Ritz, state board at odds over what went wrong on NCLB

State Board of Education members sparred with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her staff today over why Indiana is in hot water with federal education officials.

In a tense meeting reminiscent of last fall’s battles between Ritz and the rest of the board over who controlled state education policy, board members peppered the superintendent and her team with questions and challenged the veracity of their answers.

Why, they asked, did the U.S. Department of Education give Indiana 60 days to answer a series of concerns or potentially face sanctions? And why didn’t board members know sooner that this could happen?

“It looks like 100 percent of it is implementation,” board member David Freitas said. “I believe the responsibility rests squarely on the superintendent as our leader of the Department of Education.”

But Ritz insisted her team had not dropped the ball and would meet the requirements of the letter from Deb Delisle, assistant U.S. secretary of education, which said Indiana could lose a waiver that freed it from some potentially costly and cumbersome rules of the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

“We all know the urgency and serious nature of exiting this waiver,” Ritz said. “The department has done its due diligence and takes full responsibility for making Indiana compliant with the waiver requirements.”

Delisle’s letter said indiana had “significant issues” complying with its waiver agreement that needed to be corrected before the waiver could be renewed for another year after it expires on June 30. The 2012 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education included a promise that the state would have “college and career ready” standards and tests, an approved school accountability system and an acceptable plan for monitoring and supporting low scoring schools.

Indiana’s original plan to meet those requirements, crafted under Ritz’s predecessor Tony Bennett, pledged to put into place Common Core standards, Common Core-based tests, a new A to F school grading system and a new statewide teacher evaluation system.

But the state soon changed direction in ways Ritz said everyone knew would require changes to its waiver agreement. The Indiana legislature in 2013 paused and then later voided Common Core; the state withdrew from the testing consortium; Ritz radically changed the department’s school monitoring operation; and she altered the state model system that most districts used to evaluate teachers.

Indiana dropped the Common Core after complaints from critics that following the standards, which 45 state agreed to follow, ceded to much control over what students learn to those outside of the state. Newly created standards were approved last month and state officials are working on a plan to make changes to state tests to match those standards.

Given all that, Ritz argued, it should have been no surprise to board members that the waiver agreement would need to be revised.

But board members focused on Delisle’s complaints that the state was not adequately monitoring and supporting D and F schools as it had promised, demanding that Ritz and the state education department answer for the problems cited.

“Clearly there are issues within the department that need to be addressed,” board member Gordon Hendry said. “This isn’t a blame game but we need to resolve these issues and get the department back on track.”

Ritz and her lieutenants, however, said a simple explanation exonerated them: the monitoring complaints were outdated.

One of Ritz’s first initiatives as state superintendent was to replace the department’s five-person Office of School Improvement and Turnaround with 20 outreach coordinators to serve more than 300 low-rated schools around the state. But that team was just being assembled when federal officials visited last August.

The work of the outreach coordinators was not captured last year’s review but will meet the U.S. Department of Education’s monitoring requirements, Ritz said. State and federal officials have been in regular communication about monitoring schools since at least December, she said, even though her office did not receive formal notice until April 27 that conditions would need to be met before the waiver was renewed.

“Did the department know we had work to do?” Ritz said. “You betcha.”

State education officials said Ritz spoke by phone with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week and set a schedule to talk every three days about different complaints in Delisle’s letter until all nine have been addressed.

The letter constitutes a lower level of notice from the federal government than other states have received, meaning the state’s NCLB waiver is in no immediate danger if they address the concerns. Four states have been notified they are at “high risk” of losing their waivers, but Indiana was not added to that group. Last month, Washington became the first state to lose its NCLB waiver.

The  NCLB waiver allows Indiana to be judged on criteria other than the law’s escalating goals for student test performance. Without the waiver, NCLB would restrict how some federal dollars are spent, setting aside money for outside tutoring at schools rated as failing.

Throughout the board meeting, Ritz and board member Dan Elsener had sharp exchanges over whether education department officials, and Ritz herself, were meeting their responsibilities. Several board members shared Elsener’s skepticism.

“I hope they came away with that being unfounded,” Ritz said after the meeting. “Because we’ve been serious about this since my tenure. We know we have implementation to do with the waiver. We have implementation to do with all federal monies. Monitoring and technical assistance is what we do.”

Elsener was unmoved.

He suggested Ritz may have lost focus on the waiver in the fall as she battled with the board, a showdown that culminated in late November when she abruptly adjourned a meeting over the objections of others.

“I feel like we left accountability unattended,” he said. “I feel like our standards would have been done earlier if the superintendent hadn’t walked out of a meeting. That put us two months behind. I want leadership, discipline and a sense of mission.”

Ritz left today’s meeting saying she was just as frustrated with some of what she heard from the board.

“We kept asking some of the same questions over and over again that I felt we’d already worked with,” she said. “I’m very confident in the work of the department and of having the waiver extended.”