Politics & Policy

Mary Ann Sullivan, former legislator, poised to become new IPS school board president

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Mary Ann Sullivan, who was elected to the Indianapolis Public School Board in 2014, is expected to be named board president Friday.

The Indianapolis Public School Board has been transformed since 2012 by outsiders pushing changes but former state Rep. Mary Ann Sullivan could be the first one to be picked as board president.

Sullivan said she’s interested in the job, and none of her fellow board members has yet emerged as a potential challenger. The new president will be named at Friday’s organizational meeting to begin the new year.

“I’ve expressed an interest in that role,” Sullivan said. “We’ll see how things go. I’ve been working on a lot of these issues for a long, long time. … I’d be very interested in playing a larger leadership role.”

Sullivan, a Democrat who sometimes bucked her party by supporting charter schools and other reforms was defeated in a run for the Indiana Senate in 2012 but then won a school board seat in a landslide in 2014.

“It requires somebody with a lot of skills in diplomacy,” said board member Kelly Bentley, who served as president during a prior term on the board. “I think (Mary Ann) will do a good job of that.”

The board has not yet chosen or publicly discussed as a group who will serve as the next president. But Chalkbeat interviewed several board members, and none expressed interest in leading the board or knew of any other members who planned to throw their hats in the ring. The field is also narrowed because four of the seven board seats are up for election this fall, and some members are reluctant to choose a president who will be on the ballot.

Serving as board president is a significant commitment, said board member Sam Odle. He had expressed interest in the position in past years, but he is no longer looking to be board president, he said.

Although Sullivan is relatively new to the IPS board, she is a political veteran and long-time advocate for education reform, dating to her time as an IPS parent. As member of Indiana House of Representatives, she was known for supporting policies like accountability and school choice.

The board has gotten a complete overhaul thanks to the well-financed and highly contested elections of 2012 and 2014 — six of the seven members now consistently support education reform proposals such as school autonomy and innovation schools.

But Sullivan would be the first of the newly elected members to lead the IPS board. The current president, Diane Arnold, is supportive of the same reform efforts but pre-dates the latest push for change. She was elected in 2004, before the board shakeup. The shift would be largely symbolic.

“(Mary Ann) represents some of the changes the board majority has made clear that we want to move toward,” Bentley said.

The board has demonstrated strong support for district plans such as reducing the central office, increasing freedom for principals and partnering with outside organizations to manage some schools. The next year could be politically volatile, however, because four seats are on the ballot this fall.

What isn’t clear yet, is who will for run those seats — whether incumbents or challengers — and which races will be the most competitive. The board members up for election include Odle, Arnold, Michael O’Connor and Gayle Cosby.

Keeping on experienced members will help the board pursue its goals, said Odle, who is planning to run again.

O’Connor — who joined the board this fall, after Caitlin Hannon left the board for a Mind Trust fellowship — said he is thinking carefully about whether he has the time to run for reelection or serve another term on the board. He expects to decide within the next couple of months.

Arnold and Cosby did not respond to requests for comment.

Because the election is non-partisan, there is no primary and the filing deadline is not until Aug. 26. The election is Nov. 8.

Cosby won her seat in 2012 with the help of significant funding from organizations that support reform, including the Indiana chapter of advocacy group Stand for Children, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Indiana Democrats for Education Reform.

But as a board member, she has sometimes opposed policies favored by reformers, particularly plans to partner with outside organizations to manage IPS schools. With her seat up for election, some of those who helped her win last time could work against her reelection.

Executive Director of Stand for Children Indiana, Justin Ohlemiller, declined to discuss whether the group will support Cosby or endorse another candidate this early in the year. But he shared an email from a Stand parent-leader criticizing Cosby.

“Each school board member that decides to run again will have a record, and they’ll have the opportunity … to talk about their record with the parents in the organization,” he said. “Gayle will have that opportunity as well as other incumbents.”

Every Student Succeeds Act

New federal rules are pushing Indiana to explore giving state tests in Spanish

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
Kindergartners Ivania, left, and Jackie work on reading and writing with their teacher, Liz Amadio, at Enlace Academy.

Native Spanish-speakers could soon have an opportunity to take Indiana state tests in their first language.

Indiana education officials are proposing offering future state math and science tests in Spanish — and possibly other languages — as part of their plan to comply with new requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

Supporters of native language tests say, among other benefits, they can be far less jarring for children than sitting them in front of a test written in a language they can’t understand.

“The whole thinking is (English-learners) would do better if we’d give them access,” said Trish Morita-Mullaney, a researcher and professor at Purdue University who specializes in English language learning. “We don’t want you sitting blankly in front of an English test, we want you to at least have an opportunity to do well.”

The proposal says the translated tests could be available as early as spring of 2019, in time for the first administration of ILEARN, the test currently in the works to replace ISTEP.

While state officials said they’d focus on Spanish, the state’s ESSA plan says they anticipate adding three others to the mix. One option could be Burmese, which has a strong presence in four districts across the state, including some in Marion County.

About 72 percent of Indiana students learning English speak Spanish at home. Overall, Indiana’s 50,677 English-learners speak more than 270 languages, representing the second-fastest growing English-learner population in the entire country.

Morita-Mullaney said she is happy to see Indiana explore native language tests, but she hopes they take it slow and learn from of others. Some past mistakes include trying to test in too many languages (a costly, time-consuming endeavor) and trying to make the new tests happen before proper vetting and before schools collect input from students and families.

California, Texas, New York and Oregon have all, at some point, given native language tests, Morita-Mullaney said. And while it’s not a new idea, it’s still fairly uncharted territory. Based on a 2016 report from Education Week, fewer than 12 states test in languages other than English. Some states, like Florida, are trying to eschew the native language requirement altogether.

But one big piece missing from Indiana’s plan, Morita-Mullaney said, is how the state plans to ensure the test measures what the state intends it to measure — known in the test design world as “construct validity.”

Put another way, if a student is taking a math test in English, but they are fluent in Spanish, is the test measuring how well they know math, or how well they know English? That specific idea is part of the rationale for using native language tests, but there’s a related problem, Morita-Mullaney said: If a native Spanish-speaker is taught math in English, and tested in Spanish, is that also a fair and accurate test?

“If the original instruction was in English, what guarantee do we have that they actually understood it?” Morita-Mullaney said. “Are we testing the language, are we testing the content or both? That component is not in the (state plan).”

A way around this dilemma is through dual language instruction, where students are taught both in English and another language. But while those classes are growing in popularity, they make up a small minority of programs in schools, and many of them are designed to serve students who already know English, rather than students who need support in English and their home language.

Hopefully, Morita-Mullaney said, Indiana will try out native language tests first for small groups of students to make sure they truly provide an advantage to English-learners and function as intended. And ideally, she added, that would come with a renewed investment in bilingual education.

“It’s a wonderful effort, but I remain concerned that we have not examined construct validity,” she said. “But I don’t want construct validity to be used as an argument to not do it … there’s so much we don’t know, and there’s so many states that have done this the wrong way. We need to learn from their pitfalls.”

The move toward using native language tests is indicative of a larger trend of inclusivity in ESSA. Before, students learning English tended to be an afterthought in state education policy. Now, not only are native language tests on the table, but English-learners also have a larger piece of the state’s A-F grade formula.

“This is the first time (English-learners) have had a prominent place in our accountability system,” said Maryanne McMahon, an Indiana State Board of Education member and assistant superintendent in Avon.

There are also safeguards in place in the new rules to ensure even top-rated schools are taking care to educate all students. Going forward, schools could be be singled out for extra support from the state not just if they are rated a D or an F, but also if smaller groups of students, such as English-learners, are struggling.

“You can still have an A-district not meeting EL goals,” Morita-Mullaney said. “People think, ‘We’re an A, we’re good,’ but what it does is it masks disparities. So when you start to look more closely, you see that they’re an A-district, but gee, their English-learners are doing crummy.”

The state is on track to submit its ESSA plan to the federal government in September, and the state board is set to discuss the issues further next month.

Read more about Indiana’s ESSA journey here.

 

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.