One-On-One With Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson

CPS CEO Janice Jackson stops by "Morning Shift" to give an update on the school district's budget, hiring, and negotiations with the Chicago Teacher's Union. WBEZ
CPS CEO Janice Jackson stops by "Morning Shift" to give an update on the school district's budget, hiring, and negotiations with the Chicago Teacher's Union. WBEZ

One-On-One With Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson

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With just days away until the first day of school for the Chicago School District, and one month until a possible teacher’s strike, CPS CEO Janice Jackson stops by The Morning Shift to answer listeners’ questions on everything from the district’s budget, to contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union, hiring and more.

On equity in the district’s budget

Jenn White: You’ve described [CPS’s $7.7-billion] budget as having “equity at its core.” Talk about how the money is being distributed.

Janice Jackson: One of the things that there was clear alignment, not only between the board and myself but also with Mayor Lightfoot, is the need to ensure that our budget speaks to the commitments that we’ve all made around creating a more equitable system. So what you will see in this budget is more support for our neighborhood schools. There’s a tremendous investment of over $600 million dollars in facility maintenance and upgrades and things like that. So we did not prioritize new buildings; instead, we want to fix the aging infrastructure that we have—and many of those schools are neighborhood schools.

We’ve also prioritized an equity grant for schools that are experiencing under-enrollment, and so those schools received additional cash so that they can have a high-quality academic program, despite the sharp decline in enrollment that some of them are experiencing.

We’ve also continued to make investments in special education, which is an area that’s really important to us this year and we’re still staffing teachers every single day leading up to next week and beyond. But this year, we have 200 additional special education educators in our schools than we had compared to last year and that’s an investment that I’m extremely proud of. We still have vacancies to fill but we’re moving in the right direction and we’re really proud of the progress we’ve made so far.

White: One of the things you referenced was that you’re happy about the dollars set aside in the budget to repair schools and that that money is being distributed in an equitable way. Where are we seeing that money go?

Jackson: We did an assessment of all of our facilities and we’re prioritizing keeping them warm, safe and dry—which is mandatory—but we have also made an investment around accessibility. When we do renovations on schools, we have to bring them up to a certain code—which is standard—but beyond that, the past few years we have not made investments in making sure that our schools are accessible.

So in the vision that I just released last year, one of the commitments that was made is that we want to make sure that we have first-floor accessibility in all of our facilities—which is a major lift —but I think it’s a move in the right direction. So you will see those investments in many of our neighborhood schools.

And what I tell people is: you don’t see all the bells and whistles; it’s not the same kind of fanfare that you see when you cut a ribbon on a brand-new school or brand new annex. But what I would argue is that every teacher and every school and every child in every school deserves to walk in a building that is clean, that is safe, and that looks presentable so that kids feel good about the education they’re receiving.

White: Can you talk about some of the concrete steps you’re taking to move in this direction? 

Jackson: One is the Curriculum Equity Project. And when you think about education reform, this isn’t the sexy stuff you hear about. I am a purist: I believe that what happens in the classroom is the single most important thing in a child’s life from an educational standpoint. And, unfortunately, what we’ve seen across our district is that there’s inequity in the curriculum that’s being presented to kids every day, and there are a host of reasons that account for that. Let me give you an example: algebra in Lakeview looks different than algebra in Little Village, and that’s a problem. You should have access to the same set of standards. We shouldn’t change the standards because of the skin color or the zip code of the children that we’re serving. And when we do that, what ends up happening is—when students are presented with the ACT or SAT— they don’t account for what zip code you live in or what the color of your skin is. There is a curriculum, there is a canon, that students must be exposed to throughout their educational career. And if we don’t expose our kids to that, then we are setting them up for failure. And the Curriculum Equity project is set up so that we give our teachers what they need. Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time (especially on Sundays—I know, I’ve been there) creating lessons and building a curriculum. We should be providing that to them so they can spend their time educating kids, but also assessing the students. So after students do the lessons, [the teachers can] figure out where Student A is, where Student B is, and not spending all of your time creating lessons. That’s the district job. And we’re going to be giving our teachers—from Pre-K all the way through high school—concrete grade-level appropriate curriculum in all the core subject areas.

On allocating resources for special education

Jackson: CPS is prepared to make good on the requirements from ISBE around compensatory services as far as students. We have earmarked funds in our budget to address the issues that have been outlined and the potential costs associated with that  in the 2020 budget. Our special education budget is the largest budget of any department in Chicago Public Schools and I would encourage folks to look at our interactive budget online. We are very serious about making good on all of the mandates in the requirements that have come out of our interaction with a ISBE Monitor.

We have a rough estimate of what we think it’s going to cost and so the special education budget has more than enough money set aside to do that. We have made clear since we have been engaged with the ISBE monitor that any requirements that any findings that come out of that, we are going to agree to those. To date, which you can see from ISBE’s reporting on this, CPS has made good on those promises and that includes additional positions. We worked extremely hard to get more professionals in the schools—both teachers and paraprofessionals—and so I would just encourage people to track and watch the progress. We can’t fix it overnight but I’m working intensely on it and will continue to do that. 

On negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union 

White: Yesterday the district accepted recommendations by an outside fact-finder, but the Chicago Teachers Union rejected them. What do you think the contract negotiations will turn on? What are the biggest issues right now? 

Jackson: In my estimation, I think compensation is a huge issue and I count the fact that the independent fact-finder recommendation was a fair one. As Mayor Lightfoot pointed out yesterday, it is one of the largest increases in CTU history and I think that’s the biggest sticking point. We also know that issues around staffing have come up; I think that we made good on those promises. If you look at our FY20 budget, we’ve allocated the actual positions. We allocated the dollars first and we were criticized for that. So we allocated the exact positions so that it was clear that that commitment has been made. I think putting it in the budget is as black and white as it could get. And so I think those are some of the bigger sticking issues.

I’m confident that we will be able to have a school year that’s uninterrupted. We’ve made a commitment—both the mayor and myself as well as our board—to make sure that we can get a fair contract for our teachers and ensure that our students don’t have any disruption. One of the things that I committed to when I became CEO was to bring about more stability and certainty in this district and the last thing we need is to have parents worried about things that can be settled as long as all the adults are at the table. The negotiations have been moving along nicely, more quickly in recent weeks, which I count as a good sign.

White: CTU has pushed back and said the fact-finder’s decision doesn’t really offset some of the austerity measures that have been taken over the past decade or so, that CPS teachers have been feeling the pinch for a long time and this doesn’t go far enough to offset the financial losses they’ve seen. How do you respond to that, as someone who has been in education?

Jackson: I’ve experienced those [losses] similar to every other individual that’s a member of CTU, so I connect with him in that way. But I would also argue that you can’t change the goal post in the middle of a negotiation. This is a new administration under Mayor Lightfoot. She’s made clear she’s a proponent of public education and that she supports the CTU. If you look at the decisions that are being made despite the city’s budget situation which is dire, she has prioritized making sure that teachers get what they need in order to feel that they are fairly compensated. I think she is making good on the promises that she made during her campaign.

If you look at what she’s done in the first 100 days, she has prioritized education. And so we can’t change the goalposts, because you have a mayor who is moving in the right direction and fair. We need to get a deal done because that’s what our parents expect. The temperature and the climate right now is very different than it was in 2012, is very different than it was in 2016. I was around for all of those. People want us to do our job and get a deal done.