School choice

Indiana lawmakers are back with an education savings account plan that some advocates have called the “purest form” of school choice

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Students using vouchers and from charter schools attended a rally for school choice at the Statehouse in 2015.

After two quiet attempts last year went nowhere, Indiana lawmakers are back in 2017 pushing for a plan that would allow families direct access to their child’s state education dollars to use for school-related expenses.

The “education savings account” proposal in Senate Bill 534, originally proposed in two bills last year that did not end up getting a hearing, would only apply to families with students who have special needs — a common strategy some states have already used to introduce the controversial programs in their states.

But although the bill wouldn’t apply to all students should it move forward, it represents a larger attempt to further expand school choice programs in Indiana, which already includes charter schools and the ability to use taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school tuition.

Both efforts have grown considerably over the past several years. About 30,000 students use public money to pay private school tuition through the voucher program, and more than 37,000 attended public charter schools.

The savings accounts are also supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, a conservative nonprofit lobbying group that pairs legislators and business owners together to write model legislation. ALEC highlighted the education savings accounts in their yearly conference, held in Indianapolis last summer.

ALEC, strongly opposed by teachers unions and critics of charter schools and vouchers, has considerable influence in Indiana, with several key lawmakers participating in the group and elements of the group’s model laws inspiring some of Indiana’s education reforms in recent years. The group also admires and has sought to promote Indiana’s legislative work on education, even naming its model legislation for school choice programs the “Indiana Education Reform Package.”

Supporters of the savings accounts argue they provide more options to families to choose how to best educate their children. But critics of the savings accounts say they could divert even more money away from public schools and come with few regulations to protect against fraud and ensure families are spending the money according to the law.

The plan could allow for more state education dollars to be controlled directly by parents than under the voucher or charter school systems. In 2016-17, the base per-student aid each school districts received was $5,088.

That is more, for example, than what families can receive through Indiana’s private school tuition voucher program, where a family of four making less than $44,863 per year can receive up to 90 percent of the funding that their local public district would receive from the state. A family earning up to $89,725 per year is eligible for half the state aid their district would receive.

Families would only be allowed to spend the money from the savings account with a provider that is approved by the Indiana Department of Education, which could include private schools or private tutors but not non-accredited private schools. The money would be handled through the state treasurer.

Expenses could include tuition, purchasing educational materials, tutoring services, transportation, online learning, test fees, advanced course exams or college entrance exams, therapies, computers or devices, and college tuition and textbooks. It could not be used to pay for food or child care.

To be eligible, students would have to be Indiana residents who have been identified as having a disability based on criteria in state or federal law or requires special education services and special education plans.

Similar programs have passed state legislatures or are already operating in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. Advocates have called education savings account programs the purest form of school choice.

This would be the second program proposed this year that would aim to give families a way to learn outside traditional public schools. A program known as course access, which would let kids take individual classes through outside providers, was proposed by a House Republican earlier this month.

Molly Deuberry, communications director for the education department, said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick is still reviewing the legislation on education savings accounts.

During her campaign, McCormick said she was opposed to strategies that would divert more money from public schools, but it’s not yet clear where she stands on this proposal.

Two for one

Schools in Pueblo, Greeley up next as state sorts out struggling schools

Charlotte Macaluso, right, speaks with Pueblo City Schools spokesman Dalton Sprouse on July 22, 2016. (Pueblo Chieftain file photo)

The Colorado Department of Education is expected Monday to suggest that five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, including one that was once considered a reform miracle, hire outsiders to help right the course.

The department’s recommendations for the schools — three in Pueblo and two in Greeley — are the latest the State Board of Education are considering this spring. The state board, under Colorado law, is required to intervene after the schools have failed to boost test scores during the last six years.

Like all the schools facing state intervention, the five before the state board Monday serve large populations of poor and Latino students.

A year ago, Pueblo City Schools was expected to pose the biggest test of the state’s school accountability system. A dozen of the city’s schools were on the state’s watch list for chronic poor performance on state standardized tests. However, most of the city’s schools came off that list last year.

Among the schools still on the list and facing state intervention is the storied Bessemer Elementary, where barely 9 percent of third graders passed the state’s English test last spring.

The school, which sits in the shadow of the city’s downsized steel mill, has been in a similar situation before.

After the state first introduced standardized tests in 1997, Bessemer was flagged as the lowest performing school in the state. District and city officials rallied and flushed the school with resources for students and teachers. Soon, students and teachers at the Pueblo school were being recognized by President George W. Bush for boosting scores.

But a series of leadership changes, budget cuts and shifts in what’s taught eroded the school’s progress.

Pueblo City Schools officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

The 17,000-student school district was preparing to make slightly more dramatic changes to improve things at Bessemer. Officials were going consolidate the school into just three grades, preschool through second, and send the older students to a nearby elementary school that is also on the state’s watch list. That school, Minnequa Elementary, is expected to face sanctions next year if conditions don’t improve.

But the district and its school board backed down after the community rejected the idea.

“With the input gathered, we determined that, at this time, changes to the grade reconfiguration were not in the best interest of the communities involved,” Pueblo Superintendent Charlotte Macaluso said in a press release announcing the changes. “We realize the sense of urgency and will continue to support our schools while closely monitoring improvement at each location.”

The decision to not reorganize the schools was made earlier this week.

Suzanne Ethridge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the city’s teachers union, said the last-minute pullback was troubling. The district, she said, has held up staffing the schools until a final decision was made.

“I just hope we can get to a final plan and we can move on and get these schools going in the right direction,” Ethridge said.

According to documents provided to the state, district officials are expected to tell the state board they want to go along with what the state education department is proposing.

But some in the city are wary of involvement by outside groups because the district has been burned by outside groups in the past.

According to a 2012 Denver Post investigation, Pueblo City Schools had a three-year, $7.4 million contract with a New York-based school improvement company. The company was hired to boost learning at six schools. Instead, school performance scores dropped at five of the six schools.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” Ethridge said.

Other schools in Pueblo that will appear before the state board are the Heroes Academy, a K-8, and Risley International, a middle school. The state is recommending that Risley maintain a set of waivers from state law. The flexibility for Risley, and two other Pueblo Middle Schools, were granted in 2012.

The hope was the newfound freedom would allow school leaders and teachers to do what was necessary to boost student learning. That happened at Roncalli STEM Academy and the Pueblo Academy of the Arts.

But Risley has lagged behind.

Macaluso was the principal of Risley before being appointed superintendent last fall.

Like Risley, the state is recommending that two Greeley middle schools be granted waivers and hire an external manager to run some of the schools’ operations.

The state’s recommendation in part runs contrary to what a third party review panel suggested last spring. The panel, which visited all of the state’s failing schools, suggested Franklin be converted to a charter school. That’s because the school lacked leadership, according to the panel’s report.

Greeley officials say the school’s administration team, which has not changed, has received training from the state’s school improvement office, which has proven effective.

As part of the shift, Franklin and Prairie Heights middle schools will change the way students are taught. The schools will blend two styles of teaching that are in vogue.

First, students will receive personalized instruction from a teacher, assisted by digital learning software. Second, students will also work either individually or in teams to solve “real-world problems” on a regular basis.

“These schools have students with some important needs,” said Greeley’s deputy superintendent Rhonda Haniford, who helped designed the plan. “It’s more reason to have a personalized curriculum.”

The 21,000-student school district has already contracted with an organization called Summit to provide the digital curriculum and a cache of projects. The organization will also provide training for the school’s principal and teachers.

Haniford acknowledged that when struggling schools make major shifts it can be difficult, and sometimes student learning fall even further behind. But she said Summit is providing regular training for teachers and principals.

“The district made an intentional decision to support the turn around of these schools,” Haniford said, adding that she was hired last year as part of that effort. “This is one of my top priorities.”

chancellor chat

Chancellor Betty Rosa hits back on criticism that New York is abandoning education reform

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York has moved sharply away from innovative education reforms with “bewildering and humbling speed.” That’s what Robert Pondiscio of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute wrote in an op-ed posted earlier this month on the organization’s website.

Here in New York City, he writes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is ushering in the “bad old days” by pumping money into struggling schools and relaxing school discipline.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials, after trying to pack too many reforms into a short period of time, have largely backed away from education reform. That coupled with the growing opt-out movement and the departure of New York State Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Pondiscio wrote, spurred the end of an “era of high standards and accountability for schools, teachers, and those who train them—an era that never entirely gained traction in New York.”

New York State Chancellor Betty Rosa hit back Thursday with her own piece for the Fordham Institute, saying that she “could not disagree more.” She argues that focusing on high-stakes testing is not synonymous with having high standards — and that while her standards take a different form, they are no less rigorous.

For example, she cites the Board’s decision to jettison the controversial Academic Literacy Skills Test as part of teacher certification. While Pondiscio blasts the move, Rosa says New York’s certification process remains among the country’s most stringent. “We simply eliminated a costly and unnecessary testing requirement that created an unfair obstacle for too many applicants,” she writes.

Her op-ed is part of a broader push by the Board of Regents to articulate a new vision of accountability that moves away from a strong focus on New York state’s much-maligned 3-8 math and English tests. She and the Regents seem eager to convince critics that those changes do not, in the end, represent a watering down of the goals the state sets for its students.

“We need an opposite narrative,” Rosa said in an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat. She sees her job as not simply setting high bars, she said, but more importantly, “building the steps” to help students succeed.