From the Statehouse

School board transparency bill jumps first hurdle

The full House will get a chance to debate a bill that seeks to put guardrails around school boards’ use of executive sessions, an issue that’s become controversial in some districts.

The House Education Committee voted 7-6 to pass House Bill 14-1110, with majority Democrats providing the votes necessary for passage and all committee Republicans voting no.

Part of the bill’s backstory is use of executive sessions by the conservative Douglas County school board and worry on the part of unions and some parent groups about new board majorities in the Jefferson County and Thompson districts. But no witnesses during the 90-minute hearing cited specific examples of abuse of executive sessions.

Sponsor Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, went out of her way to avoid mentioning specific districts or alleged abuses. Among comments she made to the committee were:

  • “It’s not a bill targeted to any particular school boards.”
  • “Perhaps some school boards were misusing the executive session privilege.”
  • “I can’t give you a number.”
  • “It’s not my intention … to call out any particular district.”
  • “I know there are issues. I’ve talked to constituents.”

Here’s what the bill would do, in the words of the legislative staff summary:

Under current law, minutes must be taken whenever a local school district board of education has a public meeting, and a separate recording must be made whenever the board enters an executive session. If, in the opinion of the attorney representing the board, portions of the discussion held during an executive session constitute a privileged attorney-client communication, those portions are not recorded. This bill requires continuous recording of executive sessions, even when the discussion is claimed by the representing attorney to be privileged, or subject to protection as trial preparation material. The bill also requires a local school board to keep a privilege log to identify the approximate times the privileged discussion takes place and the nature of the communication, without revealing details of the privileged information discussed. These portions of an executive session may be recorded separately from the remaining recording of the executive session.

The idea behind the bill is that individuals or groups who suspect a board was abusing use of executive sessions could ask a judge to review recordings to determine if that had happened. In general, state law limits executive sessions to discussion of personnel matters, real estate deals and protected discussions between a board and its lawyer.

Peniston proposed a similar bill last year. But it would have applied to all local governments, not just school districts, so it died after intense lobbying by other local government groups.

Some witnesses at Monday’s hearing mentioned specific districts, but none offered details of alleged abuses.

Cindy Barnard, a prominent critic of the current Dougco board, said “on one or two occasions I have witnessed votes and decisions taken behind the veil of executive sessions.”

Jeffco parent and PTA member Shawna Fritzler complained about a recent district board decision to hire a new lawyer.

Lori Goldstein, a Northglenn High School special education teacher and Colorado Education Association member, named specific districts but was vague about details. “I’ve seen this in Jeffco. Loveland is another area of concern. I’ve heard things from Douglas County too.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, asked, “How many are we talking about?”

Goldstein still didn’t offer any details, saying, “There’s a possibility that there could be more … we don’t know.”

Opposing the bill was Debbie Lammers, a member of the St. Vrain school board who was representing the Colorado Association of School Boards, “This bill will seriously chill” discussions between school boards and their lawyers, she said.

Sonja McKenzie, general counsel for the Cherry Creek schools and representing the Colorado Bar Association, and David Olson, general counsel for the Colorado School Districts Self-Insurance Pool, also opposed the bill, echoing the same concerns about possible threats to attorney-client privilege.

More grades?

Schools with lots of transfer students say A-F labels don’t fit

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Schools with large numbers of kids who transfer in or out should get an extra grade from Indiana’s A-F system, a legislative committee said Thursday.

The proposal, backed by both Democrats and Republicans on the House Education Committee, would give schools a second A-F grade based just on the scores of students who have attended for at least a year.

The goal is to account for schools with “high mobility,” common in poor neighborhoods where families move frequently and kids sometimes change schools several times in a single school year. When kids change schools, their test scores often sink. Lawmakers argued the schools where they end up on test day can be unfairly saddled with a low grade that doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of teaching at the school.

Even so, the schools will still be judged the same as all schools in Indiana on their first A-F grade.

The proposal was added as an amendment to House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. The bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

The amended bill would require the Indiana State Board of Education to first define a “high-mobility” school. Then, starting in the 2018-19 school year, the board would assign those schools both the typical grade based primarily on state tests and a second grade that only considers the test and other academic data of students who have attended the school for one year or more.

The second grade could not be used by the state board to make decisions about state sanctions, the bill says. But it would help parents and others better understand the circumstances at the school, said Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author and chairman of the education committee.

“Especially in our urban centers, there are several schools … that have very high mobility rates,” Behning said. “We could all recognize that if you’re being moved from school A to school B to school C to school D in a year, it’s going to be very difficult for your performance to be where it needs to be.”

The bill also makes a similar change to high school graduation rates, which would help Indiana better comply with new federal law, Behning said. The bill would alter the graduation rate calculation so that students who drop out would only count in a school’s rate if they attended that school for at least 90 percent of the school year. Otherwise, their graduation data gets counted at the previous school they attended for the longest time.

Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, one of the largest online schools in the state, testified in support of the bill. She said the graduation rate change and second letter grade better reflect the work they’re doing with students.

“We really believe that if we can keep a student, we can help them,” Brown said.

Virtual schools have performed poorly on state tests, which some school leaders argue is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently move and switch schools, come to school far behind grade level and have other learning difficulties that make them more difficult to educate.

Read: The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools

Indiana Connections Academy sees about 20 to 25 percent of students come and go each year, Brown said. Other virtual schools, such as Hoosier Academies, have reported more than double that rate.

Although the rates for individual schools could vary widely, Beech Grove schools had the highest district mobility rate in 2015 in Marion County, where 20.1 percent of students left a Beech Grove school to go outside the district, according to state data. Franklin Township had the lowest, with 8.5 percent. Generally, transfer within districts was much lower.

In IPS, the rate was 18.4 percent for students leaving to attend a school in another district, and 8.2 percent of students left their home school to attend another in IPS.

Brown said she thinks the second school grade could help all schools that see high turnover, but it also could dispel some misinformation about what virtual schools are for — it’s not a “magic pill” for kids who are far behind, she said, a scenario she encounters frequently.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about what’s best for the kid,” Brown said. “And it’s not best to send a student to another school with two weeks left in the semester expecting a miracle to happen.”

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.