Take 5: Selective-enrollment fraud, AP achievement gaps, new charter proposals

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CPS has issued a call for proposals for new charter schools. District officials say they're interested in schools with a focus on personalized learning, dual language or dealing with trauma. This a file photo of a pro-charter rally from 2014.

Photo by Marc Monoghan

CPS has issued a call for proposals for new charter schools. District officials say they're interested in schools with a focus on personalized learning, dual language or dealing with trauma. This a file photo of a pro-charter rally from 2014.

The annual report from the Chicago Board of Education’s Office of the Inspector General takes a deep look at how some families lie about where they live in order to help their students get into selective-enrollment high schools. Some of the families highlighted in the report lived in the suburbs but claimed Chicago residency to qualify for admission; others lived in more affluent neighborhoods in the city but said they lived in poorer neighborhoods to improve their students’ odds of getting into a top school. (The district’s tier system for selective-enrollment schools permits lower cut scores for students in poorer zip codes.)

The most troubling part of the report was that, in some cases, CPS officials allowed students to re-enroll in the top schools even after the IG had pointed out fraud. Part of the problem, the IG notes, is a historic unwillingness to disenroll seniors out of concern for their academic standing and record.

“These disenrollment loopholes stem from the lack of a robust Board policy that establishes lasting and meaningful penalties for selective-enrollment fraud,” the report says. “The policy deficiencies mean that students whose families have lied about where they live to improperly land a seat in a selective-enrollment school may have little to fear in terms of disenrollment and monetary fines. And many families, therefore, assume there is little to be lost by committing fraud to get into these highly competitive schools.”

In the report, Inspector General Nicholas Schuler says Chicago students shouldn’t lose selective-enrollment seats because “CPS administrators are sympathetic to fraudulently enrolled students” and he recommends harsher penalties against students who lie to get into these top schools, including a four-year ban on admission into any selective-enrollment school and a meaningful financial penalty. Families caught using fake addresses now are asked to pay what’s called the “statutory nonresident tuition rate” of just under $13,000 per year, but Schuler argues that’s “a mere fraction” of what it costs to attend comparable private schools.

2. AP exam pass rates plummet… The number of Illinois students who take Advanced Placement exams has doubled over the past five years, and more students are taking multiple exams. But the pass rate has plunged to its lowest rate in five years, the Chicago Tribune reports.

This means thousands of students aren’t scoring high enough to get college credit, just as a new state law requires public universities and colleges to award credit to students for getting at least a 3 on the AP exam’s 5-point scale, starting next school year.

The AP achievement gap is pronounced in Chicago, according to a Tribune analysis of test data, with selective-enrollment schools such as Northside College Prep posting pass rates around 90 percent since 2011. But several dozen other CPS schools had pass rates below 10 percent. And at some high schools, not a single student earned at least a 3 on the exam.

The push to encourage more students to take AP exams has been felt in Chicago’s working-class suburbs, too. For example in Cicero last year, less than one-fifth of students who took the exams earned passing rates. The schools superintendent says that “even if kids don’t get a 3, 4 or 5, the exposure to the rigorous curriculum has increased their chances for success.”

3. Space use formula still under fire… CPS has released updated data on how school enrollment compares with a building’s capacity for students. The data show that more than half of CPS schools — 313 — are “underutilized” according to the the district’s standards, which puts schools using less than 80 percent of their classroom space in this category. At 34 schools, enrollment is at a third or less of capacity. Schools making “efficient” use of their space number 229, while just 23 schools are deemed to be overcrowded.

As they have in past years, critics said the formula CPS uses to make these determinations is flawed, DNAinfo reports, because it assumes a class size of 30 students and doesn’t take into consideration the size of the school’s special-education population, which usually requires more classroom space, or how a school is actually using its classrooms.

A CPS spokesman told DNAinfo that the district is “evaluating potential opportunities to improve facility utilization to maximize resources and strengthen school environments. ” Already the district is looking to consolidate several schools suffering from low enrollment and to co-locate others. But Sarah Hainds, a Chicago Teachers Union researcher, says the space-use formula, which was used in the closing of 49 schools in 2013, has come to be seen as a “tool for punishment… not a tool for planning and collaboration.”

4. Adding charter schools… In a request for proposals for new charter, contract and privately run alternative schools issued late last month, CPS says there are three “high-priority” types of schools it would like to see open in the coming years. One would embrace personalized learning, as the district places greater emphasis on this instructional approach, and significant use of online learning — with students spending only half their time in a traditional school setting. Another priority is dual-language schools. The third would take a trauma-informed approach, with post traumatic stress disorder training for teachers and strong community partnerships.

The schools could open as soon as fall 2017, and existing operators will be allowed to open up to four schools over several years — though the district retains the right to yank conditional approval. Operators have to let CPS know by Feb. 22 how many schools they would like to open and when, the maximum enrollment and proposed locations.

The RFP comes as CPS prepares to shutter four charter schools for poor performance and faces criticism for opening new schools in a time of district-wide declining enrollment. In a press release, CPS officials say the RFP is part of an “annual, state mandated process,” though WBEZ points out that state law doesn’t require it.

Also, CPS has scrapped the Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) process it has used in recent years to get community feedback on charter school proposals. CPS says the process was too expensive — last year it cost $340,000 with CPS picking up half the tab, and the Gates Foundation paying the rest.

Now applicants will be required to “directly engage” residents on their own and submit evidence demonstrating community support. CPS says this approach will be more “impartial.” However, some community activists contend the NAC process was flawed because the district sometimes ignored NAC recommendations. Wendy Katten, of the advocacy group Raise Your Hand, told WBEZ: “To take [that] away — and to have the charter operators do the community engagement — that’s even more of a sham.”

5. Bogus budget claims… The Better Government Association takes a look at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s oft-repeated claim that the district has cut $1 billion in CPS expenses since he took office in 2011 — and finds it sorely inflated.

Among the bogus savings: $42 million from special-education cuts, which CPS officials later admitted were based on a flawed formula — the district then reinstated positions.

The BGA also challenged the claimed $17 million in savings that were supposed to come from privatizing the district’s janitorial services. In that case, CPS miscalculated the square footage that had to be cleaned, and later had to pay more money — wiping out much of the supposed savings.

The story undercuts city leaders as they continue lobbying lawmakers in Springfield for pension relief to fill a mid-year budget gap. A recent public tiff between Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner doesn’t help, either.

The district has warned that without help from Springfield, it will have to lay off thousands of employees in February, although CEO Forrest Claypool has said there would be no teacher layoffs if the CTU agrees to a four-year contract this month.

In an interview on Wednesday, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said the union is taking the most recent CPS proposal seriously, but is still moving toward a potential strike. Sharkey says the district has agreed to begin the fact-finding phase of negotiations early next month.

Separately the district has sought to invalidate the CTU’s strike authorization vote taken in December, the Tribune reports. Later this month the state’s Education Labor Relations Board will weigh in on other conflicts between the district and CTU.

A few last notes The first of several community meetings related to proposed school closures, consolidations, co-locations and attendance boundary changes will be held tonight, with a focus on CPS plans to officially close the Moses Montefiore Special Elementary School and Marine Math and Science Academy. Neither school currently has any students. Check out our calendar to see when and where the meetings will take place.

An appeals court recently sided with the Prairie Crossing Charter School in north suburban Grayslake after the local school district sued to overturn the State Charter School Commission’s decision to renew the school’s charter, the Daily Herald reports. The ruling is significant in that the appeals court determined a lower court didn’t have the authority to review the charter commission’s decision. The charter commission is currently considering three appeals from Chicago charter schools seeking to avoid closure.

And we recommend this piece by Inside Higher Ed that takes a closer look at how the state’s budget impasse has affected public and private universities, forcing them to lay off staff, dip into reserves and consider borrowing against future state aid. The author points out that Pennsylvania saw similar issues during its own budget battle, but a stopgap budget was approved in late December to keep funding state-owned universities and community colleges, as well as state-funded student grants.

  • Concerned Parent

    Space use formula – is NOT accurate. It is NOT including pre-k students in the school’s classrooms. Funny how Rahm’s brags about pre-k, but these students do not count in the CPS space use.

  • Concerned Parent

    Wonder if engineer/custodial fraud in the IGs report are privatized people?
    Plus, $40,000 stolen from a network! Let’s see, network chiefs have how many employees to oversee -15 at most and $40K disappears!? Was a network chief reprimanded? A teacher or principal would be probably forced out and fast.

  • Concerned Parent

    OIG-selective enrollmen. Parents who live in the lower-income tiers, applied, and didn’t get their child in, should hire a lawyer to sue the Board, a class-action, as cheating and lies from parents who do not live in the lower income areas or they live in suburbs, are allowed to do this and are not punished.
    They take the seat of a MORE deserving student and cost us tax-payers.
    Any one know a good lawyer who would take on this worthy case?

  • NBCT Vet

    Catalyst needs to review its selection of high profile story-leading photos. There is a glut of pro-charter photos that skews perception.