From the Statehouse

Supporting two charter school bills, IPS signals a new direction (updated)

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

After years of antagonism, Indianapolis Public Schools is trying out a new approach to charter schools: cooperation.

The district, led by new Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, is supporting two bills in the state legislature aimed at making it easier for school districts to partner with charter schools.

The first—House Bill 1063—would create new “compacts” between school districts across the state and charter schools. The compacts would give charter schools access to district services like busing and school buildings in exchange for letting districts count the charter schools’ test scores in their annual averages.

The bill passed the House with a unanimous 97-0 vote today, garnering support from Republicans, who have long favored charter schools, as well as Democrats, who have often been hostile to the independently run public schools.

Like Democrats, IPS officials have aggressively fought charter schools. But they also offered their support for the bill. And on Thursday, Ferebee himself will testify on behalf of a second bill that would steer the district into closer relationships with charter schools.

That bill—house Bill 1321, which only applies to Indianapolis Public Schools—would give the district some of the levers of control over charters that are now enjoyed by the schools’ sponsors, such as setting expectations for the schools’ academic performance levels. In exchange, the charter schools would be allowed to run existing IPS schools through contracts with the district or operate their own schools inside IPS buildings.

If House Bill 1321 is passed by the education committee Thursday, it could be up for a vote of the full House next week.

“We need every tool in the toolbox,” Ferebee said. “I’m looking to strengthen autonomy at the school level. I believe this is an opportunity to do so and to forge beneficial relationships.”

Both bills offer a similar covenant. The charter school gets services or resources from the district. In return, the district can count the test scores from those schools in its cumulative averages. The bills would also give IPS a degree of control over two factors that have vexed district officials: input into where some charter schools locate and whether they offer a quality program.

“I’d like to think IPS and any other district with high-achieving charter schools would want to work together,” said Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, who authored House Bill 1063. “In this case, if the charter school doesn’t perform well, the district loses its incentive to partner with that charter school.”

The cooperative stance represents a departure from the way IPS has viewed charter schools in the past. Ferebee’s predecessor, former Superintendent Eugene White, often complained that charter school proponents were seeking an unrealistic “silver bullet” solution in promoting the schools as a way to improve education across the city.

In response to charter school growth, White embraced competition. He created charter-like magnet school options within IPS to attract students who might otherwise have left for charter schools and even sent IPS recruiters door-to-door to try to bring students who left the district back to IPS schools. As superintendent, when White went to the statehouse, it was often to testify against charter schools or efforts to expand them.

Ferebee said he holds a different view of school competition.

“I don’t think we have to operate in an environment of animosity with charter schools,” he said. “We can learn from, and with, each other. We vie for the same resources and serve the same students.”

The majority of IPS board members, four who were elected in 2012, campaigned on a promise that district schools would have more freedom from the central office and would be held more accountable for results in return. They picked Ferebee to replace White in part with an eye toward fresh thinking about competition with charter schools and other school choice options.

“This is the direction we intended to take,” said board member Gayle Cosby, one of the new board members from 2012, of the district’s support for the charter school bills. “I think it’s a step in the right direction. We just need to make sure these relationships are mutually beneficial.”

One challenge the bills aim to tackle is facilities. Under current law, charter schools receive no public dollars for facilities or transportation. They sometimes spend millions to build a school or thousands each month to rent one, taking away money that could otherwise be used for instruction.

At the same time, Ferebee argues that IPS suffers when charter schools locate close to the district’s own buildings. The charter school lures away students and the state dollars that go with them, creating empty space in the local neighborhood school.

“I definitely view it as an efficiency,” Ferebee said. “Look at facilities utilization. You have millions of dollars being poured into old warehouses and Toys R Us stores to turn them into schools. Is that best for our students?”

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the House Education Committee and authored House Bill 1321, said sometimes it might make more sense for two nearby schools to share a building, or for the charter school to instead manage a persistently failing school.

“In some cases we have a charter right across from a neighborhood school,” he said. “Hopefully they can work collaboratively to make sure we have programs that meet the needs of students.”

One potential hangup in the second bill, House Bill 1321, is a provision that would give hiring freedom to schools operated in partnership.

Gail Zaheralis, who lobbies at the statehouse for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the statewide union supports House Bill 1063 but opposes House Bill 1321 and will testify against it in the House Education Committee.

House Bill 1321 can be used to bring in outside management for schools rated a D or F for three years, according to ISTA’s analysis. Contracts with the outside management organization could not be less than five years,  the analysis showed. District employees would have to switch to working for the outside group to stay at the school, giving up their union-protected jobs with IPS.

She likened it to the state’s take over of four IPS schools in 2012. She painted the bill as allowing what amounted to an IPS-led takeover of one of its own schools.

“Frankly, it appears to be another way to accelerate takeover by private, for-profit management companies–even when the data so far fails to demonstrate that this works,” Zeheralis said.

Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz has yet to take a position on House Bill 1321.

IPS’s teachers union leaders are perturbed that they have not been invited to the table to discuss the bills.

“Nobody’s talked to us about that at all,” union President Rhondalyn Cornett said. “We need more information.”

Her predecessor, past President Ann Wilkins, interjected with a caution for Ferebee.

“Until they do discuss it with us, the answer is a no,” she said.

Despite their unanimous support for House Bill 1063, Democrats weren’t completely at ease with the move toward school district cooperation with charter schools.

“I’m lukewarm to it,” said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said. “I have not fully embraced it.”

Even so, Porter voted for House Bill 1063 and said he could be open to supporting House Bill 1321 if it will help Ferebee and IPS.

“It’s a new superintendent and he’s interested in looking at charters to see how to improve education,” Porter said. “The whole concept is that charters are public schools. Maybe he has a new direction. We have to trust him to do what he thinks is right.”

(NOTE: An earlier version of this story cited Rep. Robert Behning as saying union bargaining would be optional for schools operated in partnership under House Bill 1321. Bargaining for such schools is actually prohibited in the bill. Behning said he intended to reference current law regarding charter schools, not the bill.)

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: House Speaker Brian Bosma

PHOTO: Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 88, covering parts of Marion, Hancock and Hamilton counties. So far, has served 31 years in the legislature, 9 of those as Speaker of the House. Bosma is a lawyer at the firm Kroger, Gardis & Regas.

Why he’s a power player: Bosma was House Speaker in 2011, when the state passed its large education reform package, creating the first voucher program for students from low-income families. Along with Rep. Bob Behning, Bosma helped develop the state’s voucher program bill as well as the bill that expanded charter school efforts that year. As a party and chamber leader, he plays a major role in setting House Republicans’ legislative agendas.

On toeing the party line: With the debate over state-funded preschool front and center during this year’s session, Bosma has expressed far more enthusiasm than his fellow Republicans for expanding the state’s program. Indeed, Bosma has long been a supporter of state-sponsored preschool. Currently, low-income families in five counties can apply for vouchers to use at high-quality preschool providers. Bosma has said he’d like to see that number triple, if not more.

Recent action: In 2016, Bosma ushered through one of the few teacher-focused bills that became law in the wake of news that some districts in the state were struggling to hire teachers. The bill created a state scholarship fund for prospective teachers, and began awarding money to students this year.

A perhaps little-known fact: In the late 1980s, Bosma worked at the Indiana Department of Education as the legislative adviser to H. Dean Evans, the state superintendent at that time. Then, as with this year’s House Bill 1005, lawmakers advocated to make the state superintendent an appointed position, a bill Bosma is carrying this year.

Who supports him: In past elections, Bosma has received campaign contributions from Education Networks of America, a private education technology company; Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; Stand for Children, a national organization that supports education reform and helps parents to organize; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country.

Conversely, given his support for choice-based reform, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education gave Bosma an “F” in its 2016 legislative report card highlighting who it thinks has been supportive of public schools.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.