School choice

It started with vouchers and charter schools. Now Indiana’s exploring more ways for kids to learn outside traditional public schools.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Through its voucher and charter school programs, Indiana lawmakers have for years embraced strategies to promote school choice. Now, a new proposal that would let kids take classes outside their public schools could expand those efforts even further.

The program, which is already gaining attention nationally for being at the forefront of school choice strategies, is making its Indiana debut in recently filed House Bill 1007, authored by Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero.

The bill lays out the basics of what looks kind of like a voucher program, where students can use public dollars to pay for outside schooling — one course at a time. The “course access” program would allow students to choose certain classes to take outside their public school, such as an advanced physics course, Behning said. Then, those course providers would get a cut of a school or district’s state funding.

So far, there are no specifics on who providers might be, but Behning said they could also include public schools that have online or distance learning programs set up.

“It really makes sense when you talk about some of the smaller districts we have,” said Bob Behning, House Education Committee chairman. “Even in some of our urban districts, with some of the shortages we have, It makes sense to have some availability.”

Advocates, such as the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said in a 2014 report that it levels the playing field between students, citing that students from low-income families, those who attend rural schools or minority students might have fewer opportunities than their wealthier urban or suburban counterparts.

But critics oppose the program for many of the same reasons they oppose a voucher program. The programs can funnel money away from public schools, typically taking a cut of a school’s state tuition dollars to pay whomever provides the outside classes. In some states, that has been for-profit education providers and online schools.

Online schools across Indiana and the United States have failed to demonstrate widespread academic achievement, but they remain a choice that a growing number of Indiana students and students across the country are turning to.

Under Indiana’s proposed bill, the Indiana Department of Education would be responsible for creating a list of classes for the program by June 30, 2018. A provider could be any one that offers these courses, through any method, including online instruction.

A course tuition fee would also need to be determined. Behning said it’s too early yet to say how much that fee might be, but according to state data, Utah districts paid providers between $200 and $350 per course in 2015 depending on the class being offered.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she already knows of districts that can engage in partnerships with other types of educational providers without this legislation.

“It sounds like they are creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist if there is in fact a way for schools to already do something like this,” Meredith said.

Meredith also worries that by encouraging schools and districts to go to outside providers, it could exacerbate the teacher shortage. There’s little need to hire a licensed teacher if you can outsource the class, she said.

“We need to watch out for the details and ask the question of what problem is this trying to solve,” Meredith said.

Field trip

Here’s what Superintendent Hopson told state lawmakers in Nashville about Memphis schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits in the halls of Legislation Plaza Tuesday after speaking before a legislative committee at the State Capitol.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson came to Nashville on Tuesday seeking to break the stigma and stereotypes of Memphis schools, as well as to build better relationships with state lawmakers.

He left calling his time in the State Capitol “a good first step.”

“Oftentimes, the discussion around Shelby County is somewhat negative. And we certainly have a long way to go,” Hopson told legislators on two House education committees. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’re doing everything right, but there are some things to be proud of.”

His presentation came as lawmakers begin to review legislation that could have a major impact on Memphis schools. Lawmakers are considering two private tuition voucher bills, one of which would target Memphis as a pilot. Leaders of Shelby County Schools vehemently oppose both proposals.

Lawmakers also will consider several bills that would change how Tennessee addresses its lowest performing schools, most of which are in Memphis. The State Department of Education backs those bills, which are part of Tennessee’s proposed education plan under the new federal education law.

Hopson joined school board members and other district officials in Nashville as part of the Tennessee School Boards Association Day on the Hill.

He began his presentation promising to do a better job of telling the story of Memphis schools and working with legislators to improve education in Tennessee.

Hopson then cited the district’s growth in math and literacy in 2015, the latest available testing data for all schools, as well as highlighting a number of high-performing schools and the district’s turnaround work through its Innovation Zone.

Hopson noted the poverty rate in Memphis — 40,000 students live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year — and its affect on education of students. He also appealed to the Christian faith professed by many state lawmakers.

“When you think about faith, the word compassion comes to mind,” Hopson said. “In my mind, compassion is: You see a need, you’re moved by that need, and then you act on that need.”

He went on.

“Our district is so unique because we have suffocating poverty that many of our kids live in. And if you just think about that for a minute — what that would be like to live in a house with five, six, seven people on 200 bucks a week — … I mean, it just creates really significant challenges because kids are not always prepared to show up to school ready to learn.”

Poverty is “not an excuse” for poor performance in schools, he continued. “But I think it is important when you think about our school district and some of the challenges we have to just take a moment and think about the population that we serve,” Hopson said.

Unfortunately, the superintendent’s presentation was cut short after just 10 minutes, following Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s remarks on school turnaround work that went long. He said later that he wanted to talk more about the challenges faced by Memphis schools, many of which are priority schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We’ve got kids with severe, severe social-emotional needs,” he said of the state’s largest school system. “And absent a strategic attempt to address those needs, we’re not going to ever see the progress in accelerated fashion we want to see. It is what it is. I hope they heard that.”

Unleashed

McQueen rips Tennessee’s school turnaround work as ineffectual, overdue

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at an event in Memphis in 2015.

In a fiery speech to state lawmakers on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, even calling the outcomes “a little embarrassing.”

McQueen noted that the state has moved only 10 schools off its “priority” list since compiling its first list in 2012, beginning with 83 low performing schools.

“We can’t keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions,” she told legislators on House education committees.

The remarks were a departure from McQueen’s usual placating tone — and her most direct condemnation of school turnaround work to date in Tennessee. That work includes programs spearheaded both by local districts and the state’s Achievement School District, which has authority to take over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, generally assigning them to charter operators.

But her indictment stretched far beyond the state’s role in those programs, which serve mostly poor communities. She took aim at efforts that began with the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which prescribed how states must deal with struggling schools.

“This is probably going to come across as a little preachy, but it is preachy,” said McQueen, who became commissioner in 2014. “We’ve got kids who were sitting in schools that we knew — we knew — and I want you to listen to the years, back in 2002, 2003, 2004, that they were in a low performing school that needed to turn around fast. (Those students have) now graduated, and we did not have the increases we needed at those schools to set them up for success.”

While McQueen didn’t single out specific turnaround initiatives, she stressed that Tennessee needs to focus on what has worked — specifically, at the 10 schools that have been moved off the state’s priority list so far. McQueen named common themes: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports, such as mental health care services.

Those successes helped to inform the school improvement component of Tennessee’s proposed new education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Under that plan, the state would work with local districts to improve their lowest-performing schools through academic and wraparound services. The ASD, which McQueen refers to as the state’s “most rigorous intervention,” would be reined in, making it a last-resort when other efforts have failed. Lawmakers will vote on components of the plan in the coming months.

Under ESSA, states have more flexibility on how to spend money for school improvement. In the past, the federal government gave states school improvement grants with explicit instructions on how to spend them. But those grants ultimately didn’t work, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen told lawmakers that, under the plan, the state would give low-performing schools more resources than ever, but also would expect a quicker pace of change.

“This work is about shorter time frames with more support and expectation of outcomes that ultimately will make or break the future of Tennessee,” she said.