As the days tick by, Chicago Public Schools’ financial crisis has come to resemble what a recent Chicago Tribune editorial likened to “a lava flow that’s accelerating every day.” Another round of layoff notices are slated to go out to Central Office staff by mid-January. There’s no word yet on when teachers would receive theirs should CEO Forrest Claypool move ahead with the second-semester layoffs if there’s no union deal by the end of the month or the state doesn’t come through with $480 million in pension relief.
Seeing state aid before February is seeming less and less likely. House legislators won’t even hold their first meeting of the year until Jan. 27, and Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he won’t bail the school system out unless Mayor Rahm Emanuel supports Rauner’s efforts to put limits on collective bargaining — a declaration made just as CPS bond prices dropped to a recent low, Bloomberg News notes.
Meanwhile, CPS pushed back the date it plans to sell $1.2 billion in additional bonds, possibly to better position the district on the heels of the city’s own bond sales. “CPS’ severe liquidity distress, headlines over the insolvency that appears to be looming if it doesn’t receive state help, and position deep in junk bond territory is a tough sell for buyers,” the Bond Buyer reports. It’s unlikely the district would put bonds up for sale if it thought it couldn’t distribute them, “so the question is at what cost.” Recently, Bloomberg News reports, the district had to pay out 10 times the usual rate for interest on short-term debt it issued.
With layoffs looming, the nonprofit Ingenuity issued a report showing that while the district hired an additional 44 arts teachers last school year, some 40 schools — mostly on the South and West sides — lost some of their arts offerings. And 23 schools have no arts teacher on staff, the Sun-Times reports. The Chicago Teachers Union fears that number will rise because arts teachers are often first on the chopping block during staff reductions, and tax-increment financing (TIF) dollars dedicated for arts teachers run out in June.
2. School choice in spotlight … For the first time, CPS students who don’t attend their designated neighborhood school now make up just over half the district, according to a Tribune analysis. The Tribune found that 51 percent of CPS students attend magnet-like schools such as charters and selective-enrollment schools, as well as neighborhood schools outside their own neighborhood. That’s up slightly from the 49 percent who did not attend their neighborhood school last year. For high school students, the number who bypassed their neighborhood school was even higher: 76 percent, up from last year’s 73 percent.
Students who are zoned to the worst-performing schools were the most likely to attend another school. The Tribune’s findings were much in line with data the Illinois Network of Charter Schools released back in October, which pointed out that neighborhood high schools — in addition to charters — draw students away from their zoned schools.
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool told the Tribune he doesn’t think it’s OK that neighborhood schools are struggling. But he still supports the district’s system of choice. “Parents … don’t really care about neighborhood enrollment boundaries — they care about quality choices for their children,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s central to social justice, that parents have choices.”
3. Summer transitions … Emanuel wants to bring back Freshman Connection, the successful summer transition program he cut in his first term. Emanuel is proposing a new tax on tobacco products to pay for the program, estimated at about $6 million.
CPS officials say that next year, all incoming freshman will get a week-long orientation to prepare them academically and socially for high school. CPS will also provide an intensive, two-week remediation program for about 3,000 incoming freshmen identified as “at risk” for dropping out. The University of Chicago’s Urban Labs will help CPS “design interventions that would support kids moving forward at a faster rate,” Director Tim Knowles told the Sun-Times.
The district launched the Freshman Connection initiative in 2008. The program was eliminated in 2011, Emanuel’s first year in office, and the 100 program coordinators were cut a year later to give principals discretionary money. Still, some principals used those funds to keep it going, WBEZ notes.
Studies by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research have shown that 9th grade is a critical year for high school graduation, and all CPS high schools are now rated in part on a formula that gauges whether freshmen are “on-track” to graduate on time. As Catalyst has reported, at some schools large numbers of freshmen show up weeks after classes begin, undermining efforts to ramp up academic performance.
4. ACT decision … CPS officials also announced that they will continue to administer the ACT college entrance exam to all juniors this spring — even if the state doesn’t pay for it. The Illinois State Board of Education voted last fall to switch to the SAT exam, but that decision is in limbo because ACT officials have lodged a formal protest.
The decision brings a “welcomed peace of mind” for some students who have been confused about what test they were supposed to study for, according to a story in the Paw Print, Payton College Prep’s school newspaper. “As the days creep closer to peak testing season, the confusion and ambiguity has left current juniors floundering over testing logistics,” the story notes. “Some have not started test prep, for fear they would study for the ‘wrong’ exam.”
CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson says the district will work with principals to transition to the SAT next school year if ISBE switches to it. “In the meantime, our teachers and principals remain focused on preparing students for the ACT,” Jackson wrote in a letter to parents.
District officials have not said how much the assessment will cost.
5. Public unions and the Supreme Court … Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case brought by 10 California teachers that could “deliver a severe blow to organized labor,” the New York Times reports. The case is over whether public employees who don’t join a union can be compelled to pay so-called “fair-share” fees that support the union’s work.
A 1977 Supreme Court case upheld the constitutionality of requiring non-union members to pay for collective-bargaining activities that benefit them — which can include lobbying — but it appears a majority of the justices want to overturn that decision, arguing it violates the First Amendment right to free speech. Already, non-union members can ask to be refunded for money spent on political activities they don’t agree with.
If the Supreme Court rules in the teachers’ favor, it would have ramifications not only for teachers, but also police and other government workers across the country. Twenty-three states, including Illinois, have laws that allow fair-share fees to be collected, NPR reports. Such a ruling would weaken unions, possibly forcing them to raise dues. And it could “encourage many workers who are perfectly happy with the work of their unions to make the economically rational decision to opt out of paying for it,” the New York Times adds.
Gov. Rauner has lobbied against fair-share fees and sought to declare them unconstitutional on much the same grounds that the California teachers did. Last year, he filed a lawsuit over the practice, but a federal judge dismissed it. Rauner told Fox Chicago this week that a Supreme Court ruling for the teachers would be “a great victory for free speech.”
A few last notes … The Sun-Times dug into the CTU’s foundation, which has been doling out grants to organizations with which it has been politically aligned, such as the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. The union believes helping these groups fits into its broader vision as a social justice organization; its critics consider this “pay to play” politics. The blog Drop Out Nation first reported on the foundation’s grants back in June.
Meanwhile on Jan. 21, the Illinois Education Relations Board will consider a number of complaints related to CPS-CTU contract negotiations, the Tribune reports. The CTU has complained about CPS’ failure to pay salary increases outlined in the steps-and-lanes system so far this year. Separately, the district wants to invalidate the strike authorization vote the union took late last year.
The Sun-Times has an in-depth story on the decline of Catholic school enrollment in the Chicago area, and the unusual relationship the church has with charter schools: More than 130 of the state’s 145 charter schools are located on church property. The Chicago Archdiocese is now devising a strategy to reverse some of its enrollment trends.
Finally, remember that plan announced last year to open an Urban College Prep campus in the Washington, D.C. school system? D.C. officials are still interested in an all-male high school — but how much Urban Prep will be involved is unclear. The Washington Post reports that the principal chosen to lead the new school won’t look to Urban Prep as an example, although the district wants some sort of partnership. The news comes as Urban Prep deals with labor troubles at its three campuses here in Chicago.