Take 5: Practice strike vote, social impact bonds, more Byrd-Bennett fallout

Print More
File photo from a June 9, 2015, Chicago Teachers Union rally. The union is asking members to participate in a "practice strike vote" today, setting the groundwork for an actual walk-out early next spring.

Photo by Max Herman

File photo from a June 9, 2015, Chicago Teachers Union rally. The union is asking members to participate in a "practice strike vote" today, setting the groundwork for an actual walk-out early next spring.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union are taking a “practice strike vote” today to gauge interest in a potential walkout early next spring.

Union leaders announced the practice vote just after Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool said 5,000 teachers could receive pink slips before the start of the second semester on Feb. 8 if financial assistance doesn’t come through from Springfield. Previously, Claypool had said layoff notices could go out around Thanksgiving.

At a Monday press conference, CTU president Karen Lewis said second-semester cuts could make class sizes jump from 28 to about 40 students and could include other losses, such as AP and IB classes. “Trying to reprogram schools in the middle of the year is ridiculous,” Lewis said. “It’s a waste of time, energy and effort.”

Claypool and Mayor Rahm Emanuel say that rather than go on strike, the union should join forces with district officials and lobby for funds in Springfield. “Combined, we are stronger in getting Springfield to address the inequity, which is where the answer is,” Emanuel said in a Chicago Sun-Times story.

CPS and the union are currently in mediation and will need to agree on a fact-finder, which could take a few months. If members authorize a strike, they’d still need to wait 10 days before walking out. In the meantime, the CTU is planning a major rally for Nov. 23 in Grant Park.

2. Cautions on social impact bond program … Following in the footsteps of Chicago, Illinois officials have announced the state will start its own “social impact bond” program to help fund its child welfare system, a potentially risky move as the outcomes of these plans have not been well-documented.

Chicago started its own program last fall to support a preschool expansion.

Although they’re called “bonds,” these financial deals operate more like private loans, except that they are repaid only if specific program outcomes are delivered.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the state has offered few details about the program’s financing.

News of the upcoming Illinois deal comes as the New York Times published a critical story on the “faulty” metrics used to determine payments to a bank in Utah’s  social impact bond program. In Chicago and Utah, banks are to get repaid from the savings in future special-education costs due to preschool intervention.

But the New York Times found that the effects of Goldman Sachs’ investment were significantly overstated in Utah, leading to inflated payments to the bank.

Goldman Sachs claimed its investment “had helped almost 99 percent of the Utah children it was tracking avoid special education in kindergarten.” However, that claim runs counter to research, which does not show anywhere near that kind of impact for even the best, most well-funded preschool programs.

“The program’s unusual success — and the payments to Goldman that were in direct proportion to that success — were based on what researchers say was a faulty assumption that many of the children in the program would have needed special education without the preschool, despite there being little evidence or previous research to indicate that this was the case,” the New York Times reported.

Chicago borrowed $16.6 million for its own program, which Catalyst determined would cost CPS more than twice as much in the long run if it’s successful.

In addition, the city has to cough up about $1.3 million to pay for a complicated web of outside auditors, project managers and attorneys, including the banks’ lawyers. The first year of Chicago’s social impact bond experiment got off to a rocky start, as Catalyst has reported, and it has yet to be seen how much the banks will be repaid for their investment.

3. Improving school improvement … Politico’s Caitlin Emma took an in-depth look at why the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, which has infused struggling schools with $7 billion since it was created in 2007, has produced such uneven results. Her conclusion: It often comes down to whether districts and their leaders are prepared to use the influx of cash to improve schools.

Education officials at every level often paid too little attention to that “key variable for success,” she writes, pointing to Chicago, where district leadership changed hands repeatedly. Further, she writes, teachers saw the grant process as “secretive” and it made them feel like “they were losing control over their classrooms.” As a result, “schools churned through millions of dollars but didn’t budge the needle.”

State records show that Chicago has received just over $126 million in SIG funding over the last five years for 20 high schools and three elementary schools. Marshall High School, which Catalyst wrote about extensively in 2008 and 2011, even went through two rounds of reform using SIG money.

Chicago teachers and principals interviewed by Politico also pointed to the short life of the grant, meaning they had no chance to meet students’ intense social and emotional needs, and to a lack of stability and resources. “Those schools have always had trouble and they always will until poverty is addressed,” Roosevelt High School teacher Tim Meegan told Politico.

In addition, SIG funding often goes to schools with falling enrollment, Catalyst has reported, raising the question of whether it’s worth the substantial investment to “to try to fix a failing school that is losing students.”

Now experts are cautioning federal reviewers to spend more time focusing on school readiness — and less on compliance — to avoid wasting money.

Some changes to the program are on their way: This year Congress mandated more flexibility for how schools can spend their SIG funding, and schools and districts are now allowed to spend a year planning. The grant period also was lengthened from three to five years.

Further, Illinois awarded an extra year of “sustainability” funding to some SIG recipients whose grants were due to expire this year, including five Chicago high schools.

4. FBI’s investigation in Detroit … The Sun-Times reported earlier this week on documents that show how FBI agents believed former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett steered a $40 million contract to the publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt while she worked as an administrator in Detroit Public Schools.

Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty last month to steering $23 million worth of no-bid contracts to the SUPES Academy while she was in Chicago. She previously had worked for both Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and SUPES.

According to a sealed federal affidavit from 2013, an FBI agent wrote that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt made a $26,000 deposit into her bank account just a few weeks before the procurement process was supposed to begin for the Detroit deal. In addition, two of Byrd-Bennett’s close allies, who she would later bring with her to Chicago, were involved in the procurement process.

No one now faces criminal charges in that case, although authorities say the investigation is ongoing.

On a related note, the Iowa City Press-Citizen followed up on a report from Catalyst and the Better Government Association about how superintendents from across the country benefitted financially from Chicago’s dirty SUPES deal.

The newspaper spoke with school board members, who are now raising questions about whether their superintendent ought to be spending so much time on outside consulting work. “Does a superintendent of a district this size not have enough to do?” one school board member asked. “And do we not pay him a comparable salary to other superintendents? That would be my question.”

5. Teacher test … Medill Reports Chicago has an in-depth piece on the edTPA, the new licensure assessment required of prospective teachers in Illinois.

The edTPA, which became a requirement in September, is a portfolio of students’ work as classroom teachers that is graded by outside scorers hired by the testing giant Pearson. Last year Catalyst wrote about some of the controversy around the edTPA, and a n adjunct professor at Northeastern Illinois University penned guest column on the subject earlier this year.

The Medill story highlights how various education colleges have prepared for the new assessment, which is supposed to be an evidence-based test of teacher effectiveness. The story also raises concerns about the potential impact on teaching candidates of color, who score significantly lower than their white counterparts on other required tests.

And it addresses the privacy rights of children who appear in classroom videos taken for the portfolio. “Even though student teachers sign forms pledging that they will not post videos to social media, the videos are on social media with hundreds of views,” says UIC education professor Julie Peters. The story says that a simple YouTube search reveals that it is possible to find such videos online.

Also , educator blogger Fred Klonsky criticized a recent national report that found about three-quarters of candidates passed the test. Most of the report’s authors come from the group that created the assessment, he told Medill.  “No one should take seriously a study someone does of themselves. It violates the most basic rules of academic research.”

A few last notes … Five more colleges have agreed to support Chicago’s STAR scholars, Mayor Emanuel’s program to entice high-achieving CPS graduates into City Colleges of Chicago by offering free tuition.

The Sun-Times reports that the University of Chicago, the School of the Art Institute, North Park University, Northeastern Illinois University and Columbia College will offer special scholarships to STAR scholars who transfer into their programs after completing associate’s degrees at City Colleges. Six other colleges joined the effort last month. Catalyst wrote about the pros and cons of the merit-based STAR scholarship in our Winter Issue.

The U.S. Department of Education says a Palatine school district discriminated against a transgender student by barring her from the girls’ locker room and ordered the district to resolve the dispute or risk losing federal dollars. The New York Times writes that the suburban Chicago confrontation echoes “battles nationwide, where the locker room and often the restroom are the stage for a fierce fight over how extensively transgender students should be accommodated.”

  • Concerned Parent

    Close the networks: save money save teachers save children. If you can have 30 independent principals now, you can have so many more. If a school is level1 or level1+, no need for $$$ networks.

    • Northside

      I agree BUTTT some principals need a little oversight…some of them become like little Lords of Their Fiefdoms…they literally become like domineering and fickle princesses and princes!!

      • Concerned Parent

        Principals follow what the network chief tells them to do-as chiefs hold principals’ career over their heads.