Take 5: UNO’s shaky finances, 36 kids in a class, school lunches, NYC preschool for the rich

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The fiscal health of the UNO Charter School Network–the third largest network in Chicago serving more than 7,500 students–is mixed, a situation “that could impair long-term fiscal viability,” according to a new report from the Civic Federation. UNO recently settled a case with the Securities and Exchange Commission and acknowledged that it was being audited by the IRS, according to the Sun Times.

A troubling finding is that the operator spent an average of 45 percent of its revenue on instruction between 2007 and 2011, less than the minimum standard average of 50 percent. The network is running a deficit and its reserves are shrinking, leaving it with less cash on hand for emergencies than recommended by the Illinois State Board of Education. On the positive side, though, its debt-to-worth ratio is low, which means the organization has the potential to borrow money should it need to.

The Civic Federation, generally supportive of charter schools, also found that LEARN and Namaste were in good financial shape, while UNO and North Lawndale Charter High School, a two-campus operator, were shakier. It examined 13 financial indicators, including instructional expenses, fund balance ratio and debt-to-worth ratio, of the four charter school networks. The federation also wanted to look at the capital, fundraising and strategic plans, but the authors note that the lack of cooperation from the charters made this impossible.  

Previous CPS administrations put out thick charter school annual reports that profiled each school’s academic and fiscal profile. Without that report, it is impossible to know to what degree CPS officials are monitoring the financial situation of charter schools. But it would be important to do so because, if a charter school goes out of business, the district will be left scrambling to figure out what to do with the children. North Lawndale College Prep’s two campuses are located in an area with underutilized neighborhood high schools likely able to absorb its 850 students. But UNO schools are mostly in neighborhoods with overcrowded schools.

2. A crowded class… A fifth-grade class at Oriole Park Elementary School on the far North Side got a nice little visit with Reader reporter Ben Joravsky. He was in the class to observe what it is like to be in a classroom with 36 fifth-graders, over the maximum of 31 set out in the Chicago Teachers Union contract. He says he learned–surprise–that it is crowded and noisy.

Before Joravsky wrote the story, Principal Tim Riff decided to hire an additional fifth-grade teacher. Riff tells Catalyst that he was able to swing a third teacher because the already overcrowded school got more students than expected. Schools get about $4,300 per student.

Last year, under the first year of student-based budgeting, 17 percent of elementary schools were over the class size limits set in the teachers contract (28 students in primary grades and 31 in intermediate and middle grades), shows a Catalyst analysis of CPS data. What is going on this year is still unknown. In fact, CPS has not yet released its 20th day enrollment count yet, though that tally was taken a week and a half ago.

3. Cafeteria Wars … New York Times political writer Nicholas Confessore tells the dramatic tale behind the national fight over healthier school lunches. On one side are school food service workers (or lunch ladies, as Confessore calls them) who struggle to maintain sales as students are turned off from the healthier, grainier and less salty foods; on the other, First Lady Michelle Obama and a cadre of health experts who support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. “The lunch ladies have become the shock troops in a sometimes absurdly complex battle to roll back the Obama’s administration’s anti-obesity agenda,” Confessore writes. “Some Democrats in Congress fear that if Republicans win control of the Senate this fall, Obama’s reform will be gutted within a year — and with it, the government’s single-best weapon against childhood obesity.”

The cafeteria wars are playing out here in Illinois, too. Just a few weeks ago, District 214 in Arlington Heights dropped out of the federally subsidized lunch program in order to avoid the new dietary standards. “The decision eliminated almost $1 million in federal reimbursements for the district, leading to a five-fold price increase for reduced-price lunches on a reduced food service budget,” according to a Chicago Tribune article.

And now, Downer Grove’s high school district is also considering getting out of the program — and giving up a half-million dollars in subsidies.

4. Learning another language… Get ready because next month CPS will announce its “plan for bi-literacy,” according a Chicago Tribune article, quoting district spokesman Joel Hood. A new state law allows school districts to indicate on high school diplomas and transcripts that a student knows English, as well as another language. This State Seal of Biliteracy is part of a statewide initiative to try get more students to show a high level of proficiency in one or more foreign languages. The state board of education is in the process of developing standards to get the seal. In other states, they have used the Advanced Placement Foreign Language exam to show proficiency.

The idea of such a designation started in California and has been spreading across the country. Having the seal could help students get scholarships or job opportunities. One interesting caveat is that students also have to show that they are highly proficient in English. District participation in the initiative is optional, but several suburban school districts, like Chicago, plan to offer it.

Experts say it will be hard for students to achieve a level of bi-literacy if they do not start learning in elementary school. This could be difficult to achieve in most Chicago elementary schools. According to the 2015 budget, less than 100 elementary schools are getting funding for foreign language teachers. Other schools could be paying for such teachers on their own, but with Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushing more art and daily gym, it is hard to see how many elementary schools will also afford a comprehensive foreign language program.  

5. Pre-school for the rich … New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio campaigned on the need to address income inequality, and his signature initiative to provide full-day, universal preschool was supposed to help close the achievement gap. But, one study says it’s children from the city’s wealthiest families who are benefitting the most from the preschool expansion.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkley found that preschool enrollment in zip codes where families earn more than the city’s average income grew at twice the rate than in the poorest 25 percent of zip codes. One reason, the researchers say, is that “schools in poorer communities appear to be less likely to find space for pre-k children, or lack the organizational slack to take on new programs.”

City hall refutes the study, noting that poor neighborhoods already had more seats prior to the expansion. According to Chalkbeat New York, “while lower-income neighborhoods may have seen less of a percentage increase in seats, the sheer number of new seats created in low-income areas offer a different picture. For example, 3,293 seats were added to the city’s 10 poorest ZIP codes, while 288 were added to the 10 wealthiest.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, meanwhile, is targeting the city’s poorest children with his plans to expand half-day preschool. Earlier this week, Emanuel said one way he’ll finance the expansion is through a $17 million loan from big financial institution that ties repayment to better academic outcomes.

One last note … Later Thursday at a press conference we will get some more information about CTU President Karen Lewis’ health, why she’s been hospitalized since Sunday night or whether this will have any impact on her expected mayoral run.  In the meantime, we just want to wish her a full and speedy recovery.