prek debate

Two preschool proposals are on the table, and one has already faced criticism for adding a pathway to vouchers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschoolers at IPS School 55.

With Indiana’s preschool pilot program about to expire, there’s plenty of public support for a plan that ensures it continues. But there’s little consensus about how much to expand it — and how to fund it.

But after today, there are two main proposals on the table — one simple bill from senators that would double the current program and another more complicated plan from House lawmakers that also adds another pathway through which families can access taxpayer funded vouchers for private school tuition.

That aspect of the House bill was opposed by some lawmakers and community members today, who want to support preschool but worry about increasing access to vouchers. Critics say vouchers divert money from public schools, while supporters argue they give families more educational choices.

Generally, Indiana Democrats widely support scaling the program up to more counties. And some Republican lawmakers, like House Speaker Brian Bosma, want to see the program double or even triple in size. But others want it to grow more conservatively or not at all.

Indiana began its statewide preschool program in 2014, setting aside $10 million per year for low-income families to spend at preschool providers that met safety standards and offered programs that combined academics and child care.

Two years later, lawmakers and community advocates have signaled they want to keep the program moving forward, citing research that shows preschool gives students a jump start before elementary school and offers longer-term benefits, too.

Here’s a guide to the two proposals discussed in the Senate and House education committee meetings. Only one bill is likely to continue toward becoming law, although both plans could change over the next few months. It’s also possible both plans will stall.

For more education bills we’re watching in the General Assembly this year, check out our full list.

SENATE PLAN

Bill: Senate Bill 276, authored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. The bill will likely see a vote in a committee meeting in the next few weeks.

Summary: The bill proposes expanding the state’s preschool program from five to 10 counties, at a cost of $20 million per year for next two years.

Comments: Holdman appealed to lawmakers who might not want to make a large financial investment in preschool by noting that this plan doesn’t go as far as a “universal” plan would because it would continue to restrict which families are eligible to use the preschool scholarships and which providers are allowed to accept them.

“Our program is very unique in that we are targeting disadvantaged kids,” Holdman said during a Senate Education Committee hearing on Jan. 25. “We are requiring an academic component to be part of the qualification to participate,” he said, something that “has given us some positive results.”

But other senators weren’t convinced that expansion is the right move, especially given the potential price tag. Advocates from the United Way of Central Indiana have suggested $50 million per year would be a more appropriate figure to satisfy demand for preschool, rather than the $20 million proposed.

“We don’t have anywhere near $50 million to do this,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, a Senate Education Committee member and a key player in drafting the state’s budget.

HOUSE PLAN

Bill: House Bill 1004, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. The bill passed out of the House Education Committee Tuesday and next heads to the full House.

Summary: The bill proposes expanding the state’s preschool program from five to 10 counties and loosening income requirements to allow more families to participate. Preschool providers could also apply for grants — which would be matched by local philanthropies — to establish programs or expand existing ones. Perhaps most controversially, the bill would let families who get a state preschool scholarship also receive for a voucher for kindergarten, meaning they could access the state’s voucher program sooner than rules currently allow.

Comments: Behning said it’s important to both expand the number of families who qualify for the state’s program and to give providers an opportunity to create more “high-quality” programs that meet Indiana’s criteria.

While most testimony on the bill was supportive, the part of the bill dealing with K-12 vouchers came in for criticism. Behning said the provision was meant to smooth out the process for families, and he doesn’t see it as a voucher expansion.

“It is really focused on making sure parents have a seamless opportunity to put their students in a school that they think best meets the needs of their students,” Behning said. “It’s an opportunity to keep that without having to disrupt the child’s education plan.”

But Scott Russell, with the Washington Township parent council, saw it as interfering with the main point of the bill — to expand preschool. Russell pointed out that the potential added cost of the voucher provision was much greater than the cost of the parts of the bill that deal with preschool, according to the fiscal note attached to the bill.

“The bill in its current form ties together the widely popular idea of expanding our preschool pilot program with a controversial (voucher proposal),” Russell said. “A preschool funding bill is not the place for the expansion of vouchers.”

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.