Six critical questions the IPS school board race will answer

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For the second consecutive election cycle, the Indianapolis Public School Board race has broad implications that could alter the district’s trajectory.

Two years ago, the election tilted the board for the first time toward a brand of reform it had flatly rejected in the past: cooperation with businesses and conservative groups pushing more autonomy for schools and a total rethinking of how the district is managed.

Will changes to the board this fall bring a stronger connection to that flavor of reform? Or will the election steer the district toward a reconsideration of, and possibly even a step back from, the direction it has forged since the last election?

In 2012, three new board members who won seats broke up a steadfast majority which consistently supported former Superintendent Eugene White and his policies. Within days of taking office, a new board majority forced White out and soon began moving IPS toward positions that were previously unthinkable.

One example: IPS is now seeking partnerships with charter schools, whereas White had promised an all-out campaign to stop more IPS kids from enrolling in them.

But new divisions have emerged on the board and the election has helped push a further ideological realignment.

Here are six critical questions the election Nov. 4 will answer:

Will reformers take over the school board?

Four 2012 winners — Caitlin Hannon, Sam Odle, Diane Arnold and Gayle Cosby — called for similar changes in IPS and were expected to drive a somewhat coordinated agenda for the district.

All four backed reform ideas touted by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform group, and outside groups like Stand For Children and Democrats for Education Reform rallied around them. In 2011, the group proposed a deep cut in administrative spending, more autonomy for schools and an expansion of preschool.

But the alliance has not remained intact.

On some issues, such as ousting White, those four have joined with school board President Annie Roof and board member Samantha Adair-White.

Roof has sided with the reformers more often than Adair-White. To the surprise of even some of her campaign contributors, Cosby has sometimes allied with Adair-White and Michael Brown in opposition to changes favored by the rest of the board. That group has been increasingly cautious about partnerships with charter schools or outside groups promoting change in the district.

Candidates challenging Adair-White and Brown, however, are strongly aligned with the reformers. If former IPS board member Kelly Bentley defeats Adair-White and charter school dean LaNier Echols ousts Brown, the new board would have at least five members who are strongly aligned in favor of reforms favored by The Mind Trust, Stand for Children and others.

Can board President Annie Roof survive a five-way dogfight to keep her at-large seat?

Perhaps the most interesting race this fall is for an at-large seat held by Roof, the board president.

Roof has widely been viewed as in danger of losing her seat since high profile former state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan, a national board member of Democrats for Education Reform, announced she was exploring a run for Roof’s seat. Sullivan has strong name recognition and a track record of success winning votes in the city. But the race has turned out to be more complicated than a showdown with Roof.

Three other candidates have joined the contest — Butler University business professor Josh Owens, Light of the World Church Pastor David Hampton and former IPS employee Ramon Batts.

Splitting the vote five ways could make it tougher for any one candidate to capture a majority. It makes it possible, for example, for a candidate to win with a lower vote total, even less than 50 percent. That could make the race more competitive and, perhaps, give Roof a better chance for survival.

Will the longest serving board member keep his seat?

Brown has served on the board for more than a decade and is the lone remaining holdover from the solid coalition that mostly backed White’s decisions when it held a majority until 2012.

Since then, Brown has remained a skeptic of reforms offered by The Mind Trust and other outside groups. He has opposed IPS layoffs and allied with the district’s teachers union on some issues.

Brown is an active volunteer at Northwest High School, which is the centerpiece high school in his Northwest Indianapolis district.

Seeking to unseat him is Echols, a former teacher who came to IPS through Teach for America and now serves as an administrator at a charter school.

The critical question for Echols is whether she can appeal to rank-and-file IPS parents and voters who have supported Brown through the years. She will need to persuade skeptics of school choice that a charter school employee can be an effective IPS board member.

Will Mary Ann Sullivan and Kelly Bentley be returned to public office?

Both Sullivan and Bentley gave up their last elected offices without seeking re-election. The school board is the road back to public life.

Sullivan gave up her Indiana House seat in an unsuccessful bit to unseat state Sen. Brent Waltz. Republican Waltz won re-election by a comfortable six-point margin.

Perhaps more surprising was support for Waltz from the Indiana State Teachers Association, which is usually a reliable supporter of Democratic candidates. But ISTA officials were disillusioned by Sullivan’s support in the legislature for Republican education bills, such as those that initiated a charter school expansion and changes to teacher evaluation in 2011.

Bentley left the IPS board in frustration, choosing not to seek reelection in 2010 after 12 years in office and frequent clashes with White. But Bentley told Chalkbeat in July she was more optimistic about the district’s opportunity to change under the current school board and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Incumbent Adair-White’s re-election campaign is just getting off the ground, as she waited until the Aug. 22 filing deadline to decide to seek her seat again. James Turner, another former IPS employee, is also seeking Adair-White’s seat on the board.

Will 2014 be a high-dollar campaign like 2012?

The last school board campaign was groundbreaking for how well-funded the successful candidates were. Cosby raised more than $75,000, Hannon more than $65,000 and Odle more than $55,000. Those are huge amounts for a local school board race in Indiana. In the case of Cosby and Hannon, some of their support came from wealthy patrons of school reform in other states. Groups pushing for change in IPS, such as Stand for Children, gave considerable support to both, too.

Stand For Children and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce have already endorsed Sullivan, Bentley and Echols, signaling that similar support could follow them this year. Both Sullivan and Bentley also are strongly connected to influential Democrats who support education reform nationally.

The teachers union for IPS and its parent group, ISTA, were not major contributors to candidates in 2012. That could change this year. Roof, Brown and Adair-White are expected to court union support and traditional Democratic voters.

Will the board emerge with any active IPS parents as members?

The two IPS board members with children who attend IPS schools — Roof and Adair-White — face stiff challenges to retain their seats. Additionally, Brown’s son graduated from IPS just two years ago.

If all three were defeated, it would leave the board void of any parents with children in the district, or who have recently had children attending IPS schools. Whether that is a concern for voters remains to be seen.

NOTE: Contribution figures for candidates in the 2012 races have been updated to reflect the most recent information available.

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.