Lawmakers, Chicagoans’ views on CPS are worth your attention

There’s a lot to like in a just-released Public Agenda poll on Chicago Public Schools, but the most troubling finding — the one that should matter most in the minds of adults — is that most Chicagoans give CPS low marks for the most essential task: teaching children.

Asked to select their top three from a list of issues facing the district, most respondents, including parents, placed “students not learning enough academically” at the top of the list. When asked to grade the district, 54% gave CPS a “C.” The next most common grade was ‘D.’ Parents were slightly more likely to give the district a “B” than Chicagoans overall.

Some of this can be attributed to the continued bad reputation that CPS has struggled with for decades, despite the progress CPS has made in recent years, as WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reports in her story on the poll. Graduation rates are up, performance here is faster than in other major cities, and CPS deserves kudos for emphasizing intensive “high dose” tutoring to help students recover from pandemic learning loss.

But there is no denying that CPS is not where it should be. Parents and the public rely on test scores as an indicator of achievement, and those scores remain well below average. Only a quarter of students met or exceeded state reading standards in 2023, and less than 20% met or exceeded state standards in math.

No wonder so many Chicagoans, parents and non-parents, are concerned. Those that aren’t, should be.

Right now we hear the voices of those who insist that “test scores mean nothing,” that they do not measure intangibles like creativity, that there is racial and class bias in standardized tests, and that poverty and inequality – especially in Chicago, where failing black students for decades – has a major impact on the learning process.

But test scores shouldn’t be ignored either, especially if they remain persistently low year after year.

Educators know that research strongly suggests that high-quality education is the most important factor driving achievement in school. Parents and other stakeholders need to know this too. Pushing for more teacher training, something 82% of respondents support, should be a priority. That includes more stringent measures, such as replacing teachers who don’t perform (a rigorous teacher evaluation should be part of any new CPS teacher contract) and holding schools accountable for implementing improvement plans. A large majority of respondents are rightly in favor of these steps.

Read the full report, with detailed findings on school quality, budget, under-enrollment schools, choice, and politics and school governance, at publicagenda.org. The poll was a collaborative project between Public Agenda, the Sun-Times and WBEZ, with funding from The Joyce Foundation)

Lawmakers, listen to the public and pass HB 303

As CTU and its supporters prepare to descend on Springfield Wednesday for a “day of action” to lobby for more funding, they are confronted with this cold reality: Governor JB Pritzker has already told state agencies to prepare for budget cuts next budget year, meaning lawmakers will not provide any additional money. Additionally, it’s worth noting that CPS has received a 30% increase — $1,542 per student — in funding from the state since fiscal year 2019.

That doesn’t mean CPS is “fully funded.” But other low-income school districts in Illinois could also use more money — and are unlikely to get it.

Here’s another survey that addresses this: Parents are evenly split (49% to 49%) between those who say CPS needs more funding and those who say CPS needs to spend the money it already has more effectively. Overall, 42% of Chicagoans say they are “not very confident” that CPS is spending its budget effectively; another 31% say they have ‘no confidence at all’. Only 19% say they are “very confident” in effective spending.

Lawmakers can also expect more lobbying against HB303, the bill to stop closures, disproportionate cuts and changes to admissions standards at selective and magnet schools until 2027, when a fully elected school board — that is, a board not filled with mayoral appointees people aligned with CTU – is present.

Lawmakers should stand firm and pass the bill. A yes vote will help preserve some of the city’s best schools, including magnet schools and selective schools in black communities that have lobbied vigorously to get them, and ensure that families remain in the system as a whole to invest. A “yes” vote, as we wrote last month, is about letting the representatives of Chicagoans decide this controversial issue. That is the “democracy” that those who have lobbied so vigorously for an elected school board have been clamoring for.

And as other survey results show, most Chicagoans, especially parents, ultimately prefer school choice.

Overall, city residents want more support for neighborhood schools, and the district should continue on that path. But half of Chicagoans agree with the statement that “students should be able to attend any school they choose, even if it means some neighborhood schools lose students and funding.”

People of color were more likely to support choice, with 61% of Asians, 57% of Blacks, and 54% of Latinos agreeing with this statement.

CPS has work to do to get better grades. Pitching neighborhood and selective schools against each other will not help.

Lawmakers should do what they can to prevent that.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.