From the Statehouse

O’Brien might be state board’s choice to share some of Ritz’s duties

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz will have a new partner managing the Indiana State Board of Education next month, and it might be a board member who often disagrees with her.

A push by several members of the board could make Sarah O’Brien, a first-grade teacher from Avon, the vice chairwoman next month, a new position created by the legislature that will share some powers with Ritz.

Cari Whicker, a board member and teacher, told Chalkbeat today that a majority of board members agree that O’Brien’s longevity on the board and experience could make her a good match for vice chairwoman.

“Sarah will be a great fit for that position,” Whicker said. “And I’m optimistic we can put her in that position because she’s had a lot of history on the board. She’s a fellow teacher on the board, and obviously I’m supportive of that, and she’s always calm and respectful and poised and obviously would do a good job in this role.”

If elected by a majority of the state board, O’Brien would lead the board if Ritz is absent. Ritz and O’Brien would be equally responsible for compiling meeting agendas and taking recommendations from other board members, according to the new law.

Whicker said the position also would relieve pressure on Ritz and future board leaders to be present at every meeting where the board might need to be represented, such as a public hearings. Giving board members more opportunities to lead is better for everyone, she said.

“I think we better serve the board, too, because it’s an awfully big position, and if we can spread it out, it helps everybody out,” Whicker said.

But Ritz has strongly opposed the suggestion that she should share her power to lead the board.

Senate Bill 1, a focal point of this year’s legislative session, sparked rollicking debates over who should lead the state board. Ritz and other critics of the bill asserted it was a way for the Republican-led legislature to oust Ritz from a position of power, but supporters said it was both common and logical for a board to elect its own leader.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence last month, will let Ritz finish out her term as state superintendent and board chairwoman. When a new state superintendent is elected in 2016, that person won’t automatically lead the board — the group will instead vote for a leader from among its members.

Whicker said she believes a majority of the board will support O’Brien for vice chairwoman, based on conversations with others on the board. O’Brien’s father is state Rep. Bill Fine, R-Munster, who backed the bill to create the position of vice chairwoman.

“Certainly more than most are supportive of her,” Whicker said. “And so it would be nice to feel like that’s a consensus when we go into that meeting and not have any contention there in selecting somebody.”

The board met for the first time with newly appointed members last week, and the meeting was absent much of the tension that had been present among some of the outgoing board members.

At last month’s meeting, new board member Lee Ann Kwiatkowski was selected to represent the board on a data recording committee with members of the Indiana General Assembly, and board member Gordon Hendry was picked to remain as leader of the board’s strategic planning committee.

getting to know you

These 10 Colorado lawmakers are rethinking how the state pays for its public schools

PHOTO: Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sen. Rachel Zezninger, an Arvada Democrat, on the first day of the legislative session.

Ten Colorado lawmakers, many with longstanding ties to the education community, are set to begin debating the future of Colorado’s school finance system.

The legislative group tasked with studying and making recommendations about how the state pays for public education includes former teachers and superintendents, a former State Board of Education member and a practicing charter school lawyer.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, will lead the committee during its first year.

Garnett helped establish the committee earlier this year when he co-sponsored House Bill 1340 with state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. Lundeen also will serve on the panel.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, will be the vice-chair.

The committee was formed against a backdrop of fear that the state’s schools would face deep budget cuts next school year. However, lawmakers at the last minute averted putting the state’s schools in an even deeper financial hole.

Still, lawmakers from both parties and members of the state’s education community agree the funding system is outdated and in need of a massive overhaul. The state last made significant changes to the system in 1994.

The committee’s first meeting is scheduled for July 24. Among its first decisions will be selecting a third-party consultant to help with research and guide discussions and decisions.

Here’s the full committee:

  • State Rep. Alec Garnett, Denver Democrat, chair
  • State Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs Republican, vice chair
  • State Sen. Janet Buckner, Aurora Democrat
  • State Sen. Bob Gardner, Colorado Springs Republican
  • State Rep. Millie Hamner, Frisco Democrat
  • State Rep. Timothy Leonard, Evergreen Republican
  • State Rep. Paul Lundeen, Monument Republican
  • State Sen. Michael Merrifield, Colorado Springs Democrat
  • State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, Sterling Republican
  • State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, Arvada Democrat

CSI New York

Will you close my school? Transfer school staff, parents and students worry about the new federal education law

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A class at Brooklyn Frontiers High School

Jamie Hawkins marched to the front of a Brooklyn auditorium Tuesday night holding two pieces of paper.

One had information from her son’s Individualized Education Program, which showed that when he entered high school, he read at a second-grade level and did math at a sixth-grade level. The other, she said proudly, proved he graduated from high school.

The reason her son finished school is he attended Brooklyn Frontiers High School, she said, one of several schools in New York City designed specifically for students who have fallen behind.

“He got the skills that he needed,” she explained after her testimony. When asked if he would have graduated without Brooklyn Frontiers she said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Students, teachers and parents from the city’s transfer high schools — which serve students who are over-age and under-credited — crowded into the Prospect Heights Educational Campus on Tuesday for a hearing on the Every Student Succeeds Act, which they fear will treat their schools unfairly.

These schools present a conundrum for state officials. The new law requires that schools with graduation rates under 67 percent are targeted for improvement. But for transfer schools, many people testified at the hearing, that is often an unrealistic standard.

“The language of this legislation, the ESSA legislation, puts our schools in grave danger,” said Rachel Forsyth, director of partnership schools at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that works in multiple transfer schools.

So what will happen to transfer schools under New York’s draft ESSA plan? Are they really in danger? Here’s what we found out:

What does the plan currently say?

The state’s draft plan does not separate the way it evaluates transfer schools from how it judges traditional high schools — but it does gives all high schools some wiggle room.

Instead of using on-time (four-year) graduation rates, the state allows six-year graduation rates in its draft plan. That might not be enough for transfer schools, though. The average six-year graduation rate for transfer schools is 46.7 percent.

If a school does not meet a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent, it will be identified as a school that needs improvement.

Can the state make an exception for transfer schools under the law?

The state says all high schools have to reach a 67 percent graduation rate. Based on information the state’s education department has received from the U.S. Department of Education, there is no exemption for transfer high schools, state officials said.

But advocates say the law offers more leeway. Under the regulations approved by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, schools that serve special populations — such as alternative schools — were permitted to use different metrics than traditional high schools.

Those regulations have been undone by Congress, but the fact that they existed before shows the law allows that flexibility, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY.

“We believe that the state can and should propose a different methodology for identifying specialized schools, such as transfer schools,” Rosenblum said.

What will happen if transfer schools are identified for improvement?

At one point during the hearing, a transfer school advocate gestured to the crowd and declared that if this plan moves forward, all the transfer schools represented in the room would soon cease to exist.

That is very unlikely to come to pass. Even if a school is identified as needing improvement, it would probably be several years before it could face any serious consequences under the new law, according to the state’s draft.

If a school is identified for Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI), it has three years to receive extra support and to implement an improvement plan. Then, it could be put into the state’s receivership program, which means it would likely have another two years to demonstrate improvement. If it does not demonstrate enough improvement, it risks being taken over by an outside receiver.

The state has already proven itself lenient in forcing an independent receiver on schools. So far, only one school in New York state has been threatened with takeover. According to state officials, once schools are in receivership, the state education commissioner has some flexibility in tracking their progress and determining whether schools should still be deemed struggling.

Still, any threat looms large for transfer schools, whose advocates say even if the worst-case scenario never plays out, they are still being rated by unfair metrics.

“We’re already working with kids who have been told repeatedly they are failures. Now we’re looking at a system where 90 percent of the [transfer] schools in the city will be looked at as failing schools,” Forsyth said. “I don’t think it’s really understanding the population we’re working with.”

State officials said they are aware of these concerns and will work to come up with a solution.