Vallas: Here’s where Chicago Board of Education should put its focus

Vallas: Here’s where Chicago Board of Education should put its focus

Mayoral appointments to the city’s school board tell the public a lot about that mayor’s philosophy. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to who Mayor Brandon Johnson is appointing. It’s also important to understand what options should be on the table when it comes to fixing the failing Chicago Public Schools system.

Since 1995, every Chicago mayor has had the power to appoint Chicago school board members. Lawyers, bankers and consultants filled many of the seats of the early mayor-appointed boards. Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed more educators and Chicago Public Schools parents than her predecessors. Johnson is moving farther in that direction, even appointing activists. Johnson will be the last mayor to exercise this power, as the Chicago school board transitions to an elected board beginning in 2024.

Johnson has appointed the following school board members:

Jianan Shi, president: Shi previously served as executive director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, which supported ending tuition scholarships for low-income Illinoisans. He has previously called to “defund police and prisons,” and he worked with the Chicago Teachers Union to delay CPS’ return to in-person learning during the pandemic.

Elizabeth Todd-Breland, vice president: The board’s only returning member, Todd-Breland, is an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She has argued for the removal of police from schools. She has also argued against “market-based competition and choice” in education, contending “corporate and political elites” are falsely portraying public schools as in a “perpetual state of educational crisis” to justify “attacks on teacher unions.”

Mariela Estrada, board member: Estrada is the director of community engagement at United Way of Metro Chicago. She previously served in the City of Chicago Inspector General’s Office.

Mary Fahey Hughes, board member: Fahey Hughes is a CPS parent and special education advocate. She was previously special education parent liaison at Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, among other roles. She has advocated for ending tuition scholarships for low-income Illinoisans.

Rudy Lozano, board member: Lozano is an executive director with global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase & Co. A lifelong resident of Little Village, he graduated from CPS.

Michelle Morales, board member: Morales is the president of the Woods Fund Chicago, an organization which has advocated to “defund the Chicago Police Department.” She previously led the Illinois chapter of the Mikva Challenge, a youth civic engagement organization.

Tanya D. Woods, board member: Woods is the executive director of the Westside Justice Center, a legal aid clinic. She is a practicing lawyer and teaches as an adjunct faculty member at Loyola University School of Law.

These appointees will be tasked with managing the Chicago Public Schools’ $9.4 billion budget, along with navigating multiple crises, including the district’s tanking reading and math scores and ongoing issues with sexual misconduct against students.

School board members are meant to be stewards of the district’s educational performance and its finances. With such close ties to the Chicago Teachers Union and progressive politics, Johnson’s school board appointees face a conflict of interest: Will their loyalties lie with Chicago kids and families, or with their political allies?

New board President Shi and member Morales both served on a subcommittee of Johnson’s transition team. They focused on improving the city’s public schools and other child and youth services.

The subcommittee recommendations mirror CTU bargaining table demands, such as providing affordable housing for student families, recommendations on extending the sustainable community school model from 50 to 200 campuses, ending district budgeting based partly on campus enrollments, staffing all schools with librarians and clinicians and “reviewing” whether private custodial services should be brought in house. The transition report echoes the CTU’s demand that new funding sources be secured to pay for an agenda that significantly expands academic, social-emotional and other services that schools provide to students.

But it isn’t so much what the transition team identified as issues that is concerning but what was missing. Specifically, missing was any real discussion or recommendations on how to address serious district issues. Those include: the emerging $600 million, post-COVID-19 funds structural deficit; the dramatic decline in enrollment; dozens of nearly empty schools; plummeting test scores; and the dramatic rise in violence against and by school-age youth. The biggest obstacle to addressing these critical issues is CTU leadership.

Here’s more information on the issues the Chicago Board of Education should be focused on.

District finances

Shi, Morales and the others on the board who recommended ideas to improve CPS made no mention of reassessing existing spending, though the committee’s recommendations did include expanded programs and higher taxes. The CPS budget has grown more than 20% since 2019 while the district has lost more than 10% of its enrollment. Today it spends nearly $30,000 per studentmore per pupil than any major city except New York – even as the district consumes over half of all city property taxes and 25% of all state K-12 funding.

Local school staffing

Board leaders should prioritize coming up with better district staffing models and resource allocation, and decide how existing district human resources can be used more efficiently and effectively. The CTU’s primary focus will always be on more staff, more CTU members, more money and smaller workloads. District-budgeted, full-time positions have grown 18.7% in the past three years to 45,159 full-time equivalent positions. That, while losing 11% of the district’s enrollment during the same period. The district has just one full-time employee for every seven students and one budgeted teaching position for every 15 students. Even these numbers are misleading because while they include charter school enrollment, they don’t include charter school staff.

High standards and accountability

The CTU and its allies will continue to push the district away from school and teacher accountability, when in reality the district must prioritize proficiency. Last year just 11% of Black students in grades 3-8 tested at grade level in reading and 6% in math. Only 10.2% of Black students met the national SAT reading proficiency standard, and only 7.9% met proficiency in math. Yet the district graduated 78% of all Black students in 2022.

Bringing back students who left during the COVID-19 school campus shutdowns

Between 2019 and 2022, CPS enrollment  dropped by nearly 37,000 students. In Chicago in 2021 there were 92,511 16- to 19-year-olds jobless, and there were 66,866 20- to 24-year-olds jobless. These kids need to be in the classroom and on a path to independence and self-sufficiency.

Increasing the number of community schools

Chicago has 20 community schools today. Many people are calling to increase the number of “sustainable community schools,” but why isn’t every CPS neighborhood school a community school right now? Why isn’t every school inviting outside groups to help expand learning opportunities, health and social supports and services, and family and community engagement? Will the CPS/CTU model allow every local school to automatically open campuses in the early morning, keep them open through the afternoons, evenings, weekends, holidays and through the summer? Will it extend the instructional day and year to make up for lost instructional time during COVID-19? All of these ideas should be on the table.

Communities should be empowered to shape local schools

There is a lot of talk about empowering the elected Local School Councils and the community. Will the CTU and the district move beyond the rhetoric and really empower councils and their school principals to determine the length of the instructional day and year? Will they allow them to control the school staffing model and make teacher and other staff changes? Will they offer authority to invite charter schools or alternative school providers to occupy or share space in near-empty buildings? Will the council and other community leaders have real power to change their local school model, bring in a better, proven model, even convert their school to a superior charter, if the school is failing or unsafe? That’s what real community empowerment is.

Remove caps on public charter schools

School board members need to acknowledge the role public charter schools have played in providing the only school alternatives for most low-income families, disproportionately Black and Latino. The district’s 114 public charter schools serve 54,000 students – one-tenth of all elementary and one-fourth of all high school students, more than 97% of whom are Black and Latino. Yet the district, under CTU pressure, not only caps the number of charter schools but also their enrollment. Charters were barred from renting schools closed by the Emanuel administration and face financial obstacles to use or even share other buildings that are vacant or have space to share.

Plans to reduce school violence

A top priority for the board must be the physical safety of students and faculty. Two students were killed at Benito Juarez High School. Would their lives have been saved if there had been Chicago Police Department school officers there? Police officers at the entrance to schools are there to protect students, teachers and staff from active shooters. Pulling police officers from the schools puts Chicago kids in danger. It is not a budget issue, as the cost of police officers in schools is well under 1% of the CPS budget.

Expanding vocational education and school-to-work

Chicago needs to expand vocational and occupational training to offer kids meaningful pathways to jobs that pay well and provide stability. The district could invite and finance vocational education and work-study programs operated by labor unions who represent city workers, financing them through the replacement of electives and other course offerings. Paid work-study opportunities could be created and managed by city agencies and, where appropriate, by city contractors.

The Chicago Teachers Union stands in the way of creative solutions

The CTU will oppose any actions that impact their members, diminish their ranks or outsource their work, even to other unions who have the occupational expertise.

Fundamental to addressing CPS’ problems is a recognition that the CTU is an obstacle to saving our schools. A recent New York Times Magazine article stated, “It’s no longer possible to separate education from politics, and public schools are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been.” What better example nationally of the deep ties between education and politics than the Chicago Teachers Union.

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