Politics & Policy

Cosby, the IPS board’s main dissenter, says she won’t run for re-election

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Board member Gayle Cosby speaks during an IPS school board meeting in May.

Gayle Cosby, often the lone of critic on the Indianapolis Public School Board of the district’s ambitious reform plans, today announced that she will not seek re-election.

The news has some asking if her departure at the end of 2016 will diminish open public discussion of doubts about the district’s fast pace toward a completely overhauled school system.

Cosby has tried the patience of some of her fellow board members, and some hinted the board might be better off without her. But community leaders who share some of Cosby’s concerns about the district’s planned changes — which include giving more freedom to principals, shrinking the central office and partnering more often with charter school networks — say a board without dissenters like Cosby cannot genuinely represent the families IPS serves.

“People are left out,” said Diana Daniels, Executive Director of the Indianapolis-based National Council on Educating Black Children. “There are (people) who are not in favor of charter schools, and their voice also needs to be heard.”

It’s certainly possible the election will produce candidates who are less strongly aligned to the board majority. Voting is months away and it’s not yet clear if the other three pro-reform incumbents facing election this year will run. Board member Sam Odle said he plans to run. Michael O’Connor, appointed to fill an unexpired term, has not yet decided. Diane Arnold also is undecided about her re-election plans.

If the last two elections are any guide, defeating candidates who back the current reform plan will be tough to beat. All of the winning candidates in 2012 and 2014 overwhelmingly outpaced rivals who expressed reservations about the district’s direction, fueled by unprecedentedly huge contributions from pro-reform groups and individuals.

Even Cosby got money from reform-minded organizations when she ran in 2012, calling for a change of direction for IPS. But as a board member, she grew increasingly critical of some policies supported by the rest of the board, particularly partnering with outside organizations to manage persistently failing IPS schools.

Cosby said her decision not to run was linked to starting a doctoral program in urban education. The board is too time consuming for her to commit to another four-year term, she said.

“I feel that my voice, in terms of raising some critical questions, has been very important,” Cosby said. “I’m hopeful that others will emerge in the election cycle for this year that will bring those same qualities to the table.”

But not everyone has appreciated Cosby’s point of view, or her approach to debating her fellow board members.

Board member Kelly Bentley, for one, said Cosby’s role as the primary voice of criticism is oversold. Other board members also ask tough questions, Bentley said, but they do so at school board meetings. Cosby often took to her personal blog to air her complaints.

“I’m not sure that it’s that much of a loss,” Bentley said. “We’re all asking those types of questions; we’re just not blogging about it.”

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan said she also is not worried about the board’s ability to hear all points of view. In fact, she thought changes on the board could improve discussions about the district’s future.

“If the trust level is improved, then perhaps the dialogue can be more robust,” she said.

But one former board member has her doubts.

Without the big political contributions that reform advocates have been getting, former IPS board president Annie Roof said she thinks it’s now impossible for opposition candidates to win school board seats. Roof lost her seat to Sullivan, who raised thousands of dollars more for her campaign in 2014. 

“When I ran the first time (in 2010), school board campaigns were funded by sitting around at a kitchen table,” she said.

But today, “money is very powerful,” Roof said.

Roof said she has no interest in running in 2016. The 2014 election was too stressful for her family, she said.

The high-cost of running for an IPS Board seat also worries Chrystal Ratcliffe, president of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP. Low-income citizens, like many families served by IPS schools, can’t raise the money to field a winning campaign, she said.

“Are poverty-stricken people going to have access to that kind of money? Where does that money come from?” Ratcliffe said. “We advocate for our poverty-stricken people, the people who are disenfranchised.”

The NAACP is not necessarily opposed to efforts to make big changes in IPS schools, Ratcliffe said. But she said parents and other community members need more opportunities to learn about the shifts on the horizon and give feedback before decisions are made.

“Those ideas are not getting around to the community the way they should,” she said. “Our communities are left out … of the decision making process as far as being able to give some insight on the experiences they’ve had that could maybe make this work better.”

Calendar talk

Hopson floats year-round school as a possibility in Memphis

School leaders in Memphis are seriously considering a year-round calendar as a way to prevent “summer slump” and boost test scores.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his new summer learning academy — which this year will teach 8,000 students at 22 schools — will serve as a testing ground to track participants’ progress next school year.

In a radio interview, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson talks about a year-round option.

“Clearly there’s a huge need here. The research shows the summer learning loss is real,” Hopson said during a radio broadcast last week on the district’s station at 88.5FM. “I personally think it’s a great idea and I think our board is supportive of it. We just need to figure out a way to operationalize it.”

School board members appear to be open to the idea, too.

“Wouldn’t it be great to be in an environment where there’s not any sort of (summer) slide?” asked Miska Clay Bibbs, adding that a change hinges on academic results and cost.

Shelby County Schools is far from making such a change, but Hopson said his finance team is looking at the cost. The district plans to seek feedback from Memphians about a possible year-round calendar, which includes the same number of school days as a traditional calendar but adds periodic breaks that lead to a shorter summer break.

While traditional 10-month calendars are still the most popular in America, year-round calendars have gained support, especially in districts that serve low-income students.  According to the National Summer Learning Association, students living in poverty are more likely than their more affluent peers to fall behind academically during long summer breaks. And since about 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools come from impoverished households, district leaders are looking for ways to close the achievement gap.

Research spanning decades shows that year-round students perform as well or better than students on a traditional calendar, particularly in reading. A 2009 study by East Tennessee State University added that teachers and parents in year-round districts in Blount and Sevier counties reported “more favorable opinions about their school setting as opposed to teachers and parents of students who attend traditional calendar schools.” And a 2003 state comptroller’s report said “other factors related to academic performance, such as attendance and discipline referrals, show significant improvement in some Tennessee schools.”

Critics charge that building costs can be burdensome as schools are open on more hot summer days. A shortened summer also gives educators fewer opportunities to further their own education. Meanwhile, extracurricular programs like band and sports may encounter scheduling problems under a revised calendar.

Across Tennessee, eight districts have schools on a year-round calendar. In Memphis, two elementary schools — Caldwell and Rozelle — adopted the model some 20 years ago but later abandoned it.

The United Education Association of Shelby County doesn’t have a stance on year-round schools, but the teachers union is collecting feedback through an online survey, according to President Tikeila Rucker.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”