Indiana

Education on back burner as Indianapolis mayor's race sprints to the finish

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
WTLC's Amos Brown (left) moderates a debate between Republican Chuck Brewer (center) and Democrat Joe Hogsett (right).

The race to replace Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard is nearly to the finish line, but the city’s education issues remain a secondary focus.

Case in point: Today’s final mayoral debate moderated by radio host Amos Brown at WTLC’s downtown studios.

Brown asked the candidates questions for about 45 minutes, but most of the conversation focused on public safety and crime.

It’s perhaps no surprise, given the bleak summer of shootings and even more recent incidents that included an armed robbery of a north side restaurant during business hours and a shooting in front of an east side mall.

The candidates made occasional reference to the relationship between the need for better educational and other opportunities for children and the possibility that it could lead them away from involvement with gangs, drugs and violence.

But there was just once question that explicitly focused on Indianapolis Public Schools and education across the city’s 11 school districts and more than 25 charter schools. Brown asked if the candidates would support an education summit.

They both said yes.

Democrat Joe Hogsett, the former U.S. Attorney General, said education and public safety together should be the the city’s top two priorities.

He said part of the problem at IPS is poor communication, seemingly referencing a heated debate over the last couple of weeks over a district plan to close Key Learning Community, shift arts programs from School 70 to the Key building and drop middle school grades from Broad Ripple High School.

The board voted to close Key on Thursday before a meeting was even held at the school to give parents more information. That meeting is on Monday.

Board members did hold off voting on the other parts of the plan to allow for public meetings at those schools on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Part of the challenge we face with IPS currently, and some of the decision being made — they have a communications problem,” Hogsett said.

He said an education summit could help come up with strategies for the district to “better communicate to parents and other people in the community what decisions are being made, and how they are being made, before the decisions are made.”

Republican Chuck Brewer, a former U.S. Marine and businessowner, touted his plan to advocate giving the mayor two school board appointments.

“We have to create a school system that delivers great quality education for all of our kids. Period,” he said.

Brewer said only half of kids who attend public schools across the city go to a quality school.

“That means there are a number of school districts that are not doing their jobs well,” he said. “We can help them at the city.”

The election could have a major impact on education as it is unclear how committed both candidates are to continuing using the mayor’s office to push for change in IPS and opening new charter schools.

Indianapolis is the only city in the country with a mayor who has the power to sponsor charter schools. Through two administrations, one Democratic and one Republican, over 15 years the city’s mayors have sponsored a growing collection of charter schools while calling for reform in IPS.

Neither Hogsett or Brewer has said they would change course dramatically on education from their predecessors. But Hogsett has said he thinks the mayor should have a broader focus that includes township schools and charter school quality over quantity.

Brewer said he was “rooting” for traditional public schools to outcompete charter schools. The purpose of charter schools, he said, was to help “fill the gap” in the meantime.

The election is Tuesday.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede