Take 5: New rating system OK’d, Oppenheimer awards end, Advance Illinois report

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Screaming from the audience, reprimands from Board President David Vitale and security guards carting people out are nothing new to CPS Board Of Education meetings. But the audience was much larger, more engaged and emotionally charged than usual at Wednesday’s meeting, which was held in the late afternoon in the auditorium of Westinghouse College Prep on the West Side. Many parents and teachers thanked board members for moving the meeting into the community, to which Vitale responded that they’re giving serious thought to holding more meetings outside of downtown headquarters.

It was the first opportunity for many to openly ask the Board to seek legal recourse over a series of financial transactions with banks since the publication of a Chicago Tribune investigation concluding they cost millions more than traditional municipal bonds. More than a dozen speakers  — including mayoral candidate and Ald. Bob Fioretti — took on that issue during the public comment period, though board members did not say much in response.

Other speakers included many parents from Mollison and Cook elementary schools who  complained about insufficient resources to pay for teachers and other key staff, while two opposing groups from Decatur Classical School debated whether the city should divert $15 million in tax-increment financing to expand to seventh and eighth grades and relocate into the shuttered Stewart Elementary.

In addition CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the district is looking into raising the wage for school employees and those of contractors to $13 per hour, mirroring a new city policy. The Board also approved another change to the district’s school ratings process, which Byrd-Bennett called a “perfecting” of the system already approved in 2013. To show the district had taken account public input on the controversial changes, the CEO asked several school representatives in the audience to stand and read a letter of support from Clarice Berry, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. The final vote was not immediately available Thursday morning.

2. Goodbye Oppy awards … After 39 years of supporting CPS educators, the Oppenheimer Family Foundation is ending its Teacher Incentive Grant and OPPY achievement awards. Ted Oppenheimer said the work involved in putting together the annual grants has gotten exhausting for him and his wife, Susan. “There’s got to be a better way to support Chicago public school teachers without putting that much pressure on her,” he said.

The Oppenheimers plan to partner with another education organization through which to funnel their money and continue their mission of supporting teacher-developed, hands-on projects in classrooms. Over the years, the foundation has awarded grants totalling $3.7 million to 7,348 teachers.

“To see the enthusiasm of the kids, the excitement of the teachers being able to do projects they would not been able to afford to do otherwise has been very uplifting for us,” said Oppenheimer, a former CPS teacher himself. “And when we have [our award ceremony] each year and hand out the grants, we try to make them feel as positive about being a CPS teacher as possible, as opposed to how they’re being knocked down by politicians. We’re there. We have their backs.”

In its final ceremony this evening, the foundation will award 263 grants totalling $157,000 in addition to recognizing two educators for their work: jazz musician Diane Ellis, a band instructor at Dixon Elementary, and Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president and former chemistry teacher.

3. A complete picture, but not a pretty one overall. There’s good news, albeit sprinkled among plenty of not-so-rosy statistics, in The State We’re In 2014, a report from the group Advance Illinois. While the report doesn’t provide much in the way of “new” news, it offers a comprehensive look at how Illinois compares to other states when it comes to education from preschool through college.

Overall, elementary school students have made small gains in reading and math, with CPS students making gains at a faster rate than students elsewhere. It’s worth noting that the report measures gains made on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, which is a tougher test than the state’s ISAT and is probably more in line with the new Common Core-aligned tests that students will take this school year. Plus, high schools are offering more college-level courses, and more students, including students of color, are graduating.

Yet more students are living in poverty; fewer children are enrolled in preschool; the achievement gap between minority and white students hasn’t narrowed and remains widest for black students; minority students are still less likely to graduate from college; and the cost of college has become prohibitive.  Currently, a family earning $50,000—near median household income for the United States—would have to pay 32 percent of its annual income for one child to attend a public, four-year university in Illinois, the report states. That puts Illinois 47th among the 50 states for college affordability.

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, acknowledges that there’s good and bad news in the report. The circumstances children and schools face are more challenging, given the increase in poverty and the growing number of students who are English-learners.  But the signs of academic progress, however small, show that “if we make the right investments, who knows what we could do?” Steans points out.

4. Illinois spending problem…  The Advance Illinois report points out that Illinois remains shamefully almost-dead-last among the 50 states when it comes to K-12 education funding. Illinois provides just 25 percent of total public education dollars, while other states average 50 percent; and state per-pupil spending on education has fallen by $1.4 billion in the past decade.

The lack of state funding and the funding formula have put many school districts in a bind. Using Illinois State Report Card data, the Chicago Tribune found that, in 2013, 500 of 860 school districts in Illinois spent more than they took in. Overall, school districts were almost $1 billion in the red.

But a big part of that $1 billion was CPS. CPS spent $5.7 billion, while only bringing in $5.4 billion, according to CPS’ report card. Only one year in the past decade did CPS spend less than it took in. However, 2013 was one of the worst years.

Meanwhile, the state average spent per student rose to $12,045, about 2 percent more than the year before. The Chicago Tribune points out that some school districts in Illinois are now spending more than $20,000 per student.

Lawmakers have done nothing to change that equation—and appear poised to continue doing same. The latest funding reform bill Senate Bill 16, , which was bantered about this week in a joint House committee hearing, is “…actually a dead bill, a repository of school funding reform bill language in a vehicle that is stalled and will cease to exist when the 98th General Assembly expires on January 13,” according to Jim Broadway of State School News Service.

5. A new vision … Leaders from school districts across the state say they want teachers to be represented on the state’s board of education, licensure reciprocity with neighboring states and expansion of broadband Internet access.

These were among the 25 education policy recommendations released this week by an alliance of school management organizations. Other suggestions in their report Vision 20/20 include prioritizing effective educators, learning integrity, shared responsibility, and equitable and adequate funding.

“We’re good at knowing what we lobby against […] but this is an effort to lobby for things we are for,” said Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.

The alliance doesn’t take a stance regarding the controversial PARCC assessments set to roll out in the spring. Jason Leahy of the Illinois Principals Association said his group supports “what the elements of PARCC are attempting to do,” such as providing more immediate instructional feedback and growth assessment aligned to Common Core, but urged caution.

“We’ve got to be very careful moving forward with how high-stakes we’re making this assessment,” Leahy said. “Because we’re hooking a lot of big decisions to that.”