Asked and answered

Longtime advocate (and current First Lady) Diana Rauner sizes up the challenges ahead for early education in Illinois

PHOTO: Courtesy of Ounce of Prevention

Fluent in the languages of developmental psychology (her Ph.D., from the University of Chicago) and finance (her MBA, from Stanford University), Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner is equipped more than most to navigate the maze that is early childhood education in America. As anyone who has tried to find, or build, a quality program for a child under 5 knows, there are plenty of hurdles to securing good options: availability and affordability; too few full-day seats for families that require them; and low pay and turnover among providers, just to name a few.

In her 11 years in leadership of the Chicago advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, Rauner has used her platform to push for higher quality programs for the youngest children in Illinois and nationwide. As the wife of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (who is up for election this fall against another early childhood education advocate, businessman J.B. Pritzker, who has funded some of Ounce of Prevention’s work), she’s as fluent in political speak as she is everything else: “Early childhood is not a partisan issue,” she says.

She spoke to Chalkbeat Chicago’s Cassie Walker Burke amidst big developments for early childhood advocates: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is touting the rollout of an ambitious universal pre-K program in Chicago, and the state is set to release a trove of data on kindergarten readiness later this month. She was joined in parts of the conversation by Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy for Ounce of Prevention.

The interview has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Why is the issue of early childhood education so important to you?

DIANA RAUNER: This is the most important human capital and social justice issue for our nation. We are increasingly a society that requires everyone to have both social-emotional self-regulation skills and the flexibility to continue to learn throughout your life. We know that, as Warren Buffett says, all men are created equal and that lasts for the first 15 seconds. Something we know now that we didn’t know a generation ago, or even 10 years ago, is the importance of the prenatal period to long-term health and health outcomes. And so, actually it’s not even true that all people are born equal.

We really have to ensure that we’re giving all families the kinds of supports they need in order to help their children develop to their highest potential. It’s a moral issue, but it’s also an economic and civic issue as well.

Many people understand the value of early childhood programs, but we are also seeing the percentages of students enrolled in public pre-K in Illinois and Chicago dropping. What is your assessment of why this is happening?

RAUNER: The Early Childhood Block Grant (which is the Illinois State Board of Education’s early childhood education program) was cut several years in a row starting in 2010. We lost $80 million over a number of years. The block grant didn’t begin to grow again until 2016, so because of that, enrollment did drop during that time. It has rebounded. We are not sure that the numbers are not back up and over, but the (latest publicly available counts) aren’t current. We just aren’t sure.

IRETA GASNER: The other thing impacting that is that Illinois for decades had one of the nation’s shortest pre-K days: We were serving kids in 2½ -hour programs. Knowing what we’ve learned about at-risk kids, (we need to) serve up a longer day. But there’s some tension there: We can give a lot of kids a little dosage or we can grow the programs back up a little more slowly and give kids who need it the right dosage. So there’s some nuance around the number of kids served now compared to where we were 10 years ago or so.

Funding for early childhood comes from a lot of places; it’s complicated. Some providers lost a state grant recently and complained the application process rewarded good grant writing, not quality programming. How do we build a pipeline of providers and sustain it?

RAUNER: Those are huge questions. Clearly, we know that the Early Childhood Block Grant, while we’ve seen increases, is still not sufficient to serve all the kids who need it. There is a big gap between how we’re funding now and where we need to be to reach all the kids who need it. The recompetition (to reapply for the Preschool for All grants that fund programs throughout the state) that was done this year wasn’t a perfect process. You combine the fact that the process wasn’t perfect with the fact that there’s not enough money to go around, and you end up with an outcome that doesn’t satisfy everyone.

You talked about what it takes to do quality. As a state, for a very long time, we’ve had probably one of the strongest early childhood systems — birth to 5 — of any state. It’s truly a birth to 5 system, it has a birth to 3 set-aside, and it has real attention to birth to 3 funding. It’s also a mixed-delivery system, which means both community-based settings and school settings. It’s meant to meet families where they are and meet families’ different needs. And it sets aside investments for quality infrastructure: that means professional development, data collection, research, innovative programming. That’s been a hallmark of the way that we in the state, and in the city, have prioritized our early childhood system.

Researchers also stress that only quality programs really move the needle with kids from low-income backgrounds. How do we ensure quality?

RAUNER: For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, and that an average teacher is average, and that bad teachers are bad. At Ounce, what we’ve focused a lot on this: Teachers, like other adults, work in organizations. They work in organizations that either support and enhance and develop their performance, or they work in organizations that don’t. Rather than focusing everything on the individual teacher and how good or bad the individual teacher is, we need to look at the organizational supports that help that teacher do great work in the classroom. We focus on leadership in instructional support and instructional excellence, and all of the essential elements of organizational support for great teaching — it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

What’s an example of a program that you’ve visited recently that you’d like to see scaled?

RAUNER:  Our work with universal newborn support. The Illinois Family Connects program is a model that comes out of Durham, North Carolina. It is a nurse home visiting program that serves as a coordinated intake to a web of community supports for new parents and their children. It is a validated and well-trained individual assessment of a new parent and new family and a system of referrals that support families in all kinds of things they need. It’s a universal system, and it’s one that right now we are piloting in two Illinois counties, Peoria and Stephenson. We are hoping to expand in the city of Chicago and other counties across the state.

A year in, what have you learned from the newborn visitation program?

RAUNER: First of all, we’ve learned it’s very, very welcome by families. The uptake rates are high: More than 80 percent of families say, yes, I’d love to have a nurse visit me at home. We’ve also learned that 97 percent of the families that have visits have some kind of need. Many of those needs, more than half, can be addressed right in that visit. Over a third, though, are getting referrals to some kinds of support, including mental health programs, intensive home visiting programs, other kinds of family support programs. A very small percentage, maybe around 1 percent, are getting referred for really urgent issues: medical issues, mental health issues, safety issues in their home. That’s amazingly important and critical to getting addressed quickly.

Do you think Illinois has the ability to scale a program like that? Is there the will on the public side and on the political side?

RAUNER: I think the most important thing we can do is demonstrate both the important outcomes we are seeing, and also, over time, population-level changes that save the state money. In Durham, this program has shown substantial decreases in emergency room visits and child welfare referrals. Those are extremely expensive. And so, if you can really do this kind of program at scale and prevent those kinds of expenditures, you can actually save money and put that money toward prevention and toward serving more families.

"For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, an average teacher is average, and bad teachers are bad. "Diana Rauner

What else can Chicago learn from other states and cities that are doing early childhood well?

RAUNER: We’ve worked really hard to bring things back here. We brought a program that was developed in Florida called Baby Court to Illinois, which is intensive supports for families with very young children in the child welfare system.We’re always thinking about opportunities to bring innovations here and try new things, and we’re also trying to share some of our innovations with other states.

Pay is really low throughout the early childhood education system. Do you see a realistic path to changing that?

RAUNER: There’s no silver bullet unless we have $100 billion drop from the sky. But there are a lot of things we’ve been doing in Illinois: alternative certification programs, pathway programs, better connections between our high schools and community colleges. There are a lot of things we want to try, but it will take ongoing attention. It’s a little bit like — oh, I shouldn’t make a sports analogy — but you gain a yard at a time. You just keep pushing. It’s not like something is going to transform overnight.

As Chicago has more CPS-backed pre-K seats come online and pays teachers on the CPS scale, community programs are going to have to compete with their wages. Isn’t that going to become an issue here as universal pre-K rolls out?

RAUNER: It is an issue, and part of that is ensuring that the universal pre-K program is still a mixed-delivery system (a mixed-delivery system includes community providers who receive public funding as well as school district-funded programs). We want to make sure the community providers are still part of the preschool system. Clearly pay parity is really important in the long run, and we’re certainly still some way away from that across the board, but it is a really high priority.

It’s important to recognize that a birth-to-3 program is more expensive than a preschool, so that’s one of the reasons why, as universal preschool rolls out, we’ll be focused on it continuing to become a community-based program.

Why is a mixed-delivery system something you advocate?

RAUNER: Very often, community-based programs are actually more reflective and responsive to the communities they serve. Another reality: Many community-based programs blend and braid funding streams, so they can provide full-day coverage for children whose parents are working. The trouble is that programs that operate 6 hours a day cannot serve families who need 10 hours of coverage.

Will the universal pre-K program being rolled out in Chicago have a watershed effect on other places in the state?

RAUNER: I don’t know. We’ll have to see. We have many districts in the state, so they all have very different priorities.

Later this month, the state will release its first kindergarten readiness reports. What can we expect?

RAUNER: It’s a milestone. It’s a tool that serves many different purposes. One is a professional development tool for kindergarten teachers, it helps them see and observe their students and understand (what it takes) to move them along on their developmental path. It’s helpful for parents to understand the range of developmental expectations for kindergarten. And it’s helpful for policy makers to understand how we’re doing relative to our expectations and goals.

I do think that we have to be prepared for some instability in the data in the very beginning — that’s pretty typical. But obviously, well — sometimes the truth is a difficult thing. Here we have always focused on third-grade test scores as evidence of the achievement gap, but we all know the achievement gap opens up much, much earlier. Being able to articulate that and identify that and document it — we hope it will change the conversation so we can talk about it at a much earlier level.

"Sometimes the truth is a difficult thing."Diana Rauner

I imagine that wasn’t an easy sell. How did you convince people?

RAUNER: We had many conversations. We did this as an early childhood and K-12 partnership, we brought together teachers, and school administrators, and early childhood advocates, and researchers. We wanted to make sure this tool was developmentally appropriate, that it was valid and reliable, and that it really served the purpose of professional development as well as accountability. Not accountability for individual students — we wanted to be really sure it wasn’t used in any inappropropriate ways to penalize individual students — but rather, as a way to hold us adults accountable to our very youngest learners.

We’re in the middle of a heated governor’s race, as you know. How does this affect the work you do?

RAUNER: We know from our work in Illinois and at the federal level that early childhood is not a partisan issue. The majority of every partisan persuasion are strongly in favor of investment in early childhood. That makes our work easy. It means we are able to articulate a vision for early childhood education and to promote the best practices to all candidates and all legislators. We have seen strong bipartisan support here in Illinois on the issue for decades.

Keeping students safe

Leadership instability atop Chicago schools contributed to mishandling of student sex cases: report

PHOTO: Getty Images

Instability in leadership at Chicago schools — from a revolving door of chief executives to changes in network chiefs — contributed to a gap in oversight that failed to protect student victims of sexual abuse, according to a preliminary report released today.  

“This turnover makes it difficult to instill and maintain productive policies and procedures, stable systems independent of any person, and cultures of compliance,” according to the draft of a report authored by former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey, who has been hired by Chicago Public Schools to review the district’s handling of sexual misconduct in schools and make policy recommendations.

The report identified “systemic deficiencies…at all levels: in the schools, the networks, the Central Office, and the Chicago Board of Education (Board),” the report reads. “CPS did not collect overall data to see trends in certain schools or across geographies or demographics. Thus, CPS failed to recognize the extent of the problem.”

“While there were policies and procedures about sexual misconduct on the books, employees were not consistently trained on them, and there were no mechanisms to ensure that they were being uniformly implemented or to evaluate their effectiveness.”

A systemic failure to properly address student sexual abuse across the last decade was first revealed in the Chicago Tribune earlier in the summer. In response, the district implemented several measures including conducting new background checks for school staff, removing the principals of two schools, and creating a new Title IX office.

Board of Education President Frank Clark said in a statement that “student safety is the highest priority for the Board, which is why we took immediate action before this preliminary report was completed. We will use this report as a roadmap to build upon the significant steps the district has taken to strengthen safeguards and supports for our students.”

Find the current draft of the report below.

Future of Teaching

Undocumented students face hurdles getting into college. Here’s how Indiana teachers have helped them succeed

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Cinthia, Jessika Osborne, Angela Adams, and Karina Garduño were panelists featured in a discussion moderated by Mike Elsen-Rooney, a reporter with the Teacher Project. The event focused on undocumented students' access to college.

Navigating the college admissions process can be a challenge for any student, but in Indiana, undocumented students can face extra hurdles in pursuing higher learning. That’s because Indiana is one of just six states that prohibits undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates at public universities.

Helping Indiana teachers identify pathways to college — and through college — for their undocumented students was a focus of a panel discussion Wednesday, put on by WFYI Public Media and the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School. Educators in the state say that in recent years, they have noticed an increase in undocumented students in their classroom, and many of these students assume that higher education is out of reach for them.

Under federal law, all students must be allowed to attend public K-12 schools, regardless of immigration status. But access to public colleges in Indiana is inextricably tied to immigration status. While it’s possible for undocumented students to be accepted at and to enroll in colleges, entrance exams and figuring out how to cover the tuition, can be tricky, especially because undocumented students can’t receive federal student aid. They also worry that the application process puts themselves and their families at greater risk of deportation.

Wednesday’s event was held at the WFYI offices in Indianapolis and brought out dozens of educators, students, and community members. The gathering was part of an ongoing series about the intersection of education and immigration.

The panel featured Cinthia, an undocumented student who graduated from Emmerich Manual High School in 2015. Cinthia did not provide her last name because of her immigration status. She spoke passionately about how instrumental her English-as-a-new-language teacher, Jessika Osborne, was in eventually getting her to college and ensuring she felt safe once there.

“She’s always been in my life,” Cinthia said. “I felt like Osborne would protect me no matter what.”

Cinthia, Osborne, and two other panelists answered questions and participated in a moderated discussion about advice for other educators struggling with how best to help their students who are undocumented pursue higher education.

Read more: Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

Work to build trust.

Karina Garduño, IUPUI’s assistant director of multicultural planning and another panelist, said one of the biggest hurdles for teachers is determining which of their students might be undocumented, and therefore might need extra help with the college admissions process.

Garduño said the first step is establishing a good rapport. When students trust you and feel comfortable, they are more likely to disclose their immigration status and open up about whether or not they need assistance with the college process.

“A lot of these students will not share this information with just anybody,” Garduño said.

Making the time to do this outreach is no easy feat for many educators in the state. Garduño said she’s known guidance counselors who are responsible for hundreds of students. Such ratios aren’t uncommon in Indiana or across the country.

“As much as you are well-intentioned and really want to help, your human capacity is not necessarily always there because you have so many students to serve and they each have so many individual needs,” she said.

Osborne said she, too, has felt overwhelmed juggling her classroom responsibilities with the intense needs of her students, especially amid changing policies around immigration and undocumented populations. Still, she’s seen how consistent effort to build trust with students can pay off.

“There wasn’t a time where I remember Cinthia saying, ‘I’m undocumented,’” Osborne said. Rather, there were just hints over time that Cinthia needed help applying for college and getting paperwork that proved she was in school.

To help students like Cinthia, Osborne said she sometimes gives up her lunch hour and planning time. She also makes herself available after school and before sports practices begin.

Don’t panic.

Angela Adams, also a panelist and an Indianapolis-based immigration attorney, said she gets a lot of questions about whether teachers need to report students who disclose they are undocumented, or whether helping them is “aiding and abetting” some kind of crime.

“First of all, don’t panic,” Adams said. “You’re not doing anything wrong by not reporting this person or by having this person in your classroom.”

Adams said FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that protects certain information about students, applies here.

“You can’t disclose to third-parties even if you wanted to — you’d probably be losing your job,” Adams said.

Know your limits.

Adams and Garduño encouraged teachers to be supportive, but not to go beyond their roles as educators. For example, they can reassure their students that they won’t tell anyone about their plight without their permission. But they shouldn’t be giving out legal advice. Rather, they can recommend speaking with an immigration attorney.

“Be careful,” Adams said. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know … you could end up getting someone in a worse situation even if you’re trying to do the right thing.”

And in the meantime, panelists advocated that teachers familiarize themselves with available resources, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance, La Plaza, and the Indiana Latino Institute.

In the classroom, Osborne suggested teachers identify when it might be wise to avoid working in large groups on college-related assignments. At Manual, she said, students have been taken in groups to a computer lab to fill out college financial aid forms. But undocumented students might not feel comfortable in that setting — and some just didn’t show up, she said.

Osborne said her department has also held smaller parent nights for information about immigration, the college application process, and the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Most of all, Cinthia said, she appreciated that Osborne and other teachers never made her feel like her dream to complete her education and become a nurse was out of reach — even if she faced more challenges along the way.

“Don’t make them feel like they’re not going to finish,” Cinthia said. “Just help them and support them through the whole way.”