election

PAC tied to Teach For America spends big on a local Indiana election, but no one quite knows why

PHOTO: Kristin Frey/Dylan Peers McCoy
John Fencl (left) and Deitric Hall (right) are running for Washington Township School Board.

It’s a familiar story: A big influx of money is shaking up a school board race in Indianapolis, with tens of thousands of dollars coming from out-of-state school reform advocates.

But this time there’s a twist: The money is going to a candidate in Washington Township, a district with just 11,000 students where there have been few battles in the school reform war.

In a district where candidates typically spend less than $10,000 on even the most competitive races, Deitric Hall, a local teacher, has raised more than $32,000. Nearly all that money is from a single political action committee: Leadership for Educational Equity, a Washington D.C.-based PAC that supports Teach for America alumni running for public office.

It’s a small-scale version of a phenomenon that has played out in urban districts around the country as outside campaign contributions have increasingly influenced pivotal school board races. In Indianapolis Public Schools, outside contributions helped radically reshape the board in 2012 and 2014, when out-of-state funders backed a victory for charter-school supporters.

But unlike in IPS, Washington Township isn’t facing a pivotal election — and Hall’s opponent had raised barely any money until this month. That has raised eyebrows in the area, where locals wonder why LEE, even given Hall’s connection to TFA, would spend so heavily on the race.

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

A native of California, Hall moved to Indianapolis three years ago for a teaching position through TFA, a national nonprofit that recruits new teachers for school districts with high-needs students.

He landed a position at KIPP Indy Unite Elementary, where he now works with students with special needs. Hall, who doesn’t have children, says his background as an educator will offer valuable insight to the board, and despite being new to the community, he is dedicated to improving the schools.

Hall said LEE’s support for his candidacy does not mean the school reform fight is coming to Washington Township, and he is not in the race to push sweeping changes.

“My intent is to do what’s best for kids,” Hall said. “Does that mean do we need to crash the system and redo it from scratch? No, not necessarily. I think Washington Township is in a good spot. I think that with tweaks it can continue to be better.”

Since LEE launched in 2007, it has trained educators to get involved in local politics and given candidates access to a deep well of cash from national school reform advocates. The Indiana branch of LEE, which like others is heavily funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has contributed to other TFA alumni running for office in Indianapolis.

But Hall is the only candidate the Indiana group has donated to this year, and its donations to his campaign dwarf its contributions to candidates in past elections. LaNier Echols, for example, got $7,500 from LEE when she ran for a seat on the IPS board in 2014.

“Deitric Hall is a shining example of understanding his community and the schools that serve it,” LEE spokesman Eric Guckian said in a statement. “His vision for Washington Township will make him an invaluable member of the school board, if elected.”

Three of the five school board seats are up for election in Washington Township. Hall is facing off against one opponent, John Fencl, for an at-large seat representing the entire district.

Fencl has deep roots in the community: He is a parent of two middle schoolers in Washington Township where he also grew up and went to school. Fencl, an accountant, has volunteered as a math tutor and coach in the district. He said his work mentoring middle school boys has given him particular insight into the schools.

“I’m focused on the district, involved in the district,” he said. “I understand what Washington Township schools are about.”

When Fencl filed a fundraising report with the county earlier this month, he had raised just $750, which he said was because he wasn’t sure how competitive the race would be. But when he saw how much money Hall had raised, he shifted into high gear. In just a couple of weeks, Fencl boosted his fundraising to close to $7,500, he said. About $5,000 of that came from a single donor, Washington Township attorney Charles Rubright.

Since it became clear how much money Hall raised, other community members, including parents and even high school students, have become active in the race. They say they are motivated by concern over the role out-of-state funding is playing in Hall’s campaign.

Kristina Frey is a Washington Township parent who leads the Parent Council Network, a longstanding political group that endorsed Fencl. When she learned that Hall had joined the race, she set up a meeting to hear about his plan for the district and she came away uncertain why he was even running, she said.

“My suspicion is that folks in the education reform movement are looking at how they can potentially expand outside of IPS boundaries,” Frey said. “I would not be surprised to see them come back again with more money and try to gain a majority as they did in IPS.”

Washington Township attracts lots of families looking for good schools, and it recently rolled out the popular International Baccalaureate curriculum districtwide. But more than half its students are poor enough to receive meal assistance, and it is increasingly diverse, with a growing population of Hispanic children.

As a result, the district is facing some of the same challenges of larger urban districts, such as figuring out how to reduce suspensions. But parents say there hasn’t been much conflict over traditional school reform policies: The district doesn’t have teachers from TFA and there is only one charter school within its boundaries. The most pressing issue facing Washington Township seems to be school funding.

“I think it’s a pretty harmonious situation,” said Shelley Clark, a parent and member of the Parent Council Network whose children went to school with Fencl’s.

The relative calm of district politics is one reason why parents such as Clark are so suspicious of Hall’s involvement in the race and the unexpectedly large influx of cash he is receiving from national advocates.

“I feel like I sound like a conspiracy theorist,” Clark said. “But I’d be curious to know why is this important? Why is this happening now? Why is it worth $31,000 to some institution that isn’t even from here?”

Teamwork

Who will be advising Indiana’s next state superintendent? Not the charter advocates some expected

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

Indiana’s next state superintendent Jennifer McCormick today announced the team of 17 educators and policymakers who will help her prepare to take office in early January — and not one of them is a major player in Indiana’s charter school or voucher scene.

That matters because for much of McCormick’s campaign, critics charged that she would be no different from her Republican predecessors who pushed sweeping changes in the state, shifting resources away from traditional district schools toward charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition.

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

McCormick insisted throughout her campaign that she’s not like Tony Bennett, the controversial former Republican superintendent, but those claims were largely dismissed by the state’s staunchest advocates for traditional public schools.

Perhaps until now.

“I am excited and honored to work with such a dynamic and diverse group,” McCormick, said in a statement as she announced her transition team. “The team’s commitment to Hoosier students will drive critical decision-making which will ultimately impact Indiana’s education system and ensure Indiana has one of the best Departments of Education in the nation.”

McCormick’s team includes one Republican lawmaker, several public school administrators, two university professors and a testing expert. Also on the list are community and business leaders as well as educators who work in preschools and with special needs children, among others.

The Institute for Quality Education, a school choice advocacy group that strongly backed McCormick’s campaign, will not have any direct representation on the team.

McCormick’s victory over incumbent Democrat Glenda Ritz was a surprise to many on Election Night. The Yorktown superintendent’s campaign focused on her strengths as an educator and leader following a decades-long career as teacher, principal and administrator.

But she has offered few insights about how she will govern, especially since her policy positions are fairly moderate.

While she’s likely to get along better with Republican lawmakers than Ritz, who spent much of the last four years clashing with the GOP, she’s expressed concerns about some major Republican-led initiatives over the past few years, most notably taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools that divert money from public schools.

The transition team is her first major act as superintendent-elect, offering Hoosiers their first look at her most important priorities.

Notably missing from the list is anyone from Indianapolis Public Schools — a detail that one school advocate called “unfortunate.”

“What Indianapolis has done is a national model, and so not to have that represented on the transition team seems like an omission,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, a pro-charter school Indianapolis-based nonprofit. “IPS right now is also not just at the forefront of the state, but really at the forefront nationally in its work to create innovation network schools, and districts around Indiana would benefit from that perspective.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she had been looking forward to seeing who McCormick would pick to assist her since the two talked last week.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is a really mixed bag of people,’” Meredith said. “I’m glad that she is being really thoughtful in her selections.”

Here’s the full team:

  • Brad Balch: Professor and Dean Emeritus, Indiana State University, Department of Educational Leadership
  • Todd Bess: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Principals
  • Wes Bruce: Education and assessment consultant who has spent many years with the Indiana Department of Education
  • Jeff Butts: President-Elect, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, current superintendent of Wayne Township.
  • Rep. Tony Cook: State Representative, Indiana House of Representatives – District 32, vice chairman of the House Education Committee
  • Denny Costerison: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Business Officials
  • Scot Croner: Superintendent, Blackford County Schools
  • Steve Edwards (Transition Team Chair): Retired Superintendent and Education Consultant, Administrator Assistance
  • Nancy Holsapple: Executive Director, Old National Trail Special Services Inter-Local
  • David Holt: Chief Financial Officer, MSD Warren Township
  • Lee Ann Kwiatkowski: Member, State Board of Education, assistant superintendent of Warren Township
  • Micah Maxwell: Executive Director, Boys & Girls Club of Muncie
  • Hardy Murphy: Executive Director, Indiana Urban Schools Association and Clinical Professor of Education, IUPUI, IU School of Education
  • Kathryn Raasch: Principal, Wayne Township Preschool
  • Terry Spradlin: Director of Community and Governmental Relations, Education Networks of America
  • Lisa Tanselle: General Counsel, Indiana School Boards Association
  • Kelly Wittman: Executive Principal, Max S. Hayes Career & Technical High School, a public school in Cleveland, Ohio.

changing of the guard

Will Indiana Republicans now move to make the state superintendent job appointed?

Now that a Republican is heading into the state superintendent office in January, Indiana lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — might start singing a different tune about the powers of that office.

The office has been the subject of dispute since 2012 when Democrat Glenda Ritz defeated Republican Tony Bennett in a surprise upset, becoming the only Democrat elected to statewide office.

Since then, as Ritz clashed repeatedly with Gov. Mike Pence and other GOP lawmakers,  Republicans have openly questioned the role of Indiana’s state superintendent, suggesting the job should have less power and should be appointed by the governor rather than elected.

During Ritz’s superintendency, GOP lawmakers passed a bill giving the Indiana State Board of Education the right to choose its own leader rather than having the superintendent automatically assigned as board chair.

But in the weeks since Republican Jennifer McCormick blocked Ritz’s re-election bid, the GOP resolve to limit the state superintendent’s powers seems to have diminished.

There might also be changes on the other side of the aisle, where Democrats signaled their support for a strong superintendent could waver.

At Tuesday’s legislative Organization Day, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said he’s advocated for reducing the superintendent’s power “for 30 years” but that he didn’t think he’ll make that a priority for the next legislative session beginning in January.

“I want to have a discussion with the superintendent-elect,” he said. “It’s probably not an issue for this session. Perhaps next.”

For Democrats who were in office when Indiana had Democratic governors, the question of appointing the state superintendent is a sticky one. Back then, Indiana had a Republican state superintendent and many Democrats argued the governor should appoint that position in order to have consistency in education policymaking.

But with Ritz in the role and constantly crossing swords with Pence, Democrats defended her against calls to strip power from her office.

Democratic House leader Scott Pelath of Michigan City said that’s why big changes, like taking away voters’ option to choose the state superintendent, shouldn’t be made lightly.

“On balance I think people like more choices rather than fewer at the ballot box,” he said. “I think we’ve had a system that has more or less functioned over a period of time. We shouldn’t change it without a great deal of hesitation.”

Even so, Pelath said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to making the superintendent job appointed.

“I have an open mind,” he said. “I could be convinced either way.”

With McCormick in and Ritz out, there could be a lot of second guessing on key questions about her role and her power.

Bosma was among a majority of Republicans who successfully backed a bill to change that longstanding rule, instead allowing the 11 board members to pick their own leader. Democrats opposed the change, arguing that it was a blatant attempt to take power away from the superintendent.

After fighting to give the board the option to choose someone besides the state superintendent as chair] — a right that kicks in for the first time next year —  Bosma declined to say whether he thinks the board members should simply select McCormick for the role. “I have not made a determination on that,” he said.

Pelath said he still thinks the state superintendent should chair the board, even if it’s McCormick.

“That’s one you can’t have both ways,” he said. “I support the way that it was before the attacks on Superintendent Ritz and the stripping of her abilities. If we’re going to have a state superintendent this person should be empowered to do something about education.”

Bosma said he wants to let the changes the legislature made to the state board play out.

“I think the system we put into place has worked,” he said. “Is it perfect? Probably not. We’ll let the new superintendent get her legs under herself first and get the Department of Education back on track, because I’m not sure it is right now, and let the dust settle.”