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In the News: Intense competition for CPS' elite middle schools

April 9, 2014 - 8:48am

Competition to get into middle school at elite Chicago Public Schools programs around the city was more intense than ever this year, as scores hit record highs at some of the programs that guarantee a coveted spot at a selective enrollment high school. (DNAinfo)

CPS DELAYS TEST: Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday that the standardized test being used for the first time in applications to the city’s top selective enrollment schools will also be required for private school students, but that those children won’t have to take the test until next fall. (Tribune)

TURNAROUND PUSH BACK: CTU President Karen Lewis joined Diedrus Brown, principal of Greshman Elementary, on Tuesday in pushing back against the Chicago Public Schools’ turnaround proposal, alleging officials are more concerned about money than students’ best interests. Progress Illinois has a video.

VALLAS HIRED: Paul Vallas, who returned to Illinois last month as Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate, has been hired to a six-figure job as a municipal finance consultant by a longtime friend and political supporter of the Democratic governor. Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, officially moved back to Illinois following the completion of his contract as schools superintendent in Bridgeport, Conn. (Tribune)

DUNCAN KEEPS HIS DISTANCE: In a hearing before a House appropriations subcommittee Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the competitive grants built into his fiscal 2015 budget request, gave no substantive details about a proposed Race to the Top for equity contest, and continued to distance himself from the Common Core State Standards. (Education Week)

Charter school supporters rally against slew of bills

April 8, 2014 - 5:09pm

One bill would eliminate the state’s independent charter school authorizer. Another would place a cap on salaries for charter school CEOs and require school districts—not schools themselves--to hold lotteries for new students. A third bill would prevent the opening of new charter schools in neighborhoods where traditional public school have been shuttered in the past decade.

These are just three of nearly a dozen charter school-related bills before the Illinois Legislature this year that pick away at the historic autonomy granted to charter schools.

Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy says it’s the biggest wave of anti-charter school legislation he’s ever seen.

“There’s no question about it. This year is the most dangerous year to the charter school system we’ve ever had,” Broy said in a recent interview with Catalyst Chicago.  “These bills would fundamentally alter the way charter accountability works.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and other critics say that publicly funded but privately run charter schools need more oversight, citing as proof last year’s corruption scandal at the United Neighborhood Organization Charter School Network.

“Taxpayers are demanding more accountability from charter operators,” said CTU President Karen Lewis in a statement. “They want to know whether the money going to these schools is actually being spent on educating students.”

Some outside observers say it might be time to have a conversation about whether Illinois should continue having charter schools, period, instead of addressing the issue through piecemeal legislation in a highly charged and impassioned environment. In a way, the bills are a response to the outrage felt by many educators and parents after CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools last year.

The battle over charter schools plays out differently from state to state. National attention has recently been focused on New York City, where the state Legislature thwarted Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s attempt to charge rent to charter schools operating in public buildings.

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called the anti-charter school bills under consideration in Illinois “out of step” with the best practices in state laws across the country. She weighed in on the legislation in a press release sent out on Tuesday in support of the close to 1,500 Illinois charter school students and parents who traveled to Springfield to lobby legislatures to vote against the bills.

Here’s a summary of the major bills and where they stand in the legislative process:

  • House Bill 6005/Senate Bill 3030: More accountability. This multi-layered amendment to the state’s charter schools law has been voted out of both the House Education Committee and Senate Subcommittee on charter schools. It would remove the authority to operate lotteries for new students away from charter schools and place it into the hands of the school’s “authorizer” (usually the district). The bill includes several accountability measures, such as: prohibiting charter school staff from being employed by the school’s management company; requiring charter schools to pay back a pro-rated portion of public funding provided to the school district when students transfer out; preventing charter schools from using public dollars for advertising purposes; capping the salary for charter school CEOs at 80 percent of the district superintendent’s salary, and charter school principals’ salary at 10 percent more than the average salary for other principals in the district; and creating an audit process for charter schools that spend more of their budget for administration purposes than the district. Also, the bill would require the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to conduct an assessment of the impact of charter schools on the school system – including funding flow, enrollment, graduation and attrition rates. Charter schools could also lose state funding if they don’t meet all reporting requirements.
  • SB 2627/HB 3754: Scrap charter commission. The bill to repeal the Illinois State Charter School Commission – which has authorized four charter schools since its creation – has been voted out of the full House, and a companion bill is in the Senate education committee. The bill would also require ISBE to prepare an annual report based on the evaluations of charter schools sent in each year by local school districts. ISBE opposes the bill, arguing that the commission complies with all state requirements and should be allowed to continue its work.
  • SB 2779/HB 4237: Approval referendum. This bill would significantly change the appeals process for charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards. It has been voted out of the House education committee, but remains in the Senate education committee. It would require prospective charter school operators whose applications are approved by the state in the appeals process to then go to a referendum. 
  • HB 4655/SB 3004: Curbing disciplineThis bill seeks to reduce the use of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions unless the safety of other students or staff is at risk at traditional public schools, while requiring charter schools to comply with some new requirements. It has been voted out of both the House and Senate Education committees.  Under the bill, all schools – including charters -- must provide behavioral and educational support services to suspended students and submit to the school district detailed documentation about incidents leading to out-of-school suspensions or arrests; school districts must compile these reports into annual summaries that are available for public review. Charter school employees can’t encourage students to leave a school to avoid formal disciplinary procedures or fine students for breaking the rules, both common practices in some Chicago charter schools. Catalyst has reported on some of these controversial disciplinary policies on several occasions.
  • HB 4527: Special education, ELL. This ISBE initiative explicitly mandates that charter schools comply with all state laws on special education and English Language Learners students. It has been voted out of the full House, but has not yet been voted on by the Senate’s Education Committee. ISBE believes all schools should comply with special regulations on educating vulnerable populations, but charter school supporters say it’s unnecessary because schools already comply with federal laws – which are less stringent. 
  • HB 4591: Return of public funds. This bill would require that state funding follow students who are dismissed from charter schools into their new schools. The bill has been voted out of the House Education committee but it has no companion bill in the Senate. Charter school operators would have to return 100 percent of the district’s per capita student tuition money, on a pro-rated basis for the time the student is no longer enrolled in the school. Critics say the bill ignores the fact charter schools receive less money in per-pupil funding than other schools.

Another bill -- SB 3303, which has had no traction in the state Legislature -- would prohibit the opening of any new charter schools in neighborhoods where a traditional public school has been closed in the past decade. Meanwhile, HB 5328 would require charter schools in Chicago to be administered by local school councils, just like traditional public schools. While that bill has been approved by the Education committee, it has no companion bill in the Senate. 

INCS is tracking all charter school-related bills on its web site, as is the CTU

In the News: Gresham principal fights turnaround

April 8, 2014 - 8:26am

If Gresham Elementary School Principal Diedrus Brown is going to lose her job in what CPS calls a "turnaround,"  she said Monday she’ll go down telling the truth. Brown will join Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis outside the school Tuesday to try to persuade CPS to leave Gresham alone. In the evening, she'll join supporters from Gresham and the other two schools recommended for turnaround — Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale and McNair Elementary School in South Austin — outside the Kenwood home of Board President David Vitale. (Sun-Times)

CHARTER ADVOCATES RALLY: As a raft of legislation that could curtail the autonomy of charter schools in a number of ways, advocates of the privately run but publicly funded schools are set to descend on the state Capitol for a Tuesday rally. (Tribune)

AUSTIN SCHOOL GETS FEDERAL FUNDS: On Monday the White House announced Chicago's Manufacturing Renaissance organization won a $2,670,909 "CareerConnect" federal grant, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel said will go to the Austin Polytechnical Academy High School on the city's West Side. (Sun-Times)

MORE FUNDS FOR WORK/LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES: President Obama traveled to a high school in the Washington suburbs on Monday to announce the winners of $107 million in grants intended to update curriculums to better integrate work experiences and real-world learning opportunities. (The New York Times)

DESIRE TO DEFUND COMMON CORE: Ten Republican senators don't want to see another dime of federal money going to states in exchange for adopting certain academic standards. That includes the Common Core State Standards, now embraced by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The senators also don't want any more federal funding going to develop assessments that go along with the Common Core, or any other set of standards. (Education Week)

In the News: Regular schools outperform charters, data examination reveals

April 8, 2014 - 8:26am

Even as many parents have embraced new charter schools, there’s little evidence in standardized test results that charters are performing better than traditional schools operated by the Chicago Public Schools system, an examination by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Medill Data Project at Northwestern University has found.

In fact, in 2013, CPS schools had a higher percentage of elementary students who exceeded the standards for state tests for reading and math than the schools that are privately run with Chicago taxpayer funds.

CHARTER ADVOCATES RALLY: As a raft of legislation that could curtail the autonomy of charter schools in a number of ways, advocates of the privately run but publicly funded schools are set to descend on the state Capitol for a Tuesday rally. (Tribune)

PRINCIPAL FIGHTS TURNAROUND: If Gresham Elementary School Principal Diedrus Brown is going to lose her job in what CPS calls a "turnaround,"  she said Monday she’ll go down telling the truth. Brown will join Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis outside the school Tuesday to try to persuade CPS to leave Gresham alone. In the evening, she'll join supporters from Gresham and the other two schools recommended for turnaround — Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale and McNair Elementary School in South Austin — outside the Kenwood home of Board President David Vitale. (Sun-Times)

AUSTIN SCHOOL GETS FEDERAL FUNDS: On Monday the White House announced Chicago's Manufacturing Renaissance organization won a $2,670,909 "CareerConnect" federal grant, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel said will go to the Austin Polytechnical Academy High School on the city's West Side. (Sun-Times)

MORE FUNDS FOR WORK/LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES: President Obama traveled to a high school in the Washington suburbs on Monday to announce the winners of $107 million in grants intended to update curriculums to better integrate work experiences and real-world learning opportunities. (The New York Times)

DESIRE TO DEFUND COMMON CORE: Ten Republican senators don't want to see another dime of federal money going to states in exchange for adopting certain academic standards. That includes the Common Core State Standards, now embraced by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The senators also don't want any more federal funding going to develop assessments that go along with the Common Core, or any other set of standards. (Education Week)

SUPES Academy stories win national award

April 7, 2014 - 4:13pm

Deputy Editor Sarah Karp has won second place for investigative reporting from the national Education Writers Association for a series of articles that delved into the details of CPS’ questionable $20 million, no-bid contract with the for-profit SUPES Academy.

The contract to provide principal training was approved quietly by the School Board last summer and was the largest no-bid contract awarded by the district in recent years.

On Monday, CPS Inspector General James Sullivan said the investigation spurred by this report was ongoing.

EWA’s judges praised the articles. One wrote that “Catalyst Chicago battled far above its weight in digging up the details behind a no-bid contract in Chicago Public Schools. They are doing praiseworthy watchdog investigative reporting.”

Another judge wrote: “Very admirable digging into this contract and this organization, which is clearly fraught with conflicts of interest.”

Prior to being hired as CEO for CPS, Barbara Byrd-Bennett worked for the SUPES Academy as a coach. The owner of SUPES Academy, a for-profit-company based in Wilmette, also runs two other consulting companies, Proact Search Inc. and Synesi Associates. 

Karp’s reporting detailed how school leaders can be trained by SUPES, placed in jobs by Proact and then earn extra money working as coaches and mentors for SUPES Academy, which provides professional development for school leaders. 

The stories also led to the resignation of the superintendent of Baltimore County, Maryland schools, who had been working for SUPES as a coach and mentor for Chicago principals at the same time that his district had its own contract with SUPES for principal training.The Baltimore County district was unaware of the superintendent's work until Catalyst's stories were published.

Numerous principals complained that the SUPES Academy workshops and training were low-quality.

The first-place award in the category, Investigative Reporting/Education News Outlets, was given to the Chronicle of Higher Education for a series on the Gates Foundation and its influence on education policy.

The Chicago Sun-Times won first place in the Large Newsroom/Investigative Reporting category for its stories on corruption at UNO charter schools.

“This American Life” won first place in the Investigative Reporting/Broadcast category for its two-part series on CPS' Harper High School. The same series won a Peabody Award.


In the News: Noble network's discipline code in spotlight

April 7, 2014 - 8:04am

Officials and many parents from the Noble charter school network are defending its tough disciplinary code, but the network's disciplinary policies run counter to district and national efforts to find ways to keep students in the classroom. The discipline code also extends to teachers, who are penalized if they don't enforce the rules.

LSC ELECTIONS: Beginning Monday, residents will have the chance to elect parents and community members to Local School Councils. You don’t need to have kids enrolled in a particular school — or kids at all — to cast a ballot. You just need to be at least 18 years old and live within the boundaries of the school where you're planning to vote. To determine the boundaries, check the CPS school locator. (DNAinfo)

VALLAS GETS HIRED: Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who is running for Illinois lieutenant governor, has taken a new job with a Chicago-based consulting firm. (ABC 7)

CERTIFICATION PROGRAM IN PERIL: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is set to vote this week on whether to pull the plug on a multimillion-dollar effort to develop an advanced national credential for principals. (Education Week)

SCHOOL PRAYER BILL BLOCKED: Viriginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed a school prayer bill on Friday, saying it could lead to “coercive prayer” or “religious messaging” at school events. (The Washington Post)

In the News: CPS reveals little about meal ingredients

April 4, 2014 - 7:46am

WBEZ's Monica Eng asked Chicago Public Schools to tell her the ingredients that go into students' meals and she had to filed a Freedom of Information Act to get an answer. So what does go into the chicken nuggets that the district serves? The complete ingredient list for CPS chicken nuggets is two words: “chicken nuggets.” And it took more than a month for CPS Nutrition Support Services to figure this out and get back to her, Eng reports.

GLITCHES PLAGUE TEACHER LICENSING SYSTEM: Hours after the state launched a new, multimillion-dollar teacher licensing system last year, an educator logging in was shocked to find a serious security breach. The glitch-prone system,which  has been compared to the Obama administration's troubled Affordable Care Act website, incorrectly labeled one educator a felon. Others were mistakenly listed as delinquent on child support, which could block them from getting a license, according to records obtained by the Tribune.


ANOTHER HIT TO COMMON CORE: The Oklahoma Senate passed a bill that would repeal the Common Core State Standards, moving closer to becoming the second state to officially dump the standards, following the lead of Indiana. (Tulsa World)

COST OF OPTING OUT: Students opting out of New York state tests could cost schools grants and trigger state reviews. (

JANITORS MAY GET GUNS: A bill that would allow teachers, janitors or anybody else a principal or superintendent designates to carry concealed weapons on school campuses passed a Florida House committee. (The Palm Beach Post)

EXPANDING CHARTERS IN LOUISIANA: Twenty-two organizations have applied to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to open 34 charter schools in Louisiana in 2015 and beyond. They could substantially increase the number of charters in the Louisiana, which has 117 charter schools already in operation. Fifteen new state charters will open in the fall. (Times-Picayune)

ADJUSTING TO COMMON CORE: Passing rates plummeted when New York State changed its tests to match Common Core curriculum standards, but this year students say they were better prepared to handle the material. (The New York Times)

In the News: How politics played a role in NYC charter victory

April 3, 2014 - 8:08am

The New York Times offers a behind-the-scenes look at how New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo out manuvered New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio to give New York City charter schools some of the most sweeping protections in the nation.

END OF THE LINE FOR INBLOOM? New York state legislators made clear in their recently inked budget deal that they didn't want student data uploaded to the inBloom database, which the Gates Foundation spent $100 million to build, hoping it would become a resource for states and school districts nationwide. So the New York State Education Department has directed inBloom to delete all data stored there to date. No additional data will be uploaded, a spokesman said. That abrupt termination leaves inBloom with no known customers. Massachusetts is still officially considering a contract with the nonprofit, but a state education department spokesman said it was unlikely to proceed. Illinois no longer plans to upload large amounts of data, though individual districts may participate; inBloom won't say whether any have agreed to do so. (Politico Morning Education newsblast)

Golden Apple has selected 175 young people for its 2014 class of the Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois, making it the largest ever in 26 years. The program is also the leading pre-service teacher preparation and internship program in the nation. Chicago Public Schools recently approved a $1 million agreement with the Golden Apple Scholars program to provide 150 new teachers on top of the program's annual state-supported cohorts, during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. (Press release)

PEABODY AWARDS RECOGNIZE STRUGGLING SCHOOLS: The 2014 Peabody Awards honored three reports about schools facing poverty, crime and serious educational challenges. They included "This American Life’s" two-part feature on Harper High School in Chicago which aired on public radio stations across the country as well as "180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School," shown on Public Broadcasting Service television stations. (School Book)

PUBLIC, CHARTER SCHOOLS COMPETE FOR SAME FUNDS: In one corner: cash-strapped school systems with aging facilities and billions of dollars tied up in debt service. In the other: charter schools looking to build and refurbish facilities of their own. Both want dollars from an ever-shrinking pot of money. (Tampa Bay Times)

HOMEWORK BURDEN: A report from the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., shows that homework load has been mostly stable over the past two or three decades, but those who complain about too much homework get most of the attention. (The Detroit News)

TEACHER TENURE ON TRIAL: A lawsuit filed by the nonprofit advocacy group Student Matters on behalf of nine California public school students followed unsuccessful attempts in contract negotiations and the legislature to give school districts more freedom to hire and fire teachers. (Stateline)

Lawmakers consider LSC requirement at charter schools

April 2, 2014 - 3:17pm

As CPS gears up for the next Local School Council elections, legislation under consideration in the state’s House of Representatives would require every charter school in Chicago to be administered by an LSC.

Unlike traditional neighborhood schools in the city, charter schools are not overseen by an elected body of parents, community members and staff. (Find out who is running for the LSC at your school.)

“The whole point of this is bringing democracy into our schools,” says Rod Wilson, a member of Communities Organized for Democracy in Education, which has been lobbying for the bill. “We feel that if a school is in District 299 and receives public funding, there should be parents with decision-making authority, not just giving advice or input.”

House Bill 5328, sponsored by Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) also restores some authority to LSCs at schools under probation and requires Chicago Public Schools to provide $2,500 to each council for training purposes. The bill passed on first reading in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee in late March and is awaiting a second vote to get out of committee.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) opposes the bill, arguing that it “would create an additional and conflicting decision making entity in the charter school authorization process,” according to a summary of charter school-related legislation that the organization is tracking in Springfield.

Charter schools under current law and contract are governed under non-profit governing boards, and if you add LSCs as a layer, it’d be unclear what role they’d play,” says Andrew Broy, president of INCS. Charters get to design their curriculum and they get held accountable for results, not process.”

Broy said most charter schools already have active parent councils and that many schools’ governing boards include parents and community members. As an alternative to the LSC proposal, he said he’s suggested to lawmakers that charter schools should demonstrate how they’ll ensure parental and community involvement during the authorization process.

Even though the group doesn’t want charter schools to have elected governing entities, three staff members of INCS are currently running for seats on LSCs in Chicago. LSC elections take place on April 7 at the city’s elementary schools, and on April 8 at the high schools.

The INCS staff running for seats at LSCs include: the group’s spokeswoman, Jodie Cantrell, community candidate at Blaine Elementary School; director of development and capacity, Eric Johnson, parent candidate at Audubon Elementary School; and charter support manager, Jelani McEwen, community candidate at Kenwood High School. WBEZ first reported on some of the unusual candidates running for the Blaine LSC in March.

Suspicious of motives

Broy says he doesn’t think it’s a contradiction for his staff to run for positions on LSCs while the organization opposes having councils at charter schools. He considers it a sign of their “well-roundedness” if they participate in community organizations in their neighborhood.

“They’re trying to have a role in governance in local schools, and in those schools they can do that through LSCs,” he says.

But perhaps not surprisingly, activists against charter schools say they are suspicious of the true motives of LSC candidates who support charter schools.

Earlier this week, for example, some parents and educators circulated a list of candidates “not to vote for” on Facebook because of their support for charter schools and supportive politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.

“If they’re running for LSCs, does that mean they want to make them charter schools? Is that the purpose?” asks Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center in Bronzeville and a former LSC member himself. “Or do they want to be a part of a democratic process? If so, they should support this bill.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is also getting increasingly involved in promoting LSC participation to both its own members and community groups. In February, the CTU and the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) organized a summit for about 250 LSC candidates and other community activists who wanted to learn about how to run an effective council. The coalition of like-minded LSC candidates voted to share a campaign platform that advocates for an elected school board, universal pre-kindergarten and an end to charter and military school expansion.

“We realize how important the LSCs are, and that they’re pretty much in the same boat as the union,” said Michael Brunson, the CTU’s recording secretary. “We have the same interests in having our publicly funded schools survive.”

LSC elections

LCSs are responsible for approving schools’ discretionary budgets, hiring principals, and overseeing the school’s Continuous Improvement Work Plan, although councils at schools on probation have more limited powers. Each council is made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers, one non-teacher staff member and the school principal. High schools also include one student representative.

Getting teachers, residents and community members interested in joining their LSCs isn’t always easy, Brunson says.

“You mention LSCs and people’s eyes roll,” he says. “There has been a lot of cynicism and disengagement. You can see that each year as you have elections, fewer and fewer people running for school councils.”

After passage of the historic School Reform Act and during the first elections in 1989, more than 17,000 people ran for seats.  But interest in LSC elections has since dwindled. This year, for example, CPS extended the deadline for candidates to file their paperwork to encourage more people to sign up.

Despite the extension, many LSCs still lack enough candidates to fill the vacancies. Nine of the 516 schools with LSCs lack any parent candidates, while 39 lack any community candidates. In total, 35 percent of councils don’t have enough parent candidates to fill the vacancies, and 22 percent don’t have enough community member candidates, according to CPS data. Click here to see an interactive map of all LSCs and the names of all of the candidates.

Pauline Lipman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who studies race and class inequality in urban schools, says that despite the lack of interest in LSCs, they remain “the only place where there is democracy at any level” in Chicago schools. The city’s School Board is handpicked by the mayor, although there is currently movement in Springfield to change the system. 

“They have great potential to involve parents and community members and teachers with the principals in robust discussions of what they want to happen at their schools and put pressure on CPS to provide it,” Lipman says.

In the News: State task force to study Chicago School Bd overhaul

April 2, 2014 - 8:10am

The Illinois House opened the door ever so slightly Tuesday to stripping Mayor Rahm Emanuel and any of his successors of the sole authority to appoint the Chicago public school system's board of education, the Sun-Times reports.

By a 108-5 margin, the House approved legislation sponsored by Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, to create a task force to study whether the board should be appointed, elected or mixed.

DEVELOPING VOCABULARIES: The PNC Foundation will partner with the University of Chicago Medicine’s Thirty Million Words Initiative to help parents develop their children’s vocabularies. The initiative is based on an influential study showing that by age 4, a low-income child will hear 30 million fewer words than a child from a higher-income family. PNC is investing $19 million into the program as part of its Grow Up Great 10th Anniversary. (Press release)

PENSION BATTLE: After crashing a press conference held by the mayor at Merchandise Mart on Tuesday, the Chicago Teachers Union held its own emergency presser to bash a pension deal that’s on the table for some city workers. CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said the city needs to find creative ways to generate new revenue, and not simply increase employees’ contributions or raise property taxes, as has been reported in the Sun-Times and Tribune. Meanwhile, during the CTU’s separate negotiations, Sharkey said the city has so far balked at the union’s proposals to raise taxes on the rich through a luxury tax or a so-called millionaire’s tax. (Melissa Sanchez/ Catalyst Chicago).

STUDENT STRESS: Lyons Township High School students reported higher levels of academic stress than students at similar schools in a recent survey, reinforcing education officials' efforts to reduce stress at the competitive school. Students and parents reported the homework load is the primary cause of the stress. Teachers ranked "family problems" and "competitive college requirements" above homework. (Tribune)

CHARTER GROUP FAILS: As Indiana's charter school association completes a shutdown, which could be done within days, questions about what sort of group might replace it remain unanswered. (Chalkbeat Indiana)

KHAN ACADEMY AND COMMON CORE: Continuing its evolution from quirky disruptor of traditional classroom learning to mainstream player aligned with the education establishment, the nonprofit Khan Academy recently unveiled new online math resources tied to the Common Core State Standards. (Education Week)

CPS fails to nurture a true vision for charters

April 1, 2014 - 11:52am

What happened to the vision?

The original purpose of charters, as proposed by the legendary head of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, was to be a beacon for innovation. By loosening the reins on some public schools they would be free, he argued, to innovate and experiment with new models for learning that might serve as a model for change in other public schools.

But Shanker’s original intention has now largely been lost in the fog of history. His vision has been replaced by the zeal of a powerful group of "true believers" in charters – good, bad or indifferent -- who see them as an alternative to the existing public school system. These true believers are advocates for sweeping privatization as the solution to all the ills of our current schools, liberating them from the control of the unions, which must be broken if schools are to improve.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointees in CPS have settled more and more definitively in the privatization, union-busting camp. The percentage of students attending charters, once a blip on the radar screen, has risen steadily: 24% of high school students in Chicago now attend charter schools, while the overall figure for all schools is around 13%. The vast majority of charter students attend schools that are part of the large charter management organizations (CMOs) that have come to dominate the scene--each in effect, a mini-school district in its own right.

Make no mistake: Some of these CMOs include admirable schools and staff who perform well above the level of the schools they replaced, which had been badly serving poor children of color for decades. But for the most part, they are not the lights of innovation that early charter advocates promised.

The true carriers of that vision tend to reside in the small mom-and-pop, stand-alone charters that are usually run by mission-driven teachers and their community supporters. Schools like Namaste, the Academy for Global Citizenship, Polaris, Alaine Locke, The Montessori School of Englewood and others represent new approaches to education, fueled by a greater end goal than merely raising test scores. Yet it is these schools that CPS tends to treat as afterthoughts, second-class citizens in its charter school portfolio because they are not committed to “going to scale,” which has come to be the system’s gold standard for charter worthiness.

Rather than serving as the answer in a desperate search for quick fixes, the impact of innovative charter models on larger numbers of schools and students depends on breaking down the polarization between so-called neighborhood schools and charters, as has been done in a few districts around the country. Boston; East Providence, Rhode Island; Hartford, Connecticut; Austin, Texas; and Broward County, Florida are all places where consortia of neighborhood and charter schools have made possible the more organic spread of innovative ideas, regardless of school labels. These models may even include new designs for union contracts being created by some charters, as more of them explore paths to unionization which do not strait-jacket schools’ flexibility in the way current contracts do.

Take responsibility for supporting teaching and learning

I have been viewing the disturbing trend away from the original charter school vision through my own association with existing and aspiring charter schools, which, in different ways, represent that vision--and for whose failure CPS owns a large share of responsibility. Remember the studies of children in orphanages who were said to be suffering from “failure to thrive” as a result being deprived of care at their most fragile stage of development? I would argue that CPS’ malady in this case could be called “failure to nurture.”

If this or any other school district wants to present itself as a proponent of charter schools, it needs to assume the responsibility for supporting, in deep and meaningful ways, those schools that truly represent something new in education – a different way of thinking about teaching and learning, a new vision of what a holistic school community looks like, a recombination of elements that have, until now, only existed in isolation from one another.

Such one-of-a-kind schools are likely to be fragile. They are less likely to have wealthy financial backers, less likely to have boards that pack a political punch. With these schools, CPS needs to act less like an authorizing body and more like an advocate for innovation. If these schools are to become incubators of positive educational change, rather than a disruptive force dedicated to privatization with all the attendant damage to communities and to democratic life, CPS needs to be more proactive about identifying them early in the proposal stage and equipping them with the kind of facilities and professional support they will need through the delicate early years.

CPS houses people with those skills in its central office. They need to be freed up from policing and monitoring duties to help the schools that could truly be incubators of innovation to really make their mark. This represents a radical re-visioning of the purpose of the central office of a large school system. It is, in fact, the vision reflected in the original School Reform Act of 1989, which posited a handoff of powers to local schools and communities and the shrinking of central office to the constructive roles it could play, not simply by swelling the numbers of children they serve but in nurturing and supporting powerful teaching and learning.  We have strayed a long way from that ideal in the last quarter-century.

It’s time to return to the original concept of charter schools as wellsprings of innovation and to couple it with a new vision of the school district as a promoter of that vision. Only then will we begin to liberate ourselves from the oppressive cycle and ever-increasing testing at the expense of what one Houston school board member once told me was “destroying children’s souls.”

Marv Hoffman recently retired as Associate Director of the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago. Prior to that he was the Founding Director of the University of Chicago Charter School – North Kenwood Oakland Campus.

In the News: U.S. students trail in problem solving

April 1, 2014 - 7:50am

Fifteen-year-olds in the United States scored above the average of those in the developed world on exams assessing problem-solving skills, but they trailed several countries in Asia and Europe as well as Canada, according to international standardized tests results being released on Tuesday, The New York Times reports.

HEALTH CARE ON WHEELS: A mobile van health clinic is bringing check-ups to nearly 3,000 Chicago Public Schools students at six schools on the Far South Side, offering vaccines and physicals and treating everything from asthma to diabetes to eczema. It’s all at no cost to the kids and their families. TCA, a Chicago community health center, used money made possible from the Affordable Care Act to buy the van. (CBSChicago)

MORE CHANCES: Aspiring teachers are expected to get more chances to pass the state's basic skills test for educators. The Illinois State Board of Education adopted rules this month to allow unlimited attempts to pass the reading, writing and math test. (Tribune)

COMMON CORE TO USE ROBO-GRADING: Millions of elementary, middle and high school students in 14 states and Washington, D.C. may have their essays graded by computers next year if initial tests of robo-grading prove to be accurate. A multi-state consortium, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, known as PARCC, is developing the tests and said it hoped to use essay-grading software as soon as Spring 2015, when its new computerized tests are scheduled to roll out. (Hechinger Report)

CLASSROOM TRAILERS: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vowed that New York City would get rid of all “transportable classroom units” by 2012. But today, 7,158 students, most of them in the beginning grades, are still learning in them, a testament to the struggle to keep up with rapid neighborhood growth. (The New York Times)

THE BUSINESS OF EDUCATION: A news analysis discussing the decision last week that Northwestern University must treat football players as employees says "higher education is today less a rite of passage in which institutions serve in loco parentis, and more a commercial transaction between school and student." (The New York Times)

Comings & Goings: Goren

March 31, 2014 - 11:01am

Evanston School District 65, the elementary district in that suburb, has tapped Paul Goren for superintendent. Goren currently is senior vice president for program at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. He also has held leadership positions at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, the Spencer Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He also was a deputy superintendent in the Minneapolis MN school district.

Comings & Goings: Goren, Russo

March 31, 2014 - 11:01am

Evanston School District 65, the elementary district in that suburb, has tapped Paul Goren for superintendent. Goren currently is senior vice president for program at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. He also has held leadership positions at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, the Spencer Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He also was a deputy superintendent in the Minneapolis MN school district.

 Long-time education blogger Alexander Russo is closing down his District299 and This Week in Education daily news roundups to become a teacher. Here is an excerpt from his online announcement:  … on a lark this past fall I applied to Teach For America. I told myself it was just for the book I was writing. Nobody was more surprised than I was when I actually made it through and got picked. I had to think long and hard whether or not to quit blogging and accept the spot.  But finally I said yes and so I'm going to Houston this summer and starting teaching -- here in Brooklyn, I hope -- in the fall.  

In the News: CPS seeks proposals, ideas for shuttered buildings

March 31, 2014 - 8:25am

Chicago Public Schools is collecting ideas and proposals for more than 40 of the school buildings it shuttered in last year’s massive school closing on a website the district launched Friday. (Sun-Times)

Members of the public and community groups can submit proposals for the old school sites at, which has a full list of available school sites; the website also includes financial and physical information about each property, according to CPS.

JANITORS FEAR PRIVATIZATION: Chicago Public Schools has entered into a $260 million contract with Aramark to manage building maintenance for more than 500 schools — a step some union janitors fear could lead to the privatization or elimination of 825 custodial jobs. (DNAinfo)

EFFECTS OF GANG INVOLVEMENT: A new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, paints a clearer picture of how long the effects of the decision to join a gang echo and how negatively it impacts a broad scope of factors—from the likelihood of later drug abuse and incarceration to poor health in adulthood. (Education Week)

PRE-K FUNDING AGREEMENT: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders announced on Saturday an agreement on a state budget that would provide $300 million for prekindergarten in New York City, but also undercuts other educational policies of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has championed prekindergarten while trying to slow the spread of charter schools. (The New York Times)

CUOMO BOOSTS CHARTERS: Charter schools will be big winners in the new state budget under a tentative deal hammered out by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders last week. For the first time, the privately operated schools will be eligible for government funds to cover the costs of leasing classroom space in private buildings, sources said. (New York Post)

THE COMMERCIAL SIDE OF HIGHER ED: A news analysis discussing the decision last week that Northwestern University must treat football players as employees says "higher education is today less a rite of passage in which institutions serve in loco parentis, and more a commercial transaction between school and student." (The New York Times)

Cincinnati leaders explain "cradle to careers" educational initiative at Chicago forum

March 28, 2014 - 4:43pm

As part of the 2014 Chicago Policy Forum Series, Cincinnati's schools and community leaders discussed a unique and collaborative effort to improve educational outcomes in their city.

Education journalist and consultant Richard Lee Colvin moderated the forum on Cincinnati's Strive initiative. The main speakers were Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan, and United Way of Greater Cincinnati CEO Robert Relfsnyder.

Event co-organizers Catalyst Chicago and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) -- with the help of audience members -- live-tweeted the March 28, 2014, event at the Union League Club of Chicago. The following is a Storified version of the tweets.


[<a href="//" target="_blank">View the story "Cincinnati leaders talk about "cradle to career" initiative" on Storify</a>]


The Chicago School Policy Forum Series is sponsored by the Spencer Foundation, McDougal Family Foundation, Oppenheimer Family Foundation and the Union League Club of Chicago.

In the News: Science museum expands STEM training

March 28, 2014 - 6:31am

The Museum of Science and Industry is expanding efforts it has made in recent years to train middle-school teachers in science as part of a broader initiative to motivate students to choose careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. Since 2006, 800 teachers, most of them from Chicago Public Schools, have taken science courses at the museum’s teacher professional development program. (Tribune)

CROWDING SHUTS DOWN PRE-K: Southport-area parents have lost a pre-K option for next year, as Chicago Public Schools ended Blaine Elementary's last tuition-based pre-K class due to the school's overcrowding. Blaine is at 138 percent capacity and has been trying to expand for two years. (DNAInfo)

TIME WASTED: Principals spend only a small fraction of their day on instruction-related duties, and new research suggests that some of that time may be wasted. (Education Week)

TOPS IN SEGREGATION: New York state has the most segregated public schools in the nation, with many black and Latino students attending schools with virtually no white classmates, according to a report released Wednesday. (Education Week)

ANOTHER KIND OF MADNESS: In the middle of college basketball's March Madness, Jalen Rose, former NBA player and charter school founder pens an editorial in support of "more school choice," what he calls a "remedy for educational madness." (

CHARTER CONVERSION BILL PASSES: The Kentucky Senate passed a bill that would allow persistently low-performing schools to convert to charter schools. Currently, Kentucky gives consistently underperforming schools four options for improvement, ranging from re-staffing to closing down. (Associated Press)

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In the News: CPS furniture proposal draws protesters

March 27, 2014 - 6:25am

Parents, activists, teachers and administrators gathered outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters Wednesday morning to protest a proposal to spend nearly $10 million on new furniture as the district prepares to move to new offices. (Tribune)

BYRD-BENNETT'S ASSESSMENT ON CLOSINGS: Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett on Wednesday said that a district analysis of schools consolidated with the closed 47 elementary schools showed that incidents of misconduct were down in schools that took in children from closed schools in the second quarter of this year over last; grade point averages had risen; and the much-touted Safe Passage routes between the closed and new schools saw no major violent incidents while workers were at their posts. (Tribune)

SHOW OF SUPPORT: The Faculty Association of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools issued a statement to the Chicago Teachers Union in support of educators for families and teachers who opted out of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test in Chicago Public Schools. (Hyde Park Herald)

VICTORY FOR FOOTBALL PLAYERS: Northwestern University football players are employees of the school and are therefore entitled to a union election, Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, said in a ruling released Wednesday afternoon. (Tribune)

PRINCIPAL SUPPLY AND CAPACITY: Without a deeper bench of principals who specialize in overhauling chronically failing schools, the Obama administration's efforts to turn around low-performing schools will have a fleeting impact, city K-12 leaders told federal education officials Monday. Leaders in urban districts told those who wrote the rules for the school turnaround program that principal supply and capacity remain among the most pressing challenges for school districts. (Education Week)

UNFAIRNESS ALLEGED: The Bright Futures scholarship program in Florida is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights concerning allegations that its method of deciding who gets tuition assistance is unfair for minority groups. (Education Week)

CPS touts minute improvements for students from closed schools

March 26, 2014 - 6:29pm

Ever-so -slight improvements in attendance, graduation on-track rates and grade-point averages among students from closed schools proved enough to please CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and board members.

In her first update on what has happened to the roughly 12,000 students whose schools were closed at the end of last school year, Byrd-Bennett told board members on Wednesday that dire predictions of chaos did not come true.

 “We’re stronger today than we were before and better positioned than we were before,” she said. “Students impacted by the consolidations are making academic gains.”

But the CEO’s preliminary report does not show substantial gains.

In every area, students from closed schools lag way behind and have made less progress than other students throughout the city. The on-track rate for students who did not experience any school actions last year was nearly 60 percent in Quarter 2 of this school year, up 2 percentage points from last year. Those numbers were nearly parallel for students from the welcoming schools, whose graduation on-track rates grew from 57 percent to 59 percent.

But students from closed schools have seen an increase of only 0.3 percent, to 48 percent.

Board members, who didn’t ask any questions about the report, lauded the CEO.

 “Congrats to you and the team,” said Board President David Vitale. “Frankly, it’s an incredible success to date.”

CPS has spent more than $225 million on capital and academic programming at the 50 welcoming schools to smooth students’ transition from the closed schools.

Byrd-Bennett said that the placement of additional monitors along routes used by students from closing schools led to no “major” incidents, and that attendance was up. During the first two quarters of the 2012-2013 school year, the average attendance of students from closed schools was 92.7 percent. During the same period this year, the average attendance was 93 percent.

The CEO also noted that just over half of students from closed schools improved their attendance. It’s unclear whether the other half fared worse off, or if their attendance did not change. CPS officials did not provide more detailed data.

Context missing from report

The 9-page midyear report does not take into account some factors that could have impacted data on student performance during the first two quarters of last school year – when a parsed list of potential closures was first made public.

A 2009 Consortium on Chicago School Research study on school closings found that the most precarious time for students of closed schools are the months around the announcement. The research indicates that the drama caused by knowing a school may close can affect attendance and conduct.

Also, some of the students in closed schools did not actually change buildings. In those cases, the staff and students from welcoming schools moved into their space. The children who did not change buildings would not have had to travel longer distances, something that many worried would affect attendance.

During her comments to the board on Wednesday, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the CEO’s report doesn’t tell the entire story about the consequences of closing schools.

“There are still 800 students unaccounted for from the entire move last year,” Lewis said. “These are things that are never discussed publicly that need to be discussed publicly.”

The CEO said she would return to the board at the end of the school year with a more comprehensive analysis, and promised to provide annual updates during the next three years.

ISAT investigation “winding down”

Byrd-Bennett also briefly addressed the controversy surrounding an ongoing CPS investigation into teachers at Drummond Montessori School and Saucedo Scholastic Academy who refused to give the ISAT standardized test earlier this month.

CPS legal investigators interviewed Drummond students last week, infuriating their parents, who had not given their consent for the interviews. Investigators later talked with Saucedo teachers but said they did not interview students there.

“We are obliged to investigate the allegations of staff misconduct,” Byrd-Bennett said. “Our interviews are winding down and concluding, and after consultation with legal, I will bring back findings and recommendations for this board to consider.”

Many parents in the audience who spoke during the public comments section of the meeting criticized the district for the ISAT investigation. Parents said it was their decision – and not the teachers’ – to opt their children out of taking the ISAT.

“Who the heck thought it was a good idea to send an investigator in to question our kids?” asked Mary Zerkel, a Drummond parent. “Did our mayor approve this?”

School board silent on school turnarounds

Before the meeting, dozens of parents, teachers and community supporters rallied against a CPS proposal last Friday to “turn around” three elementary schools:  Dvorak in North Lawndale, McNair in Austin and Gresham in Auburn-Gresham. The board will vote on the proposal next month.

One Dvorak parent, Lisa Russell, asked the board to give the schools more resources to turn themselves around instead of turning over the management to an outside organization.

“I know we’re not moving as fast as you want us to, but we take every child from everywhere,” she said. “We take the children nobody wants.”

Russell also suggested that the board vote against a proposal to nearly double its budget for new furniture for CPS headquarters, which are changing locations later this year. Still, the board voted unanimously for the proposal, bringing the total furniture budget for the new office space to $9.5 million.

No more background checks for some volunteers

In other action, the board agreed unanimously to scale back CPS requirements on background checks for volunteers. The new tiered system makes it easier for parents and community members to get involved in schools, said Phil Hampton, who heads the district’s family and community engagement programs.

“We feel that the current policy and practice is somewhat restrictive and that’s why we’re here today,” he said. “We want to increase access to interested volunteers, in particular to parents and non-parents, while also providing the necessary safeguards for students and staff.”

Criminal background checks will now only be required for parent volunteers who spend more than 10 hours per week at the school their child attends, and non-parent volunteers who work five hours per week. Chaperones on overnight school-sponsored trips, coaches, one-on-one tutors and others with direct, regular contact with students will still have to undergo background checks.

In the News: CPS wants $5 million for new HQ furniture

March 26, 2014 - 6:55am

Chicago Public Schools is seeking to double its furniture budget to $9.5 million, chalking up $5 million of that to an upcoming move of its central headquarters. District officials want the Board of Education to approve the expense for the purchase and installation of new office furniture by Staples at Wednesday’s monthly meeting, a proposal the Chicago Teachers Union called “poor stewardship of money.” (Sun-Times)

TESTING PROBE RILES PARENTS: Some parents outraged over Chicago Public Schools interviewing children without parental consent in a probe into standardized testing at a Bucktown school said Monday they want the district to give them transcripts of the conversations and have expressed interest in talking to lawyers about potential legal issues of what happened. (DNAInfo)

AUSL GETS AUSTIN TURNAROUND: Less than a year after closing four elementary schools in Austin, CPS has announced it will overhaul a fifth Austin school. Chicago Public Schools said late last week it will designate Ronald E. McNair Elementary as a “turnaround” school; the privately run Academy for Urban School Leadership will operate the school starting with the 2014-2015 academic year. (Austin Talks)

NEW VISION FOR NYC SCHOOLS: In remarks Sunday before the congregants of the Riverside Church, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio laid out his vision for New York City’s schools and pledged an approach that fosters fairness and progress across the entire school system. (NYC)

NEW STANDARDIZED TESTS: Schools across California began administering new standardized tests Tuesday that are designed to demand more of students and offer a clearer picture of how much they are learning. More than 3 million students will be tested in English and math through June 6, and for the first time, everyone will take the exams on a computer — either tablet, laptop or desktop.  The new tests are linked to state learning goals that have also been adopted by 44 other states and the District of Columbia. The tests and learning standards have raised philosophical and political questions across the country.