From the Statehouse

"Teacher choice" one of Pence's education proposals

PenceAtPodium
Gov. Mike Pence laid out his 2014 legislative agenda in a speech Thursday at the annual Legislative Conference. (Scott Elliott)

Gov. Mike Pence wants to extend the concept of school choice to teachers, he said today, offering state aid to those who are willing to work in low-scoring, high-poverty schools.

Pence made education a centerpiece of the 2014 legislative agenda he announced in a speech today, with the novel “teacher choice” program one of five plans aimed at improving schools.

Under the plan, teachers who chose to work at low-performing schools serving high-poverty communities would receive a salary boost from the state.

Details of Pence’s proposals — especially the potential costs — have not yet been determined, according to his staff.

Also among his education ideas were a plan for Indiana to venture for the first time into direct funding of preschool for poor children and a proposal to expand career and technical education programs he pushed through the legislature earlier this year.

Four of his proposals — to help charter school networks, make it easier for charter schools to use school district buildings, establish an educator innovation fund, and the teacher choice program — were first aired in a controversial email released by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz on Wednesday.

The email, written by a lawyer from the Center for Education and Career Innovation that Pence developed, included proposals for Pence’s education legislative agenda. Ritz released the email as part of her complaint that the center is aiming to strip her of her powers as state board chairman.

Pence said Thursday he would not support a bill to limit Ritz’s power.

Here’s more detail on each of Pence’s proposals:

Teacher Choice

The “teacher choice” proposal aims to provide an incentive for teachers to take jobs at low-scoring public or charter schools serving high-poverty areas. As an incentive, the state would offer additional pay to supplement teachers’ salaries at their new schools.

The program would particularly help charter schools, which typically pay far less than traditional public schools. For example, in 2012 the average salary of an Indianapolis Public Schools classroom teacher was $53,910. The average pay for a charter school classroom teacher in the city, meanwhile, was $39,055. The lowest-paying charter school that year paid $20,900 less than IPS on average.

Pence’s plan would cover a portion of that difference in salary for a teacher who changed schools. Teachers could earn the extra pay up to three years.

Claire Fiddian-Green, co-director of CECI, said teachers would receive a flat amount of extra salary. How much has not yet been determined.

She said she hoped it would be enough to create an effective incentive, especially for teachers who are motivated more by a mission to serve needy children than by money. “It gives more choices to teachers if there is some structural reason that keeps you from moving to do mission-oriented work in a D or F school that serves a high percentage of free or reduced-price lunch kids,” Fiddian-Green said. “Is this the extra boost that gives you that added oomph to make the bridge over there?”

Preschool

Pence proposed remedying Indiana’s status as one of just a dozen states that provides no state funds for pre-kindergarten programs. “Children, especially from low income families, often are unprepared when reach kindergarten,” Pence said. “It’s time for us to give our most disadvantaged kids a chance at success.”

Fiddian-Green said the program would be aimed at the 44,000 most needy Hoosier children and would operate much like the state’s K-12 voucher program. Families could choose public or private preschool and use state dollars to pay tuition. Preschools would be evaluated for their effectiveness, perhaps based on assessment tests judging their readiness for kindergarten.

Fiddian-Green acknowledged that 44,000 students in the program would have an “enormous fiscal impact on the state,” saying the program might be phased in over a period of several years and acknowledging that the level of funding would depend on negotiations with legislators. “We’re not ready to speak about money yet,” she said.

Charter schools

Pence proposed allowing charter school networks — companies or non-profits that operate more than one school in the state — to operate under a single governing board.

Currently, each charter school must have its own board. Charter boards report to a sponsor — such as a university or Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office — who judges whether they meet their goals and can be shut down. The boards also choose the managers for the charter schools they run.

Pence’s plan would allow a single board to oversee several charter schools managed by the same operator. The plan would also treat charter school networks like school districts, allowing them to share funds among schools.

School buildings

State law already allows charter schools to buy or rent empty school district buildings, but a Pence proposal would take that one step further. His plan would create a new public or public-private entity to manage unused school buildings. The new entity would capture property tax dollars to maintain the buildings and assign them to charter schools or public schools as it deems fit.

Laws passed in 2011 and 2013 give charter schools the right to rent or buy unused public school space for low cost.

Innovation fund

Pence proposed creating a new competitive grant program — except unlike President Obama’s Race to the Top grants, these would go to Indiana teachers interested in taking on an innovative idea in their classroom.

Career and technical education study

Pence called for a “return on investment” study to determine which career and technical programs best prepare high school students to earn jobs upon graduation.

Field trip

Here’s what Superintendent Hopson told state lawmakers in Nashville about Memphis schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits in the halls of Legislation Plaza Tuesday after speaking before a legislative committee at the State Capitol.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson came to Nashville on Tuesday seeking to break the stigma and stereotypes of Memphis schools, as well as to build better relationships with state lawmakers.

He left calling his time in the State Capitol “a good first step.”

“Oftentimes, the discussion around Shelby County is somewhat negative. And we certainly have a long way to go,” Hopson told legislators on two House education committees. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’re doing everything right, but there are some things to be proud of.”

His presentation came as lawmakers begin to review legislation that could have a major impact on Memphis schools. Lawmakers are considering two private tuition voucher bills, one of which would target Memphis as a pilot. Leaders of Shelby County Schools vehemently oppose both proposals.

Lawmakers also will consider several bills that would change how Tennessee addresses its lowest performing schools, most of which are in Memphis. The State Department of Education backs those bills, which are part of Tennessee’s proposed education plan under the new federal education law.

Hopson joined school board members and other district officials in Nashville as part of the Tennessee School Boards Association Day on the Hill.

He began his presentation promising to do a better job of telling the story of Memphis schools and working with legislators to improve education in Tennessee.

Hopson then cited the district’s growth in math and literacy in 2015, the latest available testing data for all schools, as well as highlighting a number of high-performing schools and the district’s turnaround work through its Innovation Zone.

Hopson noted the poverty rate in Memphis — 40,000 students live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year — and its affect on education of students. He also appealed to the Christian faith professed by many state lawmakers.

“When you think about faith, the word compassion comes to mind,” Hopson said. “In my mind, compassion is: You see a need, you’re moved by that need, and then you act on that need.”

He went on.

“Our district is so unique because we have suffocating poverty that many of our kids live in. And if you just think about that for a minute — what that would be like to live in a house with five, six, seven people on 200 bucks a week — … I mean, it just creates really significant challenges because kids are not always prepared to show up to school ready to learn.”

Poverty is “not an excuse” for poor performance in schools, he continued. “But I think it is important when you think about our school district and some of the challenges we have to just take a moment and think about the population that we serve,” Hopson said.

Unfortunately, the superintendent’s presentation was cut short after just 10 minutes, following Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s remarks on school turnaround work that went long. He said later that he wanted to talk more about the challenges faced by Memphis schools, many of which are priority schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We’ve got kids with severe, severe social-emotional needs,” he said of the state’s largest school system. “And absent a strategic attempt to address those needs, we’re not going to ever see the progress in accelerated fashion we want to see. It is what it is. I hope they heard that.”

Unleashed

McQueen rips Tennessee’s school turnaround work as ineffectual, overdue

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at an event in Memphis in 2015.

In a fiery speech to state lawmakers on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, even calling the outcomes “a little embarrassing.”

McQueen noted that the state has moved only 10 schools off its “priority” list since compiling its first list in 2012, beginning with 83 low performing schools.

“We can’t keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions,” she told legislators on House education committees.

The remarks were a departure from McQueen’s usual placating tone — and her most direct condemnation of school turnaround work to date in Tennessee. That work includes programs spearheaded both by local districts and the state’s Achievement School District, which has authority to take over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, generally assigning them to charter operators.

But her indictment stretched far beyond the state’s role in those programs, which serve mostly poor communities. She took aim at efforts that began with the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which prescribed how states must deal with struggling schools.

“This is probably going to come across as a little preachy, but it is preachy,” said McQueen, who became commissioner in 2014. “We’ve got kids who were sitting in schools that we knew — we knew — and I want you to listen to the years, back in 2002, 2003, 2004, that they were in a low performing school that needed to turn around fast. (Those students have) now graduated, and we did not have the increases we needed at those schools to set them up for success.”

While McQueen didn’t single out specific turnaround initiatives, she stressed that Tennessee needs to focus on what has worked — specifically, at the 10 schools that have been moved off the state’s priority list so far. McQueen named common themes: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports, such as mental health care services.

Those successes helped to inform the school improvement component of Tennessee’s proposed new education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Under that plan, the state would work with local districts to improve their lowest-performing schools through academic and wraparound services. The ASD, which McQueen refers to as the state’s “most rigorous intervention,” would be reined in, making it a last-resort when other efforts have failed. Lawmakers will vote on components of the plan in the coming months.

Under ESSA, states have more flexibility on how to spend money for school improvement. In the past, the federal government gave states school improvement grants with explicit instructions on how to spend them. But those grants ultimately didn’t work, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen told lawmakers that, under the plan, the state would give low-performing schools more resources than ever, but also would expect a quicker pace of change.

“This work is about shorter time frames with more support and expectation of outcomes that ultimately will make or break the future of Tennessee,” she said.