The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of the IPS plan for school autonomy and innovation

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Far more IPS students could attend schools that operate with greater freedom over the next few years.

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

A new vision for Indianapolis Public Schools — less central oversight, more freedom for principals and the hope that it will lead to experimentation and new ideas for how to help kids overcome learning barriers — has been in the works for nearly four years.

Now school leaders hope an entirely new system will emerge over the next three years.

The IPS strategic plan calls for granting schools greater independence from district control and more flexibility to manage their budgets without direction from the central office. But that freedom could come with higher expectations for student success and consequences when schools fall short.

Leadership changes bring new ideas

In December of 2011, the school reform organization The Mind Trust issued a blockbuster report calling on the district to transform schools, giving principals more freedom and holding them accountable for student results.

Then-superintendent Eugene White quickly rejected the plan as naive.

But just a year later, White was forced out by a new school board majority that embraced ideas The Mind Trust put forward.

It was the watershed election of 2012 which elected three new reform-oriented Indianapolis Public school board members. Within days of taking office, they persuaded White to resign and began searching for a new leader.

The found Lewis Ferebee, then serving as chief of staff for the superintendent in Durham, N.C.

Since coming to Indianapolis in September 2012, Ferebee has strongly supported a move toward school autonomy, crafting a framework to transition IPS toward more principal freedom that the board approved in October.

But IPS has already begun to launch schools with more independence, calling them “innovation network schools.”

So far, all schools operating under that arrangement are being managed by outside groups, including charter school networks.

New state laws lead to new partnerships

What made innovation network schools possible is a new Indiana law that Ferebee helped write in conjunction with Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and a key Republican legislator.

In 2014, the Indiana legislature passed House Bill 1321, a law that allows IPS to lend school buildings to charter schools or partner with outside organizations, such as charter networks, to manage existing IPS schools.

This approach has won strong support from the legislature. In fact, the concept was expanded in 2015 when Gov. Mike Pence signed House Bill 1009, allowing innovation schools statewide.

Since the law went into affect, the district has granted space to several charter schools, launched Emma Donnan Elementary in partnership with Charter Schools USA and joined with another charter school group to convert School 103, a long struggling elementary school, to the Phalen Leadership Academy at School 103.

At least two other schools, School 93 and Cold Spring School, are aiming to convert to innovation schools with the help of $50,000 each in seed money from the Mind Trust for planning.

A transition plan for IPS

Next year, schools in IPS will fall into one of three categories — traditionally managed schools, autonomous schools and innovation network schools.

Each group will operate under different oversight rules:

Traditional schools: For the next two years, most IPS schools will will have direct oversight from administrators in the central office, as they always have. Neighborhood schools across the district have been managed this way for decades, with big decisions about curriculum, materials, and budgets made at the central office. In the longer term, however, the district hopes to convert all traditional schools to autonomous and innovation schools.

Most magnet schools, which already operate with more freedom than neighborhood schools, will not change. They will remain classified under traditional schools for now.

Autonomous schools: As the district phases in autonomy, it will only give the added freedom to schools that apply to for the designation. The plan is pick six to eight schools in January of 2016 as pilot sites, with the aim of expanding the program to more schools the following year. District leaders are looking for a mix of magnet schools, elementary schools and high schools or middle schools.

Principals at autonomous schools will have more freedom to decide their approaches to teaching, how they use instructional time and how they train teachers. Teachers and staff at autonomous schools will still be considered district employees, and they will be part of district unions.

The school board is also looking to shift budget decisions from the central office to principals at autonomous schools. School board members have backed an approach called “student-based” or “weighted” budgeting, which would give a set amount of money to schools for each student, plus extra funds to help students who face barriers, such as still learning English as a new language or those with learning disabilities.

But weighted budgeting could reduce money for some schools that have the most experienced, and most costly, teachers. That money could be shifted to schools with fewer experienced teachers. The result might force a shift of teachers, and spending, from high-scoring schools to those that have struggled in recent years.

Innovation network schools: Innovation network schools, which are considered part of IPS but are managed by outside groups, such as non-profits or charter networks, already operate in a handful of IPS schools.

Innovation schools are run under contract with the school board, which has authority over them. The district pays the organizations running the schools a dollar amount for each student enrolled. Student test scores and A to F school accountability grades at the schools are attributed to IPS.

Daily management decisions for innovation network schools, from the teaching philosophy to building operations, are handled by the partner organizations, which have wide freedom to run the schools as they think best. Innovation schools are particularly controversial because staff and teachers are not district employees — they work for the management organization and they are not part of district unions.

The approach is also contentious because low-scoring traditional schools can be converted to innovation schools even if the principal and staff object. If a school is rated “F” or designated as failing for three consecutive years, the school board may vote to restart the school as an innovation school with an outside partner.

But some schools could also volunteer to convert to innovation schools with the support of the board, either because they are persistently failing or simply because school leaders want more flexibility. The district also can create innovation schools by housing a charter school in a district building or by founding a new school in partnership with an outside group.

A transition ahead

The process of converting IPS to a school district with a small central office monitoring empowered, semi-independent schools is in its early stages.

Pilot schools, which will try out operating autonomously in 2016-17, will be named in early 2016. Then IPS hopes to expand the group over the next two years.

At the same time, schools with the lowest test scores likely will continue to be converted to innovation network schools that will be managed externally. In most cases, those schools will be run by charter school networks. But some could be run by other types of outside groups or even by IPS employees who form new organizations to manage schools.

-Updated December 2015

The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.

2016 Indiana governor race

The basics of Eric Holcomb on education: Moving past the policy wars

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The 2016 Republican nominee for Indiana governor Eric Holcomb.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for governor when it comes to education. A more detailed story about Eric Holcomb’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about John Gregg, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

Eric Holcomb has promised to be different from his predecessor when it comes to education if elected governor.

The Republican candidate says he’ll avoid the loud political fights that defined Gov. Mike Pence’s battles with Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But Holcomb’s education policies are largely in line with Pence’s.

The Republican candidate took Pence’s place on the ballot in July after Pence dropped out of the race to join Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as his vice presidential running mate.

As a result of his late entry into the race, Holcomb’s education policies are less detailed than his opponent, Democrat John Gregg who is making his second run for governor after losing a close race to Pence in 2012.

Holcomb has also never before been elected to public office. So, unlike the former House speaker Gregg, he has little track record of votes or positions on the issues.

But in interviews, Holcomb, 48, has emphasized a desire to work more collaboratively with the next superintendent — Ritz or her Republican opponent, Jennifer McCormick — to try to move on from the many battles between Pence and Ritz.

Holcomb also says he wants a better state test to replace ISTEP, but he has struggled to explain how his vision for the exam would be different from the much maligned test that the state has used in recent years.

Early lessons and role models

Holcomb’s mother was a teacher, so he spent hours at her side when she was grading papers, both at home and after school. He credits her as his earliest example of work ethic and the value of learning.

After graduating Pike High School in Indianapolis and Indiana’s Hanover College, he spent six years in the Navy and then got involved in politics. For the next 20 years, Holcomb worked for Indiana Republicans, but nearly all of his work was out of the public eye.

He started out as an aide to Indiana congressman John Hostettler before first dipping his toe into politics with an unsuccessful run for congress in 2000.

He served as a campaign adviser to Mitch Daniels during Daniels’ first run for governor in 2003 then stayed on, working in the Daniels administration for seven years.

In 2010, Holcomb took over as state Republican Party chairman, a job he held for three years before leaving to become chief of staff to Repbulican U.S. Sen. Dan Coats.

Holcomb attempted his second run for office in 2013 when he ran for his boss’ seat after Coats announced his retirement, but ended up dropping out of that race when Pence offered him the lieutenant governor job in March.

If Holcomb wins the election on Nov. 8, it will be his first elective victory, so voters don’t have much a personal record they can review. It’s not clear how closely Holcomb will follow the lead of the two Republican governors he served, both of whom shaped a more aggressive Republican education strategy that included more test-based accountability for teachers, students and schools, and support for expanding vouchers and charter schools.

A different tone at the statehouse

Despite his connections to Daniels and Pence, Holcomb has said he wants to set a new tone as governor that would be more cooperative than during the education battles of the last two administrations.

Under Daniels, the state expanded charter school sponsoring, launched the state private school voucher program, established an A-F school grading system and put in place a tough new teacher evaluation system.

After Ritz, a Democrat, scored an upset win in the 2012 superintendent’s race, Pence moved aggressively to block the policy changes she proposed.

The cumulative effect left many teachers feeling weary of politics and unfairly attacked.

From his introduction as a gubernatorial candidate, Holcomb has pledged to take steps to improve the relationship with the state superintendent and show more overt support for teachers.

Big differences with Democrats remain

On policy, Holcomb and Ritz are still far apart. Consider:

Testing. Ritz wants to junk the state’s ISTEP exam in favor of a series of smaller tests that could be scored more quickly and the results returned faster to teachers to use in the classroom. She has argued her approach would reduce test anxiety around the once-a-year exam for students and make the exams more useful.

Holcomb insists the state test should only be given once a year. He also has called for the scores to be delivered to teachers more quickly but has not explained how to do that while keeping the same basic design as ISTEP.

School choice. Holcomb describes himself as a strong supporter of school choice programs, like charter schools and vouchers. And he said he wants the state to take action to try to improve schools with persistently low test scores, even if it’s not necessarily through controversial state takeovers of local schools that the state tried under Daniels.

Preschool. Even where he agrees with Ritz and Gregg — that the state should expand its preschool pilot program — Holcomb takes a different approach. He said he does not think the state should offer to pay for preschool for any four-year-old who enrolls as Ritz and Gregg have proposed, just those from poor families. He also envisions a slower expansion of the five-county pilot that serves about 1,500 poor children today, perhaps a few more counties at a time.