From the Statehouse

Pence calls for plan to strip Ritz of board leadership, kills CECI

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Glenda Ritz could be removed from a lead role on the Indiana State Board of Education if a sweeping overhaul of the Indiana’s education policy structure proposed by Gov. Mike Pence today is enacted by the state legislature.

Speaking today at the annual legislative conference at the Indiana Convention Center about a month before the 2015 lawmaking session is due to begin, Pence stunned the audience by saying he had signed an executive order to dissolve his controversial Center for Education and Career Innovation, a policy-making rival to the Indiana Department of Education that Ritz has persistently complained about. It will cease to exist early next year, he said.

Ritz has repeatedly argued CECI has sought to undermine her authority and is at the center of the state board’s frequent clashes.

“I am aware of the controversy that has surrounded this center since its creation,” Pence said. “Somebody has to take the first step to restore harmony and trust.”

But even as Pence pitched that move as an olive branch, he paired it with a proposal that would likely remove Ritz from a lead role in state board policymaking. He asked lawmakers to elect a replacement for Ritz as the state board’s chairwoman, potentially allowing the board to more directly manage the education department.

Ritz’s role as head of the department is spelled out in the state constitution, but her place as board chairwoman can be changed by the legislature. If adopted, Pence’s plan would allow the 10 gubernatorial appointees who serve with her to choose one of their own to lead the board.

In a statement, Ritz thanked Pence for dissolving CECI but did not directly address how his proposals might affect her standing.

“While dissolving CECI is certainly welcome news, there are other aspects of the governor’s legislative agenda that are concerning for public education in our state,” she said. “I look forward to working with the legislature and the governor on the Department of Education’s legislative agenda and other critical issues during the upcoming session.”

Democrats and labor leaders, however, were quick to describe Pence’s actions as self-serving.

Democratic House leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, called the Republicans paranoid and insecure, unable to work with Ritz — the lone Democrat in the statehouse who holds a statewide office — without changing the rules.

“Let (Ritz) do her job,” he said. “Let her talk. And then the people can decide in the next election. They have plenty of arrows in their quiver to accomplish what it is that they want to accomplish and they then are just going to stomp on voters’ expectations when they sent Glenda Ritz to Indianapolis. At best, it raises eyebrows, and at worst, causes you to charge that they simply don’t want any sort of dissension or alternative points of view.”

That could ultimately harm the state’s efforts to provide the best possible education system, said Rick Muir, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of Indiana’s two statewide teachers unions.

“It’s detrimental to public education,” he said. “The people elected Glenda Ritz and we have never had a state superintendent, nor a Department of Education, treated in the manner we’re seeing them treated. It’s nothing but foul play. They couldn’t win the election so they’re taking everything away.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the larger statewide union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she hopes the dissolving of CECI will make it easier for the State Board of Education and the Department of Education to communicate.

“I think it takes away one of the initial barriers between a clear path between the state board and the superintendent,” she said. “We need to continue to allow the person who was elected to that job to do her job.”

Ritz and Pence both were elected in 2012, but it was Democrat Ritz’s stunning upset win over her predecessor, Tony Bennett, that disrupted what had been a consistent vision for education shared by Bennett and the all-Republican leaders of the state’s executive and legislative branch.

Soon after, Ritz was butting heads with Pence and the 10 Republican appointees who serve with her on the state board. Ritz wanted to push a very different vision for overseeing education in Indiana. As a candidate, she advocated for a reconsideration of some of the testing and accountability-based reforms that had been favored by Republicans.

The increasing tension boiled over late last year when Ritz abruptly adjourned a state board meeting rather than allow a vote on a motion she opposed regarding the process for setting academic standards.

The ongoing disagreements over when Ritz can make unilateral decisions and when she must follow the board’s guidance is revisited at nearly every board meeting, including a long debate on Wednesday that ended with the the board approving a measure to ask the legislature to alter the responsibilities of the board and the state superintendent over her objections.

“Something had to be done,” said state board member Brad Oliver, who attended Pence’s speech. “We could not stay on the course we were on. Nobody’s happy. It’s always been a shared governance system. When any one entity starts saying ‘I am the sole authority’ we’re in trouble.”

Pence’s speech was billed as a preview of his entire legislative agenda, but he pivoted quickly to education as a focus of nearly all the proposals he announced today.

“I think the coming legislative session should be (an) education session and we should focus on our kids and teachers and what’s happening in our classrooms in Indiana,” he said.

Among other major proposals he said would be coming would be an overhaul of the state school funding system to emphasize “performance,” expanding on a smaller effort by the legislature to provide extra aid for districts with good academic results. He will also ask to expand a program that provides bonuses to highly rated teachers, he said.

For a program he called “freedom to teach,” Pence said he would ask the legislature to give the state board authority to grant waivers from some state regulations to school districts that want to try innovative ways to “focus resources on student learning.” More information on that proposal would come later, he said.

Pence also called for a further expansion of choice by allowing more money to flow to private schools that accept vouchers and bringing public charter schools to more cities.

Although Republicans hold huge majorities in both houses of the state legislature, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson, was hopeful there would be room for compromise on Pence’s proposals.

“The governor doesn’t always get what he has asks for with the supermajority Republican legislature,” he said. “Maybe there will be some thought that we have to study that a little bit more before we actually enact it this coming session.”

stacking up

Tennessee inches up in national ranking of charter school laws

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

While Tennessee’s charter school law moved up slightly in a state-by-state analysis, it still ranks in the bottom half of similar laws evaluated by the nation’s leading charter advocacy organization.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Tennessee 29th out of 44 in its eighth annual report based on the group’s version of an ideal charter law. That’s up from 34th in the 2016 rankings.

The report released Wednesday is the first since the alliance updated its rubric to focus more on holding underperforming schools accountable.

Among the biggest issues is money. The report says Tennessee charter schools don’t get enough and neither do their authorizers to effectively oversee them. The group also calls out the Volunteer State on transparency and a lack of clarity over performance-based evaluations.

A charter bill that would overhaul Tennessee’s 2002 charter law is making its way through the General Assembly and would address some of those issues. The proposal would require charter schools to pay a fee to districts — a change that school leaders in Memphis and Nashville have long clamored for. The bill also would require districts to create clear academic performance rubrics to assess existing charters and clarify application and closure procedures.

Tennessee’s charter law has changed little since the state first opened its doors to charters in 2003. The sector has grown to 107 across the state, 71 of which are in Memphis and authorized either by Shelby County Schools or the state-run Achievement School District.

The leader of the Tennessee Charter School Center said the state’s original law was the product of “significant forethought” and that the state diligently continues to evaluate its effectiveness.

PHOTO: Tennessee Charter School Center
Maya Bugg

“We have made great strides, and current legislation in the works takes a strong next step towards addressing some of the policy challenges and opportunities across our state’s charter sector,” CEO Maya Bugg said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Adding clarity around processes and protocol, establishing consistent authorizer performance frameworks, and dedicating funds for increased access to facilities are key initiatives that will, if passed, further strengthen our policies, schools and districts,” she said.

Despite its mediocre ranking, Tennessee was one the leading states in four out of 21 categories used by the national alliance to evaluate state laws: no limit on number of charter schools, autonomous charter boards, automatic exemption from district collective bargaining agreements, and allowing for a variety of charter schools such as new and conversion.

College Access

Tennessee lawmakers advance bill to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students visit the Tennessee State Capitol with local immigrant advocacy groups in support of a measure that would ensure all Tennessee students get in-state tuition.

While President Donald Trump is considering scrapping protections for undocumented students, Tennessee lawmakers advanced a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for them to go to college.

A proposal to give undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition passed the Senate Education Committee with a 7-2 vote and little debate.

The move was fairly unusual, given Tennessee lawmakers’ typical hardline stance on undocumented immigrants — the state outlawed “sanctuary cities” in 2009 — and the president’s focus on the issue. But the bill’s Republican sponsor, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, has steered clear of national politics and focused instead on how the proposal would continue the state’s push to get more of its young people into college.

“We know that if more Tennesseans have a college degree, the whole state is better off,” he said. “By allowing more Tennesseans to enroll in college, we can fill crucial labor shortages and expand the overall tax base.”

Sixteen states, and four other state university systems, offered in-state tuition to undocumented students in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states explicitly bar those students from receiving it.

Advocates say the policy can make a big difference for families. Out-of-state tuition to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is $30,914, compared to $12,274 in-state. And for community colleges, the difference is even greater: out-of-state tuition at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis costs more than $15,000, while other Tennessee high school graduates can attend for free through Tennessee Promise.

Undocumented students can’t access federal Pell grants to pay for college, nor do they qualify for the state’s free community college program, which relies on federal grants.

Making sure students who have lived in Tennessee most of their lives can graduate from college means a better return on taxpayers’ investment, Gardenhire said.

“We invest in these students throughout their K-12 education,” he said. “But then they get to college, and they have to pay three times the in-state rate.”

The bill still has several hurdles to overcome before becoming law, since it hasn’t been heard yet in the House and Tennessee’s legislative session is nearing its end. But its sponsor in the House, Rep. Mark White, a Republican from Memphis, said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances there as well. Gov. Bill Haslam has said in the past that allowing all Tennessee students in-state tuition “has merit.”

On Wednesday, dozens of immigrant students attended the hearing to watch the vote. Many remembered a similar bill that died in the House two years ago, just one vote short.

Many were heartened by the vote, according to Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director of Tennessee Immigrants and Refugee Rights Coalition.

“We are optimistic that subsequent committees will vote to support Tuition Opportunity and that undocumented students in the class of 2017 will be able to graduate with greater opportunity to enroll in college this fall,” she said in a statement.