Take 5: Another bond downgrade, Pathways campus, ed czar’s salary, charter study

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Fitch's has downgraded Chicago Public Schools' bond rating.

Gary Yim/Shutterstock

Fitch's has downgraded Chicago Public Schools' bond rating.

With Fitch following Moody’s in downgrading CPS’ bond rating last week, the district could now be on the hook for paying the full value of $228 million in costly debt payments known as “swaps” that it has been previously trying to negotiate downward.

“The city was able to renegotiate many of its swap contracts when it faced potential terminations earlier this year,” according to the Tribune. “But having to pay up on even a few swaps is a frightening prospect for the cash-strapped school district.”

To pay the penalty, Fitch predicts the district would likely need to borrow more money. CPS already is projecting a $1.14 million budget deficit next year and has a huge amount of debt. Debt per capita reached $2,248, according to the FY13 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. The bond rating downgrade comes days after the state placed CPS on its worst financial watch list, and less than three weeks before the mayoral runoff election. Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia took political advantage of the drop by calling it “the latest example of the consequences of Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel’s fiscal mismanagement.”

Emanuel’s campaign struck back by saying that Garcia doesn’t have a sound financial plan to deal with the city’s financial woes. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett also renewed the mayor’s call for a major overhaul to the district’s teacher pension system, “which are expected to cost the district nearly $700 million next year,” according to the Tribune.

2. A new Pathways campus?… The Zoning Board of Appeals is putting off a vote until May on whether to allow Pathways to open up a school in a storefront on Western Avenue in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, according to DNAinfo. The school for dropouts and potential dropouts was approved last year and was originally slated to open last fall. Some residents said they were unaware of the proposal and want more information before it is approved; meanwhile, Pathways is already outfitting the space with computers and desks.

As reported in a recent Catalyst/WBEZ  investigation into the burgeoning number of new, mostly online alternative schools,  Pathways is one of four new providers making major moves into the Chicago area. DNAinfo calls the school a charter school, but it would actually be a contract program under the Alternative Learning Opportunities Programs office. It requires attendance two days a week and promises students a quick diploma.

Pathways in Illinois is the lone non-profit among the new providers, but its leadership background has raised questions. Every member of its executive committee is part of the same family, which also owns several for-profit businesses that make big money by doing business with the non-profit.

3. Helping homeless students…. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown writes about the ongoing effort to rewrite the policy on how schools should deal with homeless students. Currently, there are 22,144 homeless students in CPS, one of the highest figures ever. As Brown notes, the current policy focuses on giving students bus cards so they can get to and from school. But some of the biggest obstacles for parents is to enroll them in schools, given that don’t necessarily have paperwork readily available, writes Brown. Families also need other things, such as new uniforms.

Activists and CPS leaders apparently view the rewrite differently. Homeless parents at a recent Board of Education meeting urged the district to create a more comprehensive policy. But board member Mahalia Hines, for instance, is interested in weeding out families pretending to be homeless so children can get free bus cards and other things.

4. State ed czar’s salary The Associated Press reports that the state is paying Beth Purvis, former head of Chicago International Charter Schools, a $250,000 salary for her new role as Illinois education secretary. That makes her the highest-paid member of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s cabinet.

Purvis told the AP that her salary is “commensurate with what I’ve been paid in the past” and cited her three decades of experience in education. Rauner — whose office did not disclose information on Purvis’ salary until after multiple media inquiries  — said his new education czar is “well worth every penny.”

The AP calls Rauner’s choice of Purvis a statement about his education priorities — including “a focus on lifting the state’s cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state.” In Rauner’s proposed 2016 budget, he proposed funneling an additional $300 million into the state’s education system while cutting significantly elsewhere, including some $400 million from higher education. Purvis says one of her own priorities is better coordinating the work of all seven state agencies that deal with Illinois children. “That’s really confusing for parents. In fact, it’s really confusing for me,” she says.

5. Yet another charter study… A new report on charter schools that was funded by the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation finds that in Chicago, students at charter schools achieve more in math when compared to students at district-run schools, but both groups of students have similar reading achievement.

The results for charter schools in Chicago were less impressive than in other school districts, where the study says charters are doing better in both reading and math. The report is from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, known as CREDO, which obtained student-level data from 2006-07 to 2011-12 from 22 state education agencies to conduct the study.

The study compares achievement at charter and district-run schools and found that students at charters receive the equivalent of about 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading. The report also finds that contrary to what charter opponents say, these schools overall enroll equal numbers of students who are poor, need special education or are learning English, though CREDO’s director acknowledges “there are regions where imbalances do occur,” according to Education Week.

In Chicago, charter schools have a higher percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged than the district-wide average, and about the same number of students who need special education, district data show. , although fewer special-needs students who require more time in separate classes and significantly fewer students who are learning English.

Photo: Fitch’s/gary yim Shutterstock