federal intrusion into local schools — and the board should rescind its approval of them.

Carolyn Fairchild, who identified herself as a retired teacher from Teller County, called the standards “unconstitutional” because “Common Core strips local control away.”

“We’re all puppets now dancing to the tune of D.C. bureaucrats and the national organizations. Please stand up and cut the puppet strings off your arms,” she told the board during its public comment period today.

The board approved the standards narrowly in 2010, with a 4-3 vote. Three of the members who participated in that vote — one in support and two opposed — are no longer on the board.

In general, support for the Common Core is solid in Colorado, with backers including leading legislators like Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver; the state Department of Education, and a wide variety of both traditional and reform-oriented education groups. 

The protesters, many of them sporting anti-Common Core T-shirts and visors, began the day by picketing outside the Department of Education and chatting with East Colfax Avenue passersby during the board’s daylong meeting.

Then, as the session wound to its close, about a dozen members of the group trooped to the microphone in the boardroom, urging the board to rescind its earlier approval of the Common Core.

Here’s a sample of comments from other speakers:

  • “The title of my talk that I’m not going to give is ‘Get Ready for Tyranny,’” said Kathy Svenson, noting the three-minute time limit on each speaker. She said she’s a Delta County school board member who was speaking for herself.
  • “It’s kind of like Russia or China … the state knows best,” said Julie White of Montrose.
  • The Common Core “will eliminate parent involvement [and] must be stopped completely,” argued Anita Stapleton of Pueblo.
  • “Please withdraw Colorado from the mandates of the Common Core” because it violates the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, said Cindy Galbreath of Teller County, who then proceeded to read the amendment, which concerns federal and state division of powers.
Teller County teacher Carolyn Fairchild testifying to the State Board of Education.
Teller County teacher Carolyn Fairchild testifying to the State Board of Education.

Most of the witnesses identified themselves on the sign-up sheet as “citizen-parent.” Some of the literature the group distributed carried the label “ParentLedReform.org.” Parent Led Reform is a Douglas County-based group that opposes many education reforms.

After about 45 minutes of testimony, SBE chair Paul Lundeen politely thanked the speakers, saying, “We’ll take into careful consideration your comments.” Board members didn’t respond to the speakers nor ask questions, as is the board’s practice during public comment sessions.

Protests mirrors national pushback

The Common Core sets standards for what students are supposed to learn in language arts and math. They were developed under the leadership of the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School officers, not the federal government.

While state participation in the standards is voluntary, the Common Core has become a part of the larger education reform agenda being pushed by the Obama administration, education reform and business groups and many state departments of education and governors.

Supporters  argue that the standards will set a higher bar for what students need to learn and allow for common bars across states — as well as tests that can be shared across states.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia previously adopted the standards, along with Minnesota for English only. (Non-participating states are Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia.)

Pushback against the Common Core has come from conservative groups, primarily grassroots ones, that fear they will lead to a national curriculum and a federal takeover of education. Some critics also argue the standards aren’t rigorous enough. But a number of Republican governors and conservative education think tanks defend the standards.

Criticism of the standards has boiled up recently around the nation. In Michigan lawmakers have blocked funding for implementation of the Common Core while they investigate the issue. The Indiana legislature has “paused” implementation of the standards in that state, and Pennsylvania has also delayed implementation. Controversy about the standards has also emerged in Iowa, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Some states also have already pulled away from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of the two groups, funded with federal Race to the Top funds, that are building tests to measure students against the new standards. Colorado is one of the states on a PARCC’s governing board and intends to use the tests starting in the 2014-2015 school year.

Among the states that have dropped out of PARCC, won’t field-test the assessments or plan to use their own tests are Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. Fourteen states, including Colorado, and the District of Columbia plan to field-test the PARCC assessments next year before the formal rollout in 2015. Field tests will carry no stakes for students, teachers and schools.

In August 2010, when the State Board voted on the Common Core, then-member Peggy Littleton, a conservative Republican from Colorado Springs, organized the unsuccessful opposition, even quoting Patrick Henry’s “liberty or death” speech at one point. (Read the EdNews story about that meeting.)

State officials said there was a 90 percent overlap between the Common Core and state English and math standards adopted in December 2009.

At the time, uncertainty about how the board would vote raised concerns that failure to adopt the standards would jeopardize Colorado’s chances in the federal Race to the Top competition. The state lost the competition anyway.

The Common Core came up again during a December 2012 SBE informational hearing on education issues that was organized by then-Chair Bob Schaffer, a Fort Collins Republican who no longer sits on the board. Several witnesses at that session criticized the standards (see EdNews story).

The Common Core hasn’t been discussed much by the board since then.

In other action … our feelings are hurt

Earlier, during a briefing about a new group that is studying teacher preparation and licensing, board members expressed unhappiness that no state board members sit on the panel.

“I was very surprised that our chair wasn’t invited to participate nor any member of the state board,” said member Elaine Gantz Berman of Denver. “I just find it a very disappointing omission.”

She was referring to a group named the LEAD Compact Working Group. (See this EdNews story for background on the panel.)

Lundeen, who described himself as “a little bit cranky about this,” noted that the board has been trying to create a higher profile for itself, and this is “an area where we actually have authority.”

“To be ignored is not an encouraging sign,” he said.


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.