Take 5: Charter challenges, MAP grants, ed tech

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Amandla Charter School students await a decision from the state charter commission on Tuesday. CPS officials are calling on lawmakers to strip the commission of its powers to overrule districts that deny or revoke charters.

Photo by Kalyn Belsha

Amandla Charter School students await a decision from the state charter commission on Tuesday. CPS officials are calling on lawmakers to strip the commission of its powers to overrule districts that deny or revoke charters.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool is calling on state lawmakers to strip the Illinois State Charter School Commission of its power to overrule a school district’s decision to revoke or deny a charter. Claypool’s request came a day after the commission voted to keep open three South Side charter schools that had been slated for closure due to poor academic performance.

“They need to rein in this unaccountable body that usurps local control and says the quality standards measuring the academic performance of our schools mean nothing,” Claypool told the Tribune. Legislation that would do this passed the House last year and is pending in the Senate.

CPS officials say they haven’t decided yet if they’ll file a lawsuit to block the charter schools from staying open, an option other districts across the country have taken. However, some of those cases have dragged on for years, with the courts focusing on how well legal and technical processes were followed.

Indeed, the Illinois commission found that the recent closures were not in compliance with state charter law because CPS failed to give the schools enough notice of the new accountability policy it used to close them. (You can read copies of the commission’s final decisions here.)

Meanwhile, the commission will be taking up a fifth appeal this school year, as LEARN Charter School Network intends to appeal the decision of the North Chicago School District to deny a proposal to open a second LEARN campus there in the fall.

Already LEARN operates nine campuses, including seven in Chicago. The network opened its first suburban campus in 2012 in North Chicago, but has faced roadblocks as it tried to open more. Last year, the commission denied an appeal to allow LEARN to open a campus in Chicago Heights — the lack of public support was a big factor, the commission’s chair has said — and narrowly approved a Waukegan campus after that district voted down a school.

LEARN recently won a $6.5 million federal grant to expand and has proposed opening eight new K-8 campuses “in predominantly low-income, minority communities in the Chicago area.”

Separately, the commission approved changes for the Horizon Science Academy-Belmont campus, one of two Concept schools overseen by the commission in Chicago. The school will move from its Austin location to Belmont Cragin and will be permitted to increase its current enrollment of 580 by 140 students — coming just under the 725-student cap the commission originally approved three years ago.

2. Layoffs, a strike threat and budget uncertainty … Layoff notices went out this week to 62 CPS employees, including 17 teachers. The numbers were tiny in comparison to CEO Forrest Claypool’s earlier threat of making 5,000 mid-year layoffs — he previously said those cuts would be necessary to close a $480 million budget gap if the state did not provide relief or a contract with the Chicago Teachers Union had not been reached. District officials say the cuts, in combination with the reshuffling of other funds in Central Office, will save $85 million.

Hours after the pinkslips went out, CTU leaders threatened to go on strike as early as next month for another reason — the district’s threat to stop paying the so-called “pension pickup” that’s part of a decades-long labor agreement.

Union attorneys say federal labor law allows unions to strike over unfair labor practices. “This would be over unfairly cutting teachers pay in the middle of negotiation,” CTU attorney Robert Bloch told the Sun-Times.

But district attorneys say any complaints would have to be taken up with the state’s education labor relations board, which last month ruled against the CTU in a separate case.

Meanwhile, Reuters is reporting that CPS may be unable to cover its $676 million pension payment that’s due in June.

And the student choir at Lindblom Math and Science Academy wrote a song about how they’re impacted by the budget crisis. WBEZ recently spotlighted the students, their song and choir director Casey Fuess.

“There’s constant, year after year chaos, and for students it means that they’re sort of skeptical about whether the structures they rely on will continue to be in place,”  Fuess says.

3. Ping pong with college funding …. The Monetary Award Program that provides tuition assistance to low-income college students is still in limbo after lawmakers failed to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a funding bill.

The Democrat-controlled Senate got enough votes for an override on Wednesday, but the House, also controlled by Democrats, fell two votes short, The State Journal-Register reports. The bill would have allocated $721 million to community colleges and MAP grants, but Republican lawmakers said the state didn’t have the money to cover the costs and that the allocation would have strained social service agencies already struggling with late state payments.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers and Mayor Rahm Emanuel both applauded the veto efforts while a spokeswoman for Rauner said state lawmakers had wasted “time with a political vote that was never going to pass.” Rauner is calling on Democrats not to leave Springfield — after Thursday the House will be out of session for a month — until a bipartisan proposal passes. Rauner has his own funding plan, but he wants state lawmakers to give him authority to move money around in the budget to cover the costs.

Meanwhile, the financially embattled Chicago State University sent out potential layoff notifications to its 900 employees last week. The Roseland university, which serves mostly black students and relies heavily on state aid, declared a financial emergency last month, which makes it easier for officials to take “extreme measures,” the Tribune reports. All public colleges have gone without state funding since July, due to the budget impasse, but Chicago State doesn’t have reserves to fill the gap.

Chicago State’s Board of Trustees is looking at its options but hasn’t said how many staff members will actually be laid off. The earliest layoffs would go into effect is the end of April, when the semester will be nearly over — the university even canceled its spring break to give students more instruction time. Officials are still planning summer and fall classes. “We will remain open, even if it’s in a pared-down and different configuration,” Chicago State’s president told the Tribune.

4. York losing teachers … Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg reports that long-time teachers at York Alternative High School, the CPS school located within the Cook County Department of Corrections, have recently quit due to pressure from the school’s administration.

In 2011, as few as 20 students graduated per year, which cost the state about $300,000 per student. That rate jumped to 60 percent after a new system of 38-day semesters was implemented, but some former teachers say they were pressured into issuing credits for classes that students never completed.

“The culture was really toxic, a lot of unethical things with the credits,” says former teacher Scott Anderson, who taught at York for 10 years. “The teachers were literally told they would be fired if they didn’t give students a credit.”

The school currently consists of 56 teachers and administrative staff and roughly 235 students, though enrollment fluctuates daily as students are incarcerated and released.

Steinberg says it took CPS three months to get permission to visit York. He documented his struggle in a blog post back in September and re-printed his original story on the high school, which appeared in the Sun-Times 30 years ago.

5. More ed tech in Chicago … Education technology and personalized learning programs have gotten a lot of buzz in recent weeks. The New Yorker magazine featured AltSchool, a private school in Brooklyn that’s focused on technology and is part of a tiny chain that started in the Silicon Valley and plans to open shop in Chicago in the fall of 2017.

Under AltSchool’s personalized learning model, all students have their own learning plans and can learn at their own pace — regardless of grade. Technology plays a big role, with students working on tablets starting in preschool and using a variety of ed tech software that meets their needs and interests. Students’ every move is also captured on camera, which teachers can then go back and review to look for trends that lead to success — or distractions.

Education experts worry about the increased potential for privacy violations as all these data are collected by for-profit companies like AltSchool.

On a related note, LEAP Innovations released the results from its first program to pilot ed tech products in Chicago schools during the 2014-2015 school year. LEAP is a Chicago-based nonprofit that serves as an intermediary between ed tech companies and schools where they’d like to test out, and eventually sell, their products. The report doesn’t go into much detail about the products — naming only two favorites that LEAP says “showed statistically significant impact on student learning.”

Editor’s note: The spring issue of Catalyst in Depth will examine  the role of personalized learning in classrooms and the growing business of ed tech. We’d love to hear your experiences with ed tech products in the classroom. E-mail Kalyn Belsha at kbelsha@catalyst-chicago.org.

  • Concerned Parent

    Mr. Claypool and his CPS team: Always Complain – Never Explain.

    Sir, will you EVER take responsibility for not doing something correctly? (Although, your employer is a poor example…)

    Here are facts per the Trib: district changed its performance standards for charters without giving the three schools time to meet the new benchmarks…district failed to provide proper due process for the schools and to adhere to agreements it had with the operators.

  • Mary

    What Claypool leaves out is that two long-time Commissioners who have never before voted to overturn a local district’s decision voted for these three charters. Their comments made it clear that they believe CPS should have a fair procedure for charter revocation and non-renewal, but that the system used last fall was outrageously unfair. CPS messed up here, and Claypool’s attempt to characterize the Commission’s decision as political is a smokescreen.