The basics of state takeover in Indiana: Getting tough with failing schools

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

In 2012, Indiana took a rare approach to trying to fix persistently struggling schools: total takeover. Schools were separated from school district oversight and handed off to be run independently by companies or non-profits under contract with the Indiana State Board of Education.

But like some other changes initiated by former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, the question is whether the policy will last under his replacement Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett in the 2012 election. Ritz contends the approach is unfair and less likely to produce results than providing supports to school districts that oversee failing schools.

In 2014, one operator backed out of their contract to run a state takeover school and Indianapolis Public Schools pushed hard to be reunited with its former schools. The state board struggled to navigate between managing the takeover schools with complete independence or working more closely with IPS.

At issue is whether state takeover is an effective way to to make struggling schools better, as supporters argue, or a way to take public resources and give them to private companies or organizations, as critics have argued.

In other places that have tried state takeovers, it has occurred most often at the district level. More commonly, state takeover has been driven by concerns that were not solely focused on academic struggles. In Cleveland and St. Louis, for example, state takeovers in the past decade have been motivated as much by management troubles in those school districts than just their academic woes.

Protests against state takeover in Indiana did not prevail during Bennett’s tenure, and the state’s approach has since been in the spotlight, with state takeover critics and proponents both eager to be proven right.

Public Law 221

The takeover options first emerged in Indiana emerged with Public Law 221, passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 1999. It gave the state board of education the option of state takeover when a school reached six consecutive years rated in the state’s lowest category (now an F on a A to F grading scale). In those cases, the state board must initiate intervention, the law states. The board has five options to do so:

  • State takeover.
  • Revise the school’s improvement plan.
  • Merge the school with a higher-scoring school.
  • Follow the Indiana Department of Education’s recommendation, such as to assign a “lead partner” organization to offer specialized assistance, such as teacher training or data analysis.
  • Follow options proposed at a public meeting, including closing the school.

The law had never been exercised before 2011, because the school rating system did not start the counting consecutive years in the lowest category until 2005. Some thought state takeover would never be used, but Bennett promised the state board would use its authority to make changes at any school that reached its sixth straight F rating. That summer, seven schools hit the threshold.

The first takeovers

Five schools entered state takeover in 2012, meaning they were severed from school district control and turned over to private operators.  Four of the five were in Indianapolis. The fifth, Gary’s Roosevelt High School, was handed off to be overseen by Edison Learning of New York.

From Indianapolis Public Schools, Arlington High School was paired with Tindley Schools, a local non-profit charter school operator known for the high-scoring Tindley Accelerated School. Donnan Middle School was given over along with Manual and Howe high schools to Charter Schools USA, a Florida company, to manage.

Two other Indianapolis Public Schools — George Washington and Broad Ripple high schools — were assigned lead partners, a lesser form of intervention. In those cases, private companies were brought in to provide supports, such as teacher training or data analysis.

After a “transition” year, the five schools in state takeover were fully under independent control for the 2012-13 school year. Some of them, notably Howe High School, got off to bumpy starts, prompting parent complaints about safety and academic quality. All of the takeover schools saw steep enrollment drops from their last years of school district control, which the district had projected following an aggressive campaign to invite students at the takeover schools to stay in the district by transferring.

Results unclear

Since the takeover, most of the schools have remained among the worst performers on state tests and only one has risen above an F.

While students at some state takeover schools reported to the Indianapolis Star in 2013 that saw improved discipline and teaching, there was considerable turnover during the school year, suggesting the schools were less stable than before the takeovers.

Consider Indianapolis’ Arlington High School. Early test evidence showed Arlington had the biggest jump in state test scores at middle school grades among the three state takeover schools with middle school grades. But rather than attracting more students as a better performing school, its enrollment saw peaks and valleys. Arlington’s 2011-12 enrollment under IPS — 1,223 — dropped to 518 at the start of takeover the next year. Over the course of the 2012-13 school year 278 students left the school while 181 new students enrolled over the course of the school year, helping the school finish with 421 students on the books.

A change in oversight

Bennett’s 2012 election defeat affected the state’s approach to takeover. Ritz campaigned against state takeover and has said she would not recommend that intervention in the future.

Shortly after her election, the state board struck a deal to hand day-to-day oversight of the four Indianapolis schools in state takeover to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s charter school office.

Ballard promised to subject the takeovers to the same evaluation process that charter schools follow. For more than 20 charter schools, Ballard’s office examines each school’s financial, management and academic success to determine if they should continue to operate. The schools still make regular reports to the Indiana State Board of Education, which remains the final arbiter of the schools’ status.

Problems threaten takeover
In two cases, problems at the schools have raised questions about the long term viability of state takeover.

In Gary, Roosevelt High School has been repeated hampered by facilities problems. During the winter in 2014, heating problems forced the school to close for several days while the school’s operator, EdisonLearning, and the state debated with the Gary school district about who ad responsibility to make fixes.

The district argued that it could not afford to make repairs estimated at well over $1 million to permanently fix the school’s heading system. In the summer of 2014, the school’s water was shut off because the district, which maintains the building, had fallen behind on the bill.

But state education officials struggled to find a remedy. State law is not clear about who is responsible in such instances or how the state can enforce its rulings requiring actions by school district to address concerns at schools in state takeover.

Then in July of 2014, Tindley Schools, the Indianapolis charter school organization that manages the school under contract with the state, exercised a clause in its contract to exit Arlington High School. The group’s leader told the Indiana State Board of Education Tindley simply couldn’t afford to keep managing the school unless it received an additional $2.4 million in aid.

After months of debate, the state board returned Arlington to IPS to manage, but will continue to oversee the school and retains the right to again choose someone else to operate the school.

The problems have some asking if state takeover is still a viable solution for troubled schools or if the state board should reconsider whether to use the process in the future.

-Updated December 2015