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.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”