Take 5: Quazzo defended, Urban Prep to DC, teacher pension woes

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Election season made for a relatively quiet, lightly attended CPS Board of Education meeting Wednesday, save for a touch of the lingering drama surrounding board member Deborah Quazzo’s business interests. A few speakers joined Chicago Teachers Union representatives to call for Quazzo’s resignation, following up on a rally held outside the board member’s office a day earlier. Last month the Sun-Times reported on central office and schools purchasing of software and other technology in which Quazzo’s company had invested.

Board members took turns defending their colleague and repudiating the accusations against her. Mahalia Hines may have gone the furthest of all of them, likening the calls for Quazzo’s resignation to a “character assassination” that activists are trying to “smear across the front pages.” Quazzo kept mum the entire time.

Another highlight was a cameo appearance by Cook County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy’ Garcia, who spoke out against CPS’s “self-defeating fight with the Department of Justice” over alleged discrimination against pregnant teachers at Scammon Elementary School.

2. Urban Prep to D.C. Chicago’s only all-male charter school network is expanding to the nation’s capital. The Washington Post reports on plans to open a new Urban Prep Academy campus as part of a $20 million investment in new support programs for black and Latino males.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson said the decision has “everything to do with ‘mathematics.’ Black and Latino boys make up 43 percent of the students enrolled in D.C. public schools. By almost any measure — reading and math scores, attendance and graduation rates — their performance is lagging.”

Urban Prep’s CEO and founder Tim King (a former classmate of Henderson from Georgetown University) had been weighing several possible cities to branch out to last year. In a statement, King said that “after an extensive national review process of school districts for Urban Prep to expand to, it’s clear that DC is the right place.”

3. Growing pension woes … Debt amassed by teacher pension funds nationally has ballooned to nearly half a trillion dollars, according to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Illinois has amassed the second-largest debt, with nearly $56 billion liability owed. What’s more, only 41 percent of the Illinois’s pension system is funded, by far a lower rate than any other state in the union.

The report, titled “Doing the Math on Teacher Pensions: How to Protect Teachers and Taxpayers,” gave Illinois a C grade in its state-by-state pension report card. A big reason for the subpar rating was the fact that it takes 10 years on the job before Illinois teachers can start vesting for retirement. The report’s authors say teachers’ funds should begin to accrue after their third year on the job. Additionally, the report noted, a mind-boggling 76 percent of employers’ annual contribution to teacher pensions goes toward paying down the debt, instead of collecting in their retirement funds.

4. Not friendly to charters? A pro-charter school group ranks Illinois among in the bottom half of states when comparing which states have the most favorable laws for charter schools. It ranks 29th out of 43 states (including the District of Columbia) with charter school laws, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ sixth annual report. Eight states don’t have laws regarding charter schools so are not included in the rankings.

Todd Ziebarth, one of the report’s authors, says the Illinois rankings reflect a tumultuous year of charter legislation — including failed proposals to eliminate the state’s independent charter school authorizer and to change the appeals process for charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards.

“In 2014 we saw an aggressive effort in the Illinois Legislature to go after charter schools and weaken charter laws, and they largely failed, but some improvements came out of the back-and-forth,” says Ziebarth. “We saw the state make some improvements to increase transparency around relationships between charter governing boards and charter providers, shining light on potential conflicts of interest.”

It’ll be interesting to see how charter school law changes under the leadership of Gov. Bruce Rauner, an ardent supporter of the publicly funded but privately run schools.

5. More money for STEM programming … Citizen Schools, a national not-for-profit organization that provides afterschool STEM programming to four middle schools in the South Side, announced a $1.5 million corporate donation that will help it boost its programs across the city and nationally. The 20-year-old organization operates programs in low-achieving public schools across the country, but this is only its third year running in Chicago. Bryce Bowman, executive director of Citizen Schools’ Illinois division, said he hopes to use the grant from the Biogen Idec Foundation to offer programs at an additional one or two schools in the city’s South or West Side.

The afterschool programs are mandatory for all enrolled students at schools hosting Citizen Schools, which invites technicians from corporations like Google and United Airlines to give hands-on lessons in STEM subjects. Bowman said the hosting schools boast NWEA improvement scores that were twice the district average, and that 92 percent of participating families report a positive impact on their child’s academic performance. CPS, Bowman said, has given the program tremendous feedback and “would like [them] to expand even faster than [they] already are.”