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.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: