For CPS students, welcome signs of progress

Here’s a quick quiz:

Which big urban school district’s students posted the fastest academic progress from third to eighth grade among the 100 largest districts in the U.S.?

And which district had students whose test scores surged about six grade levels in five years between those same grades — in other words, those students had, amazingly, gained a year’s more learning in that time?

Answer: Chicago Public Schools. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know.

Chicagoans are accustomed to hearing that their schools are trailing the nation, not outpacing much of it. Many Chicagoans greet snippets of good CPS news with skepticism.

For good reason. The district has exaggerated its improvement in the past — and apologized for it. City Hall and CPS leaders have a habit of casting statistics in rosy terms, downplaying any doubts.

But the statistics quoted in the quiz above are genuine. They come from a 2017 study led by Stanford professor Sean Reardon of the Center for Education Policy Analysis.

“Chicago schools seem to have produced a real and sustained pattern of above average learning rates and performance improvement” from 2008 through 2014, he and a co-author write. “These trends are important not only for students in Chicago, but for those in other large districts, because they provide … proof that it is possible for large urban districts to produce rapid and substantial learning gains, and to do so in ways that benefit students of all racial and ethnic groups.’’

For CPS students, welcome signs of progress

New plan would guarantee Illinois teacher pay starts at $40,000 a year

A new plan at the Illinois Capitol could require local school districts to give some teachers a raise, but doesn’t provide any additional funding to do so. 


The average teacher salary in Illinois is $64,516, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. Starting teacher salaries are often about half that. 


A plan at the statehouse would require schools to start teachers at $40,000 a year. 


State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, a former teacher, said the bill would end Illinois’ teacher shortage. 


“People say they’re the education this, and the education that,” Scherer said of lawmakers who claim to support teachers. “But when it is time to put their money where their mouth is, we can’t afford it.”


Some local school district officials say they don’t have the money. 


Streator High School Superintendent Matt Seaton said he starts new teachers at $34,357. The the district pays $3,565 in pension contributions. 


“We would obviously be affected by this,” Seaton said in an email. “This takes out a part of the local control that is important for boards of education to have.  I would prefer to deal with this issue locally in conjunction with my local union.”


Seaton said Scherer and other lawmakers are expecting local schools to come up with this money on their own. 


“This is an unfunded mandate,” Seaton said. “I have not seen any additional funding to support this type of a pay increase outside of the new evidence-based model that has a regional multiplier built into it to take into account the differences in teachers’ salaries across the state.”


It’s not just teacher salaries that Illinois needs to look at, said Andrew Nelms with Americans for Prosperity In Illinois. 


He said taxpayers pay for teacher salaries, benefits, and pensions in the state. A significant portion of schools’ revenue coming from property taxes, which in Illinois are second highest in the nation, according to a new




Nelms said simply comparing a teachers salary to someone in the private sector is comparing apples and oranges. 


“To get a real snapshot of their compensation, you need to look at their total package,” Nelms said.


Illinois’ Teachers’ Retirement System is one of the driving factors in the state’s worst-in-the-nation pension debt. The state will pay about $4 billion this year for teacher retirements. 


The teacher pay plan is headed to the full Illinois House for a possible vote.

New plan would guarantee Illinois teacher pay starts at $40,000 a year

Jim Dey | Invest in Kids tax-credit program now a political football

Interim Holy Cross School Principal Joe McDaniel met Wednesday with the parents of two students who are scheduled to enroll at the school this fall, thanks to three-quarters tuition scholarships the children were awarded under Illinois’ new Invest in Kids program.

“I think (Invest in Kids) is a good step forward,” said McDaniel, who noted that one child’s tuition at Holy Cross can range from $4,580 to $6,250.

Just in its first year of operation, Invest in Kids is a state tax credit program that helps fund partial- and full-tuition scholarships for needy students. But just as it’s beginning, the program’s future is in doubt.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker has vowed that, if elected, he’ll eliminate what was a key ingredient in last year’s bipartisan compromise legislation revising the state’s school-funding formula.

At the same time, state Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Plainfield, a former school superintendent and principal, has introduced legislation — Senate Bill 2236 — that threatens to suspend funding for Invest in Kids. That legislation is pending before the state Senate Education Committee.

Pritzker, a Chicago businessman, recently sought to bolster his support from teachers’ unions by announcing his opposition to Invest in Kids.

“We should do away with it as soon as possible,” he said.

A strong supporter of Invest in Kids, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner criticized Pritzker’s suggestion that he’ll seek to undo what Rauner helped negotiate.

So the Invest in Kids issue is a subject of debate in both the ongoing political campaign as well as the currently highly political session of the General Assembly.

Although Pritzker is forthright about his opposition, his fellow Democrats aren’t as forthcoming.

John Patterson, a spokesman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, acknowledged Cullerton “supported that provision last year” but declined to speculate about the future.

“Beyond that, we’ve got enough to deal with now without getting caught up in hypothetical debates over what might happen,” Patterson said.

Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, the lead sponsor of the education finance reform bill who reluctantly supported Invest in Kids, declined to respond to inquiries.

At the same time, Republicans appear eager to defend a program that helps low-income children get a better education from Democratic attack.

“Reforming our state’s broken education funding formula last summer was a historic accomplishment in Illinois — and we achieved this accomplishment because of compromise. I fought hard to have the Invest in Kids Act included because this tax credit scholarship program offers low-income families access to better educational opportunities in their communities. Ending this program would quite literally strip low-income families from better education options for their children, and that is simply wrong,” said Western Springs state Rep. Jim Durkin, leader of House Republicans.

Emphasizing that “yes, a deal is a deal,” Rep. Durkin suggested Pritzker’s effort to abolish Invest in Kids would be a breach of trust.

But local state Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican who was a key player in the education reform agreement, noted that “elections have consequences” and said a Gov. Pritzker and what surely will be a Democratic-dominated Legislature can do whatever they want.

“It’s interesting to hear (Pritzker) proclaim that he wants to do away with one of the most significant bipartisan accomplishments in our state’s history,” he said. “I think the public wants to see more bipartisanship, and (Pritzker) is campaigning to do away with that.”

The Invest in Kids program is a state tax credit program that allow donors to deduct from their state income tax 75 percent of the amount of money they donate to support private- or religious-school tuition scholarships for low-income families. A $10,000 donor would receive a $7,500 tax credit.

Here’s how it works. The state, for five years, is offering to oversee the award of $100 million in scholarship donations that could result in a maximum of $75 million in lost annual revenue to the state.

So far, only $41.1 million has been pledged to the Illinois Department of Revenue’s Invest in Kids programs.

If the maximum amount — $100 million — is pledged, Empower Illinois President Myles Mendoza said it could provide scholarships to anywhere from 11,000 to 15,000 lower-income children. The number depends on the dollar-size of the scholarships awarded by scholarship-granting organizations like Mendoza’s.

He said groups like his are reviewing 48,000 applications, and “the number goes up day by day.”

He said eligibility depends on a family’s income level, whether the student is in a low-performing school district and if the student has special needs or qualifies as gifted.

He said the program offers an extra benefit to students who are both gifted and have special needs, say a boy or girl who is dyslexic but has a high IQ.

Mendoza said “because of this scholarship program, those kids can apply to the Wolcott School,” an expensive Chicago area college-preparatory school that advertises itself as “for students with learning differences, tailored to the strengths and aspirations of each student.”

He expressed dismay with Pritzker’s promise to abolish Invest in Kids.

“Our hope is that, once he learns more about the program, he will eventually support the program,” Mendoza said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at or by phone at 217-351-5369.

Jim Dey | Invest in Kids tax-credit program now a political football

Jim Dey | Pritzker says he’ll reverse Dems’ compromise on school funding

Last year’s brutal budget battle between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislators led by House Speaker Michael Madigan drew the bulk of public attention. Madigan ultimately won that fight, shoving a Democratic budget and a state income-tax increase down Rauner’s throat.

But in addition to the tax and budget fights, there was another brouhaha in which Rauner and legislative Democrats engaged — one that ended with a hard-won compromise between the antagonists.

It involved a rewrite of the state’s K-12 school-funding formula, a reform designed to ensure that public schools with the greatest need would receive more financial aid than better-off schools from property-rich areas. But that legislation almost ran off the rails when Chicago Democrats arranged for more state funding for their city’s troubled school system than Rauner thought appropriate.

Calling Democrats’ version of the legislation a “bailout” for Chicago, the governor threatened a veto.

But Rauner’s promised veto never happened after the governor proposed — and enough Democrats tacitly accepted — a program in which private donors would receive a state income-tax credit for donations that would be used to underwrite private-school tuition costs for lower-income children.

The program — called “Invest in Kids” — is scheduled to last five years. It’s limited to $100 million a year in donations and carried a 75 percent state income-tax credit. That means a donor who contributes $10,000 in the 2018 tax year would receive a $7,500 credit on his state income tax. It could cost up to $75 million a year.

But as the gubernatorial campaign heats up between Republican Rauner and his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker, the Democrat is vowing that, if elected, he’ll reverse the compromise agreement his fellow Democrats reached with Republicans.

Visiting Springfield last week, Pritzker told the State Journal-Register newspaper that, if elected, he will eliminate Invest in Kids.

“I’m opposed to that $75 million tax credit, that school voucher program (Gov. Rauner) created, and we should as soon as possible do away with it. What I oppose is taking money out of the public schools, and that’s what happened here,” he said.

Although he’s not clear about what Invest in Kids is, Pritzker is clear about his opposition to it. That’s a position he shares with the teachers’ unions that will be supporting his candidacy in the fall election.

Invest in Kids is not a voucher program. Donated funds are awarded in the form of partial or full tuition grants by scholarship-granting organizations to qualifying students throughout the state looking for a better education option.

Pritzker’s second misstatement is his assertion that Gov. Rauner unilaterally “created” Invest in Kids. The measure was an important part of the school-funding reform legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Rauner.

That’s not to say it wasn’t controversial. Teachers’ unions, which resent public assistance to private schools, demanded legislators vote against the school-funding reform bill because it contained Invest in Kids.

Some legislators did so, including two local Democrats — state Rep. Carol Ammons and state Sen. Scott Bennett. Another prominent Democrat, state Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, ignored the unions’ demand and supported the compromise.

The Rauner campaign was quick to criticize Pritzker for what it considers to be his heartless opposition to helping lower-income children escape failing public schools.

“It’s shameful that Pritzker would say he would immediately end the scholarship program when so many low-income students will soon be benefiting from a better education,” the Rauner campaign stated.

Chicago Tribune columnist Kristin McQueary also chastised the billionaire businessman but called for giving him the “benefit of the doubt” because of his ignorance.

“He didn’t know what he was saying. He doesn’t understand the program. It’s the only plausible explanation,” she wrote.

The state started accepting donations for Invest in Kids in early January, collecting $36 million of the allowed $100 million on the first day. Since then, donations have slowed, now standing at $41.1 million.

The Tribune reports that roughly 11,000 children will benefit from tuition support for the fall school year.

Demand is huge. So many families applied on the first day they could do so that the computer system crashed. Now that it’s been relaunched, roughly 60,000 applications for assistance have been received.

The Revenue Department has divided Illinois into five geographic areas and established limits for each on how much of the maximum $100 million they can receive.

Central Illinois counties are included in District 4 and allotted $7.5 million. So far, the area has received $1.1 million on donations.

Cook County is entitled to $51.2 million in donations and so far has received $32.7 million.

Pritzker’s pledge, of course, is dependent on winning the fall election. But he’s the clear front-runner in this Democrat-dominated state, so his prospects are good.

At the same time, however, Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise that bound both sides to support the school-funding reform bill that included Invest in Kids.

Pritzker’s professed desire to have Democrats renege on the deal would be a significant breach of trust that underlies the legislative process.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at or by phone at 217-351-5369.

Jim Dey | Pritzker says he’ll reverse Dems’ compromise on school funding

IHSA giving high schools the chance to buy concussion insurance for their athletes

For high school athletes and their loved ones, concussions can bring a fear of the unknown.

How many blows are too many? What are the short-term financial costs of treatment? What are the long-term costs of returning to action before the brain has healed?

In an attempt to assuage the monetary concerns, the IHSA is in the process of making concussion insurance available to its member schools beginning in the 2018-19 school year.

Schools will be offered the opportunity to purchase this insurance at the rate of $1.50 per athlete regardless of how many sports each athlete plays. The insurance will only be available on a school-by-school basis, and not to individual families.

Craig Anderson, executive director of the IHSA, emailed athletic directors with information about the concussion insurance during the last week of March.

“This is another tool to provide peace of mind and provide a barrier against serious injury,” said Darren Howard, the lead athletic director for Oswego Community Unit School District 308 and the person who first contacted the IHSA and suggested it offer concussion insurance.

The policy, which is called the HeadStrong Concussion Insurance Program and is sold by Kansas-based Dissinger Reed, provides accident medical concussion coverage, including neurological follow-up, according to the company website.

The HeadStrong policy requires a minimum of 3,500 student-athletes, covers medical bills up to $25,000 per injury for concussion-specific care for 12 months after the injury and requires no copays, deductibles or out-of-pocket costs for the parents, according to Dissinger Reed owner and CEO Christian Reed.

If not for the WIAA, it’s possible the IHSA would not be offering HeadStrong next year.

Howard, who oversees athletics at Oswego and Oswego East high schools and five junior highs, was reading Coach & Athletic Director magazine in the fall of 2017 when he came across a blurb about the WIAA becoming the fourth state athletic association in the U.S. to provide concussion insurance to 100 percent of its student-athletes. Now, a total of six state associations have HeadStrong for all student-athletes.

Howard was the athletic director and boys basketball coach at Immaculate Conception — now called IC Catholic — from 2003-12. He said he had heard stories of parents of high school athletes, not necessarily in his district, getting blindsided when injury-related medical care for their children turned out not to be covered, or not fully covered, by existing insurance policies.

In an effort to prevent such occurrences, and to help ensure there are no financial barriers in the way of high school athletes seeking concussion care, Howard said he contacted Craig Anderson to find out if Illinois could adopt a similar concussion insurance program.

“My first thought was, ‘This is an opportunity for a family to have coverage for such a low amount of money, and it can give them some peace of mind.’ I thought, ‘That’s fantastic,'” Howard said.

At a rate of $1.50 per student-athlete, the WIAA pays approximately $121,000 annually for concussion insurance. Dave Anderson said the federation pays for the coverage with state tournament gate receipts and corporate sponsorship dollars.

This is the first year the WIAA has had concussion insurance and there have been 101 claims, according to Dave Anderson. He said the insurance has resulted in $30,000 in preferred-provider savings and paid out in excess of $25,000 through Jan. 31.

“It has helped 101 kids and 101 families to fill in the holes,” Dave Anderson said.

Craig Anderson said the IHSA does not have the budget to purchase the insurance for the schools.

In the meantime, the IHSA will follow the model of the Missouri State High School Activities Association, which governs high school athletics in that state.

The MSHSAA is in its second year of offering HeadStrong on a per-school basis, and there appears to be more interest in the insurance among rural schools, according to Jason West, communications director for the association.

“It’s mostly out-state schools and a few metro-area schools (that are participating),” West said. “In rural areas, they may not have a lot of industry, and (many families don’t have) added (insurance) benefits to their jobs. We have a number of schools where maybe it encompasses an entire county, and in those areas, you have a lot of farming and family ranches, and things like that, and there may not be the various options (for insurance).”

West said the fear of exorbitant medical bills could lead young athletes in these areas to refrain from seeking diagnoses and treatment for head injuries. That would just add another risk factor in places where high schools may already lack dedicated athletic trainers, and top medical facilities may be many miles away.

West said 166 schools in Missouri have purchased HeadStrong for their student-athletes. The MSHSAA has 739 member junior high and high schools, including 590 high schools, according to its website. He was not able to offer the specific breakdown of rural versus metro schools participating in the program, but said participation in the program has increased in its second year.

Catalano said concussion insurance came up briefly during a meeting of Central Suburban League athletic directors March 8, and that the topic also likely will be discussed when a few hundred of the state’s athletic directors meet for a conference in Peoria in early May.

Catalano said many athletic directors likely still have to familiarize themselves with the details of concussion insurance.

Howard said athletic directors should avoid rushing to judgment on the insurance and might want to take the time to review the coverage offered to their student-athletes.

“Some (athletic departments) don’t completely understand what insurance covers and does not cover for their student-athletes as it pertains to concussions,” he said.

Dan Shalin is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.

Twitter @Pioneer_Press

IHSA giving high schools the chance to buy concussion insurance for their athletes

Illinois lawmakers to once again debate moving school notices online

Illinois lawmakers are once again going to debate whether to let schools post public notices online rather than in the local newspaper. 


The almost annual fight over school transparency comes down to two things: Cost and technology. 


School leaders say its costs too much to post every public notice in the newspaper.


State Rep. Dave Severin, R-Marion, said it’s time to let school districts embrace the 21st Century. He wants to let schools post public notices solely online. 


“I think this is the way to do it now,” Severin told lawmakers Tuesday at the Capitol. “Like I said, newspapers were the way to do this when this law was first made.”


State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, said not every parent or voter has access to the internet, and may not see notices that are posted online. 


“If a day comes where literally everyone has access to the internet, and the internet is free, then I’d be OK with that,” Scherer said. 


Newspaper owners and their representatives at the Capitol also don’t want schools to go exclusively online. The Illinois Press Association’s Josh Sharp told lawmakers they have concerns about the transparency record of local school districts.


“Eighty nine percent of schools posted timely notice of meetings,” Sharp said. “However, the required agenda postings was only 69 percent and meeting minutes was kind of low at 62 percent. I think we’re a long way away from trusting local government to reliably post this information online.”


Illinois newspapers receive money from the law requiring school districts to pay for printing public notices. 


The plan is headed to the full House, but a number of lawmakers say they may not support it when it gets there. 

Illinois lawmakers to once again debate moving school notices online