Looking ahead

Funding for Indiana schools, preschool and teachers have seen major changes. Lawmakers are now taking a second look.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma presents legislative priorities for Indiana House Republicans on Wednesday.

In the first week of the 2017 legislative session, three education issues — school funding, preschool and teacher pay —  are already getting attention from both sides of the aisle.

Bills will continue to be released over the next week, when testing and other education issues are expected to make an appearance.

School funding

House Republicans are proposing fundamental changes in how money is distributed to school districts.

Instead of funneling all money to school and district general funds, which restrict how the money is spent, it would also be distributed to other parts of their budgets. House Speaker Brian Bosma says this proposal is designed to give schools more decision making power in how they use state money.

The House will release a budget draft in the next month or so, which will offer more details about how this plan would work, and Gov.-Elect Eric Holcomb is expected to present his budget next week.

Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said he hopes traditional public schools’ funding isn’t compromised by growing enrollment in private and charter schools.

“There are communities throughout Indiana that are seeing their school systems asphyxiated by recent changes to state funding,” Pelath said. “I’d like to hear something about the 95 percent of school-age children that are in your traditional public schools.”

Preschool

Advocates had hoped 2017 would be a year of major expansion for the state’s $10 million preschool program, but it’s becoming clear that funding will likely fall short of their expectations.

The program has provided preschool support to about 1,600 kids in five counties, but demand has far exceeded supply.

Bosma said Wednesday that significant growth probably wouldn’t be possible in a year when state revenue is forecasted to be about $300 million short of earlier projections. He has suggested expanding preschool to perhaps 10 counties for $20 million.

For the most part, Indiana Republicans agree on growing the program conservatively. On Thursday, Holcomb announced his proposal to also double the current preschool funding amount to $20 million, but he suggested keeping it within the original five counties.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane said he and his caucus have been disappointed in the modest proposals they’ve heard from Republicans.

“I can assure you there are communities around the state that have been working on this, investing in this, and know for their individual communities that this is a good thing,” Lanane said. “Far more than just 10 communities throughout the state.”

Teaching

After Republicans backed major changes to teacher pay in 2011 and 2013, legislative leaders are now saying they might need to reconsider some of them.

Just one week in, lawmakers have already proposed a number of bills dealing with teacher pay. The subject that has garnered considerable attention since news of teacher shortages sprung up in 2015.

Thursday, Bosma even acknowledged that a Republican-led effort passed in 2013 to give high-performing teachers extra pay might have been a mistake given anger over how the bonuses were meted out last month.

“I think we’re going to have to take a hard look at that,” Bosma said. “In fact, it’s received so much criticism and allegations that we disrespected teachers with this, that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. The concept was to reward teachers that are well-rated, and some are upset that there was a disparity in this. That wasn’t our intention.”

WFYI Public Media reported that wealthy school districts received the majority of the $40 million bonus dollars. Carmel teachers received $2,422 per teacher, while those in Wayne Township saw $42 per teacher. The bonuses are based on schools’ ISTEP passing rates and graduation rates, which tend to be higher in wealthier districts. That said, most teachers across the state continued to be rated “effective” or “highly effective,” in both high- and low-performing districts.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state, also supports increasing teacher pay. Indiana average teacher salaries rank in the bottom half of states.

ISTA also wants lawmakers to reinstate extra pay for teachers who obtain advanced degrees and address collective bargaining rights, which have been curtailed in Indiana since 2011.

“Our future is directly linked to teacher recruitment and retention,” said ISTA President Teresa Meredith. “We need the best educators to teach our kids and bolster our schools.”

a unifying force

Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver

A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park (Andy Cross, The Denver Post).

Upset about the election result and wanting to act, Cheetah McClellan was excited to learn that women from across the country were planning to march on Washington, D.C., the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Then she checked out prices on flights and hotel rooms, and remembered she was earning a beginning teacher’s salary.

Maybe, she thought, Denver ought to have its own women’s march. After searching fruitlessly online for anyone planning such a thing, McClellan created a Facebook event page, shared it with some left-leaning social media sites and waited.

Cheetah McClellan (photo by Stan Obert).

By the next morning, 800 people had signed up for an event that was more of an idea at that point.

Not long after, McClellan connected with a couple of similarly inspired local women — Karen Hinkel and Jessica Rogers — and plans for the Women’s March on Denver became to take shape.

On Saturday, a larger-than-anticipated crowd of more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park in a display of what organizers described as a united front for equality and women’s rights after Trump’s ascension to the White House.

McClellan, 42, came to teaching later in life after working as a bartender, waitress and astrologer who did readings and wrote a column about astrology, she said. McClellan completed her teacher licensure through a University of Colorado Denver residency program, and is now pursuing a master’s in culturally and linguistically diverse education.

This school year, McClellan is doing math intervention work on a one-year contract at Colfax Elementary School in Denver, which has a large number of Latino students living in poverty.

We caught up with McClellan after the march she helped lead. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What led you to become a teacher?

Life just kind of pulled me in that direction. I was volunteering at my kids’ school, doing writing groups with kids. The school secretary said, “Do you want a job?” So I became a paraprofessional. Then I decided I wanted to be a teacher.

There is something so beautiful about a child’s mind that is just so wide open and eager to learn. There is nothing more fulfilling to me that hearing, “Miss, I get it.”

Why did you invest so much energy in the organization of this march? What motivated you?

I have always considered myself to be politically aware and informed. I’ve always voted, I try to be vocal and have conversations with people. But I never was super-active. Last year, I was doing student teaching for my residency. Even before Trump was the (Republican) nominee, kids were scared. I was working with fourth graders, and literally every single day a student would ask me a question about Trump that revolved around fear. “Will they really deport us? Will my mom and dad have to go back to Mexico?” While we want students to be aware of politics, they were not just aware of it, they will emotionally affected by it. They were scared. That just really bothered me. The day after the election, the whole fifth-grade class was sobbing.

My son has Asperger Syndrome. So when Trump mocks a disabled person, it irks you. My daughter identifies with the LGBT community. She said she was so scared. All this got me mad.

Have you brought any of your work organizing the march into the classroom, used it in your teaching in any way?

Some of the kids know what I’ve been doing. But it’s not something I have been able to discuss in more of an academic way. Moving forward, I am actively looking for a teaching position next year and I’m definitely excited to bring this into the classroom — especially in Colorado, where we have such a rich history of the women’s movement. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Continuing to empower girls at the same time educating boys that empowered girls are not a threat: That’s how I’d like to incorporate it into the classroom. This is definitely something that is not ending.

So what does come next?

We are working to create a nonprofit organization out of this. We want to move forward with it but we’re not sure exactly how it’s going to look like at this point. I am hoping it becomes a platform for community networking and — as I have called it — legislative meddling. We want to make sure we have an impact on laws and the legislative process as citizens.

Beyond that, on a broader level what do you hope will come out of the energy and enthusiasm?

I hope to see people just continue to be active in their community. We’ve gotten into a bad habit of hiding behind our keyboard, hiding behind social media. We have tensions in our communities. We still have a lot of racial tensions in our communities. What you saw Saturday was all these different people coming out because they care about a central issue. We have to continue that — to try to find opportunities for people to sit in the same room together and work together on issues they care about.

The march was a sea of signs. Did you have a favorite?

That is a hard question. I loved them all. One of my favorites was a small sign by a man that said, “Gay, Muslim and fifth-generation Coloradan.” I just felt, “Wow.” It was the simplicity of it, and him just saying, “This is who I am.”

What do you say to those who think the marches are sour grapes about a lost election, and that this ultimately won’t make any difference? 

I would say, look at the history books. Take a class on civics. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, that inspired John F. Kennedy to take a different approach to the civil rights movement.On Saturday, we had numerous state legislators marching with us and on stage. It sends a strong message to those in power. And it also unites the community.

OK, I need to ask. Is “Cheetah” a nickname? Where did that come from?

It’s an old bowling nickname. It has been around for about 25 years. That’s who I am.

Any closing thoughts?

One of the larger messages I’d like to pass along is you don’t have to be someone special or a board member or a politician to impact real change in your community. You just have to be a little bit brave and a little bit crazy.

A welcomed reprieve?

President Trump appears to backing off repealing protections for undocumented youth. But anxiety is still running high.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Donald Trump campaigned at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, October 29, 2016.

Tania Chairez is not excited about President Donald Trump backing away from a campaign promise to end temporary protections for young undocumented immigrants — even as she benefits from the news.

“I think he’s just continuously playing with our lives,” said the 24-year-old parent organizer in Denver, who is able to work because of those protections. “There’s still a feeling of anxiety in our community.”

Comments made by Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, this weekend that the president wants to work with congressional leaders to find a long-term solution for young undocumented immigrants — hundreds of them teachers, and thousands of them students — was met with skepticism and in some cases hopefulness by undocumented immigrants, advocates and politicians alike.

More than 750,000 young undocumented immigrants got a reprieve from deportation under former President Obama’s executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to repeal that executive order as part of his hard line on immigration.

Leading up to Trump’s inauguration last week, state lawmakers and education officials from Colorado and other states petitioned Trump to reverse his position.  

“While it’s a relief to hear that thousands of people may not be under immediate threat, my request to President Trump remains the same: declare once and for all that the thousands of young people who are able to pursue the American dream through the DACA program will be able to continue to do so while working towards a more permanent solution in Congress,” Colorado’s Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, said in an email.

Duran, the state’s first Latina speaker, and other Colorado Latino Democrats last week sent Trump a letter urging him to rethink his position.

Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college students to teach in schools that educate some of the nation’s poorest students, currently employs 146 teachers with deferred status. Leaders there have created a detailed plan in case DACA’s protections are repealed, but TFA spokesman Dan Griffin said what day?the organization was hopeful.

“We believe that our ‘DACAmented’ teachers should be able to teach and lead in their communities while pursuing pathways to citizenship,” Griffin said.

School districts across the nation, including those in Denver and New York City, have also employed teachers who are only eligible to work because of DACA.

In May, the New York State Board of Regents made permanent regulations that allow people protected by DACA to apply for teacher certification and professional licenses from the state. Chancellor Carmen Fariña, head of the New York City’s schools, supported the move in a public letter. Though it’s not clear how many teachers have benefitted from DACA, at least 45,000 people statewide have been granted the protection.

Yatziri Tovar, who was born in Mexico City but now lives in New York City, hopes to be one of them. Her dream is to become a bilingual teacher at her old elementary school, P.S. 8 in the Bronx.

Just months away from finishing her degree, losing her status would change everything. For now, Tovar said she’s choosing to keep moving.

“A lot of my friends, they didn’t go to college because they thought, ‘Once I graduate, I can’t do anything with my degree,’” she said. “I plan to still graduate. And even if I can’t do anything with my degree, Trump can take away everything — but he can’t take away my degree.”

Tovar, who was first granted DACA status in 2012, just submitted the paperwork for her second renewal and is gearing up for her student-teaching assignment. But not all advocates agree that young undocumented immigrants should apply or renew now that Trump is in the White House.

“We’ve counseled families to not submit new applications for DACA,” said Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and strategic growth for ‎Conexión Américas, a Nashville-based nonprofit serving Tennessee’s immigrant community. “As of today, we’re not changing our position, which is just don’t submit anything.”

On Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer also sidestepped a question about what young people now protected by DACA should know, saying that President Trump’s initial focus will be on undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.

While advocates remain anxious, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers introduced legislation earlier this month in the U.S. Senate, known as the BRIDGE Act, that would provide DACA-like protections to young undocumented youth for up to three years.

Among the sponsors of the legislation is Congressman Mike Coffman, a Republican who represents Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.

“I expect the new administration will look to Congress to help it address the DACA issue,” Coffman said in an email. “I believe my bill, the BRIDGE ACT, will start us on a path to meaningful immigration reform which will help us secure our borders, grow our economy, and keep families together while protecting these youths from the fear of deportation.”  

Chalkbeat reporters Christina Veiga and Grace Tatter contributed reporting from New York City and Nashville.