Building Better Schools

Pence signs on to Ritz's approach to 'pause' A-F grades, ISTEP sanctions

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz speaks with reporters after Indiana's request for a waiver from some rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law was approved in 2014.

Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz finally agree on the best way to handle a “pause” of penalties schools would otherwise pay for poor test scores for 2014-15, and they appear poised to follow Ritz’s preferred approach.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, a Republican from Auburn who chairs the Senate Education Committee, today filed Senate Bill 200, which proposes schools may not receive a lower grade for 2015 than what they received in 2014.

That’s the very solution Ritz has promoted since mid-2014.

“The current version of Senate Bill 200 is common sense legislation that allows schools time to adjust to our new standards and prevents unnecessary economic harm to our schools and communities,” Ritz said in a statement. “This bill has my strong support.”

Pence, who opposed giving schools a one-year pass from low A-F grades and their accompanying sanctions before changing course in late October, signaled he also supports Kruse’s bill.

“(Gov. Pence) has studied the issue, listened to educators in the field and collaborated with lawmakers to arrive at what he believes is the fairest treatment of schools in the transition year,” Pence’s spokeswoman Kara Brooks said in a statement.

If the bill passes intact, it would be a rare political win for Ritz. Her seal of approval on education policy ideas, at times, has seemed to brand them as non-starters with Pence, his Indiana State Board of Education appointees and other Republican leaders.

The bill also quickly garnered support from House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

In June of 2014, Ritz called for a pause in the A-F system in a letter to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Pence followed a newspaper column in which he said such a move would never happen on his watch.

“Indiana will not go backwards when it comes to measuring performance in our schools on my watch,” he wrote. “We do not support a pause in accountability as it relates to delivering A to F grades to schools, determining intervention strategies in under-performing schools, or teacher evaluations that reflect classroom performance.”

State Democrats also support the method laid out in Kruse’s bill. In fact, Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, drafted a similar bill that he asked the Indiana General Assembly to pass on Organization Day in November, the ceremonial start to the legislative session.

It didn’t happen then — such a move would have had few precedents — but it appears there is near unanimous support for the idea today.

The need for an A-F grade fix stems from several problems with the 2015 ISTEP test, including scoring problems and differences that were discovered between difficulty in online and paper versions that required scoring adjustments so all students had comparable results.

ISTEP scores are expected to be released to the public on Wednesday, which is far behind the usual schedule. They were released in early August in 2014.

State test scores are key factors in determining teacher pay decisions as well as school A-F grades. Because the state introduced new, more challenging standards in 2014, ISTEP passing rates are expected to drop 16 percentage points in English and 24 percentage points in math. That also means fewer schools are expected to get A’s, and more likely will receive D’s and F’s.

Schools that earn F-grades can have serious consequences ahead of them. For example, the state can take schools over, handing them off to be run by charter school networks or other outside groups, if they repeatedly get F’s for four consecutive years. Teachers who receive poor evaluations can be fired or declared ineligible for pay raises.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, is also expected to introduce tomorrow a bill that would not allow ISTEP scores or A-F grades to factor into teacher evaluations, their pay raises or pay bonuses, for 2015.

A few other ideas for how to handle a big dip in ISTEP passing rates and A-F grades were proposed late last year, but the “hold harmless” approach seems to have the most support from the U.S. Department of Education. State education department officials have told Chalkbeat that they are confident the method in Kruse’s bill would be “consistent with the spirit of the flexibility (the U.S. Department of Education) has offered.”

The Senate Education Committee, chaired by Kruse, is expected to hear and vote on the bill at its first meeting Wednesday. A statement from Long and Bosma said both bills are expected to pass and reach the governor’s desk by mid-to-late January.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”

vying for vouchers

On Betsy DeVos’s budget wish list: $250M to ‘build the evidence base’ for vouchers

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Recent research about private-school voucher programs has been grim: In Washington D.C., Indianapolis, Louisiana, and Ohio, students did worse on tests after they received the vouchers.

Now, the Trump administration is looking for new test cases.

Their budget proposal, released Tuesday, asks for $250 million to fund a competition for school districts looking to expand school voucher programs. Those districts could apply for funding to pay private school tuition for students from poor families, then evaluate those programs “to build the evidence base around private school choice,” according to the budget documents.

It’s very unlikely that the budget will make it through Congress in its current form. But the funding boost aimed at justifying private-school choice programs is one way U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is delivering on years of advocacy for those programs. On Monday, she promised the Trump administration would soon lay out the “most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.”

DeVos and other say vouchers are critical for helping low-income students succeed and also help students in public schools, whose schools improve thanks to competitive pressure. Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and for allowing private schools to discriminate against LGBT students.

Bill Cordes, the education department’s K-12 budget director, told leaders of education groups Tuesday that the “sensitive” issues around the divide between church and state and civil rights protections for participating students would be addressed as the program is rolled out.