on the record

Congressman Jared Polis is more worried about Congress than about Betsy DeVos. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Denver Post
Colorado Congressman Jared Polis

Colorado Congressman Jared Polis worries more about Congress creating bad education policy than about U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos enacting it.

But that doesn’t mean the Boulder Democrat isn’t keeping an eye on the controversial new education secretary.

Polis, who was recently named the lead Democrat on the House’s Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee, said he believes the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, limits the authority of the secretary. That should give critics of DeVos comfort.

Still, Polis said he’ll be watching to make sure DeVos’s department adheres to the new law — especially its civil rights components.

Polis spoke with Chalkbeat last week about DeVos, the nation’s new education law that he helped pass, and other education topics.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You didn’t have a chance to weigh in on Betsy DeVos’s confirmation. What do you think of the new secretary?

I haven’t yet met Betsy DeVos. But I talked to her on the phone last week. I’m looking forward to getting together. I’ve invited her to Colorado. She reacted very positively to that. I expect to have her here in the near future. She was particularly interested in seeing some of our coding academies and the other nontraditional higher education options we have.

Both you and DeVos are champions of school choice. But there are differences between the two of you. How would you compare and contrast your philosophies?

I’m supportive of school choice that works. Choice for the sake of choice is not always the answer. What matter is, is there a good school to serve all kids? Schools can be run by a charter management organization, a school district. They can be innovation schools. It really doesn’t matter what type of school. What we care about is that every child has access to a high-quality education.

Historically, Betsy DeVos has been a supporter of choice for the sake of choice without regard to the quality of options. Meaning, let’s have more charters even if they’re bad charters. Let’s allow bad charters to operate. Let’s allow school districts to continue operating failing schools.

I’ve been consistently on the opposite side of that argument. If it’s a school that’s failing to get the job done — whether it’s a district school or a charter school — let’s have a real intervention to improve the quality for the kids in that area.

President Trump called on Congress to pass a bill that would support school choice. What do you hope to see in such a bill? What would you oppose?

I just testified last week in front of the appropriations subcommittee on education for the federal charter school program (a federal grant program that provides financial assistance for the planning and launch of charter schools). It’s $350 million a year. It’s tied to quality indicators states have to have. It ties into strong authorizing practices that districts have to have to ensure accountability and equity at the local level. So I’d love to see full funding of the federal charter school program. Not only does it improve the availability of high quality education options for kids, it also helps address the quality issue.

Vouchers for private schools?

I would not be inclined to support a federal program that forces a local school district to have vouchers. Obviously, we have districts in the country that have chosen to go that route. That’s their prerogative. Fundamentally, education is a locally-driven enterprise. So I’d be against the federal government forcing schools to create voucher programs.

What if the program was voluntary?

The big concern the Democrats would have is that those funds would be taken away from public education. When public schools serve 90 percent of kids and we don’t have enough to fully fund special education from the federal perspective or Title I, the last thing we need to do is take those resources away. I think Democrats would be more open to the discussion if the funds came from somewhere else.

There’s a charter school funding fight happening here at the state level. Any thoughts on that bill?

As a best practice, districts already should and in many cases do share their bonds and mill levies with their charter schools. It’s a best practice from a policy perspective and a political perspective. From a policy perspective, charters are very much a part of the school district and they should share in those tax increases. From a political perspective, it helps these mill levies and bonds pass when the charter school community feels good about them. I think it’s good to highlight the conversation at the state level. It’s appropriate that taxpayers fund all schools in their district.

Let’s talk about the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. How do you see Colorado and other states enacting the law?

We’re waiting to see how the new secretary will interpret ESSA. I would say it’s likely she will allow even greater latitude in the state plans than the previous administration would have. Frankly, I hope they take the civil rights guardrails of ESSA seriously and don’t just put a rubber stamp on state education plans that fail to address equity and discrimination issues.

There’s a tension between flexibility and accountability and civil rights. How do you see those three tensions playing out under ESSA?

The goal of federal education policy — the spirit of ESSA — is to give states the flexibility to address income disparities and racial disparities in achievement. But not the flexibility to do nothing and allow them to persist. The reason why the federal guardrails are important is because we need to look at the state plans and ask, “Are states using their flexibility seriously to address the achievement gap?”

The fear of some is that we have a secretary who is going to be very hands off. What role do you see Congress in playing to hold her and school districts accountable?

Our committee will be the oversight committee in the House. Certainly, I’ll hold her accountable to the language of ESSA, which maintains a civil rights commitment. We want states and districts to have the flexibility to close the achievement gap, but not the flexibility to not act to address inequities in our education system.

What red flags will you be looking for?

Efforts to disguise metrics. Efforts to brush achievement gaps under the rug.

Do you think there is an appetite or need to rethink ESSA under the Trump administration?

I don’t think that’s likely to occur. It took 15 years to replace No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeed Act. It passed overwhelmingly. I’d be open to improvements and fixes if necessary. But I think the body of the law will work.

What do you say to teachers and parents who are very upset by DeVos and the Trump administration?

I was a big part of passing the Every Student Succeeds Act. Frankly, one of the things that did was remove some of the authority of the secretary. People were upset over the way former Secretary Arne Duncan exercised that authority. So this secretary will have less ability than Arne Duncan did through the unrestrained waiver process. (The Obama administration created waivers from No Child Left Behind in 2011 to give states flexibility after congressional efforts to update federal law stalled.)

I think it can be of some assurance to people that the vast powers of the secretary were curtailed. And there are more specific statutory guidelines for the secretary to follow.

There are some real threats out there. And many of them would require legislation — legislation that has passed the House in previous sessions but didn’t become law because of a Democratic president. I’d be very concerned about “Title I portability.”

What that means is siphoning money out of the schools that serve the most at-risk kids into wealthier schools that serve a much smaller percentage of poor kids. On the ground that means some of the schools that serve 70 or 80 percent of kids who receive free lunch might lose a teacher or two. And schools that serve a predominantly upper class population might gain a quarter of a teacher, which doesn’t really help them.

I worry more about Congress passing bad laws than the secretary enacting them.

President Trump recently withdrew federal guidance to schools on transgender students’ rights. What are your thoughts on that move?

I’m very disappointed. And I expressed over the phone to Secretary DeVos my disappointment. School districts need the guidance. School districts have an interest in avoiding costly lawsuits around these efforts. Many school districts want to do what’s right. And without knowing it’s right to provide a different bathroom or this or that, there are going to be parents on all sides of the issues fighting over these things. It was simple guidance that says, “Let students use the gender appropriate bathroom (of their choice).” It provided an additional safe harbor to prevent a costly lawsuit that takes money away from the classroom. So I was very disappointed to see that withdrawn.

What do you say to school communities who say this isn’t an issue for them or that they’re more concerned this will expose non-transgender females to attack?

Simply, the data doesn’t show that. The data shows transgender students themselves are more likely to be the victim of physical abuse and bullying. And allowing transgender students the ability to use the appropriate bathroom is actually reducing their risk of being bullied. It’s hard to imagine sending someone who presents as a young lady into the male restroom. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s a threat to her own safety. There are many kids who have had to drop out of school because of those unsafe situations. We always have to remember that our schools have to be a safe and civil place for every student.

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.