Who Is In Charge

A new test, $22 million for preschool and 5 other major education bills that lawmakers approved in 2017

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, presents on the budget bill to House lawmakers on Friday.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Indiana’s 2017 legislative session came to a close.

It ended with a plan to replace ISTEP, new rules for charter and voucher schools and a compromise on the state’s next two-year budget. Next, the bills all head to Gov. Eric Holcomb to be signed into law.

Earlier this week, lawmakers also came to agreements that would expand the state’s preschool program and make the next state superintendent appointed, rather than elected.

Here are the major education issues now under consideration to become law:

TESTING

A plan to replace the state’s hated ISTEP testing system with “ILEARN” was approved by lawmakers Friday.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. For the most part, the test plan in House Bill 1003 resembles what was recommended by the group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement.

There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and high schools would give end-of-course exam in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I. An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test students in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. The bill would create a number of graduation “pathways” that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. New options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

While teacher evaluations would still have to include ISTEP scores in some way, districts would have flexibility to decide specifically how to do that.

CHARTER SCHOOLS AND VOUCHERS

Two bills dealing with charter schools and vouchers that passed easily in the House and Senate would make it easier for struggling schools to get a second chance.

Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, noted that public schools have the option to join “transformation zones” or “innovation networks” that allow them to avoid closure and make plans to improve, but charters and private schools don’t.

The bill that focuses on charter schools, House Bill 1382, would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row, among numerous other provisions. Even if the schools go beyond their four-year F-grade limit, authorizers can go to the state board to request a charter renewal.

The second, House Bill 1384, includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers. One would allow schools to waive D or F grades that prohibit the schools from accepting new voucher students. That waiver would be good for one year, and would be dependant upon the school’s ability to demonstrate that a majority of private school students made academic improvements in the prior year.

The bills would also …

  • Weakens the state’s “90 percent-10 percent” rule for licensing teachers in charter schools. Current Indiana law says that 90 percent of teachers must hold a traditional state teaching license, or be in the process of pursuing one, and 10 percent can hold an alternative teaching permit. Under the new language, the state’s specific charter school license appears to count toward the 90 percent, rather than the 10 percent as they have in the past (HB 1382).
  • Require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades and determine a definition for “high-mobility” schools (HB 1384).
  • Allow private schools to become accredited more quickly, and thus accept voucher students sooner (HB 1384).

STATE TAKEOVER

A plan that would have allowed the state to take control over finances and academics in Gary and Muncie has been significantly scaled back — and would release Muncie from academic takeover altogether.

The measure passed the Senate and House late Friday. While Muncie schools see some relief from earlier sanctions, Gary would be on track for the state takeover, although a few provisions called for by local lawmakers were added in — such as first considering a Gary or Lake County resident as the “emergency manager” in charge of the takeover.

Kenley said he specified in the compromise version of the bill that these measures are “not precedent for and may not be appropriate for addressing issues faced by other” districts.

Lawmakers came up with the takeover strategy to solve longstanding financial troubles in Gary Community Schools, which has racked up $100 million in debt and dwindled to fewer than 6,000 students. The district has also been labeled an F since 2011, with seven schools considered failing.

But Muncie educators and lawmakers made their opposition known when their C-rated district was added into Senate Bill 567 for its own significant debt issues.

The bill originally designated Gary and Muncie as “distressed political subdivisions” and moved them under the auspices of an emergency manager, a fiscal management board, and a chief academic officer. In the new plan, Gary would remain a distressed political subdivision, but Muncie would be considered a “fiscally impaired” district — a less harsh label that wouldn’t require the district to have a chief academic officer, but still places it under a stringent plan to shore up its finances.

SCHOOL FUNDING

The budget was the last bill to pass Friday night, with wide margins of support in both houses.

The two-year plan would increase funding by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, a boost of $345 million that brings total education spending to $14.2 billion over the next two years. The state also approved increased support for English-learners, students with severe special needs, and career and technical education.

All Marion County school districts will see increases to per-student funding and tuition support — the base amount provided by the state to educate children.

Indiana also recommitted to teacher bonus payments at $30 million per year, adjusting the formula so that high-performing teachers at struggling schools could see higher bonuses than they did last year.

PRESCHOOL

A preschool deal passed the House and Senate Friday morning that would expand the program to 15 additional counties, up to 20 from the current five.

The cost of the expansion will be $22 million per year, which is less than advocates had lobbied for but close to what House Republicans and Holcomb supported.

It includes controversial language allowing a new, limited voucher “pathway.” If a child used a preschool scholarship to go to a program at a private school that accepts vouchers, they could then automatically receive a voucher for kindergarten if they stay at the same school.

The compromise plan would set aside $1 million per year to allow families who use an “in-home” online preschool program to be reimbursed for their costs. Priority would be given to parents of children who live in counties with no high-quality preschool providers, and the state would agree to study the online programs.

STATE SUPERINTENDENT

Last week, House and Senate lawmakers approved a bill that would allow future governors to choose Indiana’s state superintendent.

The final version of House Bill 1005 includes a residency requirement and qualifications for the “secretary of education” position. It also delays the appointment until 2025, meaning Holcomb wouldn’t be around to make the pick and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick could seek a second term.

You can find other education-related bills that passed this session here.

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”