From the Statehouse

Ritz's education department faces questions about transparency

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz is surrounded by reporters after an Indiana State Board of Education meeting last year.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, whose first high profile political battle was a lawsuit charging the Indiana State Board of Education was blocking public access, is facing questions about her own commitment to open government.

In the past year, Ritz has faced three complaints or inquiries from journalists and others that forced changes in practices at the Indiana Department of Education or brought cautions from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, including twice this summer.

The most recent was an “informal inquiry” from WFYI Public Media’s education reporter, Eric Weddle. An inquiry is a request for help from Britt that does not constitute a formal complaint.

Weddle raised concerns about the education department’s failure to provide meeting locations and agendas for a state advisory council on the education of children with disabilities. The information would be provided, the council’s website said, if an email was sent requesting it.

But Weddle’s two email requests went unanswered for nearly a month, he said.

Weddle said he thought about how hard it would be for parents of disabled children or community members who cared about the issue to get information about the committee’s meetings if a professional reporter was having so much trouble.

“That just seems like a lot of hoops to jump through for, say, a parent who is already trying to navigate the special education world for their kid,” he said. “I emailed twice for meeting information and got no response. I doubt many parents or members of the the public would keep trying after that.”

But Ritz’s communications director, David Galvin, said the department has a good track record when it comes to providing public access.

“Our small staff has done a good job,” he said. “The superintendent’s office is known to be one of the more transparent offices. I think the superintendent is quite happy with the way we support and distribute information.”

In his July 17 opinion on the case, Britt said the education department conceded it had failed to respond to Weddle, citing a problem with the email system and blaming a change in the committee chair for creating a confusion about when the group would meet. Britt urged the department to publish agendas online.

In a separate case Britt ruled on last month, Rod Gardin of Kouts, near Valparaiso, complained about the department’s slow response to his request for copies of any testing concerns or security violations reports for the 2015 ISTEP test.

Britt sided with the department on technical questions of whether its initial response was quick enough and was sympathetic to education officials’ argument that the request required a time consuming extra effort. But Britt also said nearly 90 days to fill Gardin’s request was a long delay.

Timeliness was also the basis for a complaint by Abdul-Hakim Shabazz filed last September, but in his case it took the education department more than a year to fill his request for copies of emails sent and received by education department staff. Shabazz runs the IndyPolitics.org website and hosts a radio show.

The request was not filled after after Britt ruled the department violated state law.

“A year is way out of the time frame,” Britt said. “The longest I ever said would be OK is six months. And I think even that is pushing the boundaries. Six months is an awfully long time.”

Galvin was less sympathetic to Shabazz, who he described as “a political radio host pundit who is constantly attacking the superintendent.” But he conceded the department perhaps could have done better in the other two cases.

“If a couple have slipped through, we regret that,” Galvin said. “We definitely want to try to turn information around as best we can.”

The public access counselor is an office many states don’t have. Britt’s post is appointed by the governor to assist citizens with problems accessing public meetings or documents, and he rules on questions about whether public offices have broken state open records or open meetings laws. In general, documents and data held by the state and meetings of public boards are required to be open for public inspection or attendance, except for reasons the legislature has specifically spelled out.

Britt does not have the power to enforce his rulings. If public offices still don’t comply with his decisions, those making the complaints must ask a court to intervene.

Three complaints in a year about the education department isn’t extreme, Britt said. The department receives a large volume of request for records and data, he said, which can slow down its response time.

State departments that receive the most access complaints are usually those that deal with criminal defendants and prisoners. The Department of Corrections had 30 complaints or inquiries to Britt’s office, and the state police had nine, Britt said. But the education department had the third most.

“I don’t think it’s systemic,” Britt said. “I think they just have a lot going on, and they’re short staffed. Things fall through the cracks.”

Besides the formal inquiries and complaints, other news organizations have sometimes struggled to get access to information from the education department, including Chalkbeat.

For Chalkbeat’s April series on English language learning in Indiana, its information request for data on the number of children learning English as a new language and other student factors in each Indiana school was never completely filled, even after repeated email, phone and in-person follow-ups over 47 days. While some of the requested data was provided, Chalkbeat eventually obtained the rest through public sources online without the department’s help.

In Chalkbeat’s case, the department also blamed email problems, saying an attachment had failed to come through. But the attachment was never sent after that explanation was given.

Shabazz said he filed his complaint because he was tired of waiting so long, and also because he thought it was hypocritical that Ritz demanded the state board be more open but seemed not to expect the department she leads to do the same.

“Glenda filed a suit against the State Board of Education complaining about openness and transparency, and they can’t even comply with the law in a timely manner themselves,” Shabazz said.

Ritz sued the other 10 members of the board in 2013 after they all signed a letter to lawmakers asking to have a different state agency calculate school A-to-F grades because they thought the education department was moving too slowly.

Ritz’s suit argued that the group decision to author the letter should have been made in public and that the email conversations that led to the letter constituted an illegal private meeting. The suit was dismissed, but a later suit by four citizens resulted in a $15,000 cash settlement from the state board.

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.