Take 5: PARCC threat, Rauner & early ed, elected boards & debt

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When it comes to the new PARCC exam, it’s hard to know whether both sides — the state and CPS — are truly digging in their heels, or if this is all some strange sort of political theater. On Friday, state School Supt. Christopher Koch and newly appointed board chair James Meeks sent a letter to all district superintendents threatening that ISBE will definitely withhold funding from any district that does not administer the PARCC to all students. The letter was clearly directed toward CPS — the only district that has publicly announced it won’t administer the new exam to every student.The district stands to lose $1.4 billion in combined state and federal funding if ISBE yanks the money, CPS officials told Crain’s.

Chicago has said it will defy ISBE by only giving the PARCC to 10 percent of schools. The move was hailed by parent groups who have been pushing for a delay and revision of the PARCC. Just last week, ISBE officials said they were confident they’d “get it all worked out” with CPS.

So why the threat now? One theory is that ISBE officials suddenly got scared that suburban school districts would follow CPS. The Washington Post picked up on a letter about the PARCC concerns written by Winnetka’s superintendent. The other theory is that CPS plans to capitulate and will use ISBE’s threat as a cover because giving up the money is obviously not viable.

2. Testing Rauner on early ed … State payments to child care providers across Illinois will be late this month, as the Department of Human Services says it’s short nearly $300 million to continue the subsidy program through June. The shortfall is one of many facing state departments since the January roll back of the income tax, the Chicago Tribune reports.

So far, Governor Bruce Rauner has blamed his predecessor for the problem and said he’s working on it, without providing any details. But some Republican legislators have suggested higher co-pay rates for parents or new income limits on eligibility for the Child Care Assistance Program, and last week a Rauner spokesman said that program costs have increased above the rate of inflation and that some “cost-saving measure may have to be implemented.”

While this wouldn’t be the first time the state delays payments to providers, any sort of cuts will be sure to anger those who provide day care to the 100,000 low-income families who rely on the subsidies. That’s especially the case as Rauner has promised to be a supporter of early education programs — perhaps a given considering the fact that his wife runs the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an early education group. SEIU members, who held a protest on Friday, called it “the  first real test of [Rauner’s] leadership and commitment to supporting working families and at-risk children.”

3. Appointed vs. elected boards … As a non-binding referendum (in most wards) for an elected school board in Chicago approaches, Crain’s Paul Merrion decided to take a look at whether this type of governance could lead to improved finances for the cash-strapped district. His conclusion? Probably not.

Merrion compared the debt-to-revenue ratios of the 20 largest school districts in the nation and found that those with elected school boards tend to have bigger debt burdens than appointed ones. Using financial information compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau for fiscal 2012 — the most recent available — Merrion ranked Chicago seventh in terms of biggest debt-to-revenue ratios. All but one of the districts with a bigger debt burden than Chicago’s had elected school boards; the only district with an appointed school board and more debt was Philadelphia.

Kenneth Wong, an education professor at Brown University and an expert on school board governance, told Crain’s that “an elected board can feel like the sky is the limit” when it comes to borrowing to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s debt problem has gotten worse since 2012 as CPS continues to fill its deficit with one-time fixes. The Crain’s piece includes some interesting infographics — both to compare districts’ debt burden and a separate graphic on the growing CPS budget deficit.

4. Board properties sold… The CPS Board of Education approved the sale last week of nine properties that have lingered on the books for years, according to a CPS press release. Altogether the sales, which still need to be approved by the City Council and the Public Building Commission, will bring in about $1.87 million, but most of that money comes from two pieces of vacant land, one in Printer’s Row for $635,000 and the other in gentrifying Humboldt Park for $900,000. The rest of the properties are spread across the South Side and were sold for about $100,000 to $30,000. Two pieces of vacant land are being sold to the Washington Park Development Corporation. Both are close to the site of where the University of Chicago is proposing to put the Barack Obama Presidential Library.

Three former schools were sold: Dumas Child-Parent Center (shuttered in 2010), Cuffee Elementary (shuttered in 2009) and Washington School (shuttered in 2008).

But none of the schools shuttered in the 2013 mass closing were among those sold last week. Of three schools closed in 2013 that reached the bid stage, only one has been sold. That was Peabody Elementary in West Town. CPS is still trying to find qualified bidders for the other two, Wadsworth in Woodlawn and Marconi in West Garfield Park.

5. Charter schools and special education… In New York City, like in Chicago, one of the arguments against charter schools is that they don’t provide enough services to students with special needs. The New York Times writes that a new report shows that when looking at all students receiving special education services, they stayed in charter schools for four years more often than they stayed in traditional schools. However, a previous report found that those students in special education full-time left charter schools more often than traditional schools.

Chicago’s discussion around charter schools and special education students has focused on how many students they serve and whether the schools are being compensated fairly for serving them. Just last year, the state legislature passed a bill that explicitly stated that charter schools must serve special education students. An article in a 2012 Catalyst In Depth revealed that charter schools tended to serve students with less severe disabilities than traditional schools. Parents of children with more significant disabilities and advocates told Catalyst that they were often told by charter schools that they could not offer the appropriate services for their children.