Take 5: Bad bond rating, U of C labs, Jeb Bush’s charter school

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The big news on Friday was that Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Chicago Public Schools bond rating to just above junk level. The ratings service pointed to looming big pension payments as the chief reason it took this step and noted that the financial outlook for the school district is gloomy.

On the same day that news came out, School Board President David Vitale penned an editorial in the Chicago Tribune stating that the school district cannot meet its pension obligations and also educate students. Altogether in unfunded pension obligations CPS owes $9.5 billion and has to make payments of more than $600 million for each of the next several years, he writes. In order to reduce the burden, Vitale says the school district desperately needs the Illinois Supreme Court to allow governments to modify pension benefits for current and future retirees. Though the question before the Illinois Supreme Court has to do with changes in state pensions passed under Gov. Pat Quinn, the pending court ruling would give direction to the mayor on whether he should pursue similar changes regarding teacher pensions.

Meanwhile, the Tribune has been pushing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to offer up some specific ideas for how to fix the school district’s and the city’s deep financial problems.

2. Musical chairs with nurses… Sometimes it just takes an angry alderman — or one facing a runoff — to change things in CPS. Last week, CPS brought back a nurse to Oriole Park Elementary in Norwood Park — just days after Ald. Mary O’Connor expressed outrage by a CPS decision to transfer nursing services away from that school, DNAinfo reports. CPS had previously reassigned an Oriole Park nurse to Beard Elementary when another alderman — John Arena — complained that the school lacked a full-time nurse and that teachers were being forced to administer medication to children. Both Arena and O’Connor are in runoff elections for their seats.

Nursing services will be discussed during contract negotiations, CTU officials have said. At last month’s board meeting, a group of school nurses said CPS has insufficient nursing staff inside of schools and expressed worry about plans to privatize the management of school health care services. In December, CPS issued a request for proposals from private companies to help the district develop a “cost-effective and demand-driven model to meet the needs of all students — general education and those with special needs.”

3. Suspensions update… Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey introduced a bill on Wednesday that requires more reporting of suspensions and expulsions and gives more resources to school districts with the highest rates. The bill comes as research shows that students of color and disabled students are more likely to be suspended and that students who are suspended are more likely to drop out.

A Huffington Post article on the bill points to CPS as a model for reducing suspensions by 36 percent in the past three years. But data from the 2013-2014 school year shows is that there is still a huge racial disparity: 46 percent of misconducts committed by black students resulted in an out-of-school suspension. The suspension rate for white and Latino students is 30 percent.

What’s more, it is not clear whether the reduction is due to schools being pressured to lower the numbers or to more restorative justice.

4. Studying solutions… With $10 million from the Pritzker Foundation, the University of Chicago will expand its labs that use scientific models to vet whether programs for solving social problems work, reports the Chicago Tribune. The University of Chicago already has labs for education and crime, but will now be working on a health lab, an energy and environment lab and a poverty lab. A stamp of approval for these labs can lead to big money for one particular program or another.

Two examples of programs that have been identified as success stories are Becoming A Man and the Math Education program. The initial findings from the Becoming A Man mentoring program pointed to reduced crime rates, but it also showed that the effects of the program were short-lived once students transitioned out. The finding led researchers to conclude that students should stay involved in the program for as long as necessary.

Timothy Knowles, chairman of the Urban Education Institute, will run the urban labs, which will be located in a workspace downtown.

5. Jeb’s charter school… Struggling to capture the black vote in his bid to be elected governor of Florida, Jeb Bush met with the head of the Urban League and together they founded a charter school in Miami. That was 1996 and Bush’s experience with the Liberty Charter School helped catapult him to office. But the school has since been closed, reports The New York Times. The school’s biggest problem, it seems, did not have to do with academics, which was at best a mixed bag. Instead, it was doomed by its facility. The school could not recover from financial problems created by landlord issues and damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

How symbolic is the plight of Jeb Bush’s charter school, especially as he gears up for a presidential run in which he will likely be a pro-charter candidate? A perennial complaint from Chicago charter school providers is that CPS does not help enough with facility costs. Also, many CPS charters have to turn to private fundraising to keep afloat. Perhaps the most resounding message is that it is difficult to run a school, even with an ally in the governor’s office.