With Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s win last night, the question on many educators’ minds is whether his new-found, humble attitude will change his approach to handling the city’s public schools. A host of potential hot-button issues are waiting in the wings. For one, proposals for new charter schools are due today, and it will be interesting to see if the recent slow-down in charter approvals suddenly revs up again, especially with a pro-charter governor–and Emanuel friend–in Springfield.
In addition, principals and local school councils are anxiously awaiting their schools’ budgets, which are expected to include drastic cuts to deal with the district’s deficit.
Teacher contract negotiations will begin in earnest,too. And CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s three-year contract is up this year and, while she hasn’t told the board she wants out, some observers question how long she will stay. If so, she has promised that no schools will be closed til the 2017-2018 school year; but, if she leaves, that promise is null.
In his victory speech, Emanuel thanked voters for giving him a second chance and “for putting me through my paces. I will be a better mayor because of that.” The mayor briefly brought up the issue of public education, saying, “I hear you [voters] on the importance of neighborhood high schools and better choices.” At the same time, with city and school system finances in shambles, Emanuel called it an era of “hard choices” and said he couldn’t promise that everybody would be pleased with decisions from City Hall.
In a statement, Chicago Teachers Union leaders said they hoped Emanuel’s repentant tone is sincere and that there can be “more substantive contract negotiations” between the union and Board of Education. (The CTU recently presented an ambitious list of demands, including many political asks that are unrealistic in a labor contract.)
““The mayor didn’t win the run-off election in as much as he survived it,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “But we believe that if he is sincere about owning his faults, and listening to the voices of average, working Chicagoans, those sentiments expressed in his television ads won’t just be conciliatory. They will be needed to move this city forward.”
2. In limbo … By late afternoon Wednesday, it looked as CTU-backed Sue Sadlowski Garza, a counselor at Jane Addams Elementary School, had won the 10 Ward aldermanic seat. According to the Chicago Board of Elections, with all 36 precincts reporting, she had 89 more votes than incumbent Ald. John Pope, though that lead dropped to 44 votes once mail-in ballots were counted. Provisional ballots have yet to be counted, and the final outcome is likely to be challenged in court due to the narrow margin.*
“We’re on pins and needles,” Garza said on Thursday. “We’re just all exhausted. It’s exciting and nerve-racking. We were up by 89, now we’re up by 44. That still feels like a good number, but it’s a waiting game.”
Meanwhile, Jenner Elementary teacher Tara Stamps did not fare so well in her bid against Ald. Emma Mitts in the 37th Ward. Stamps was the only other CTU member who made it to the runoffs from an unprecedented wave of eight Chicago educators originally launched campaigns last fall.
3. Speaking of teachers….Two recent studies confirmed previous research showing that teachers with National Board Certification are more effective than their peers, according to Education Week. One study included high school students in Chicago and Kentucky and looked at scores on the ACT and its related tests; the second looked at test scores of elementary and middle school students in Washington State. Both studies found that students taught by Board-certified teachers did better on the respective assessments. There’s one interesting wrinkle, though: In the second study, students of those teachers who initially failed to achieve certification and had to retake one or more of its elements–aspiring teachers must take a series of content and instructional tests submit a videotape of their classroom teaching–didn’t perform any better than students whose teachers never attempted the process.
In Illinois, which subsidizes the application fee and provides small bonuses to board-certified teachers who agree to become mentors, the number of teachers seeking certification has risen steadily since the 1990s. According to information from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, in 2014 Illinois ranked fifth nationally in the number of newly certified teachers and sixth nationwide in total numbers. Chicago, too, has done well in this regard: In 2014, among the top 30 largest school districts in the country, Chicago ranked third for the number of newly certified teachers and second in total numbers.
4. Legal bills … The Chicago Tribune reports that suburban school districts racked up nearly $30 million in legal bills from private firms in 2013. These private lawyers charge districts for their advice on issues ranging from school discipline and public records requests, as well as sitting in on board meetings or their commute time. But because of the nature of legal work, it’s subject to far less scrutiny than most school-related spending and in some cases doesn’t go through competitive bidding processes. “School officials defend the spending, noting that it can save taxpayers money in the long run,” according to the story. “That may be true, but it’s difficult for taxpayers to verify because school districts often deny access to legal records, citing attorney-client privilege.”
The Tribune found that six firms did nearly 80 percent of all legal work in Chicago-area schools in 2013: “Suburban districts with large legal bills rarely go through the process of collecting bids and instead operate under informal agreements, some of which are based on long-standing relationships.” Meanwhile, CPS employs dozens of its own attorneys to handle the massive amount of legal work for the state’s largest district, although it too hires private attorneys for specific work on a regular basis.
5. Finding the gifted and talented… New York City schools have decided to keep testing giant Pearson as its contractor for exams used to determine admission to gifted and talented programs, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The city had said it would keep Pearson’s test for one more year after the company acknowledged widespread test-scoring errors in 2013. But education officials have now back-tracked and told the Journal that they “need more time to decide on any changes to the exam.” The test results, not surprisingly, favored students from wealthier communities, who were more likely to test into these selective programs than children from lower-income homes.
*This item was updated on Thursday afternoon after absentee ballots were counted.