Back to work

Retooled State Board starts off in businesslike fashion

Returning from its July break, the State Board of Education Wednesday elected a new chair, welcomed a new member, paid tribute to an old one and held its smoothest meeting in several months.

No major policy decisions were made, but members had a couple of thoughtful discussions on two complicated policy issues — the state’s draft application for flexibility in meeting some federal education mandates and high school graduation guidelines.

Both issues will be back on the board’s agenda for its Sept. 9-10 meeting.

The day started with the swearing-in ceremony for new 3rd District member Joyce Rankin, selected last weekend to replace chair Marcia Neal, who resigned earlier this summer.

That was quickly followed by a 7-0 vote to elect Steve Durham of the 5th District as chair through 2016. Tensions between Durham and Neal, both Republicans, were part of her decision to resign. Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder, who represents the 2nd District, remains as vice chair.

Neal made a cameo appearance later in the meeting after the board unanimously passed a resolution honoring her past service. Neal congratulated Durham and said, “‘It’s been a great time, and I thank you very much for recognizing me. … Best of luck to you all as you move ahead … I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”

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The two most substantive issues on the board’s agenda were the federal flexibility application and the graduation guidelines.

Much of the flexibility discussion centered on test refusal. The board passed a resolution in February stating districts and schools shouldn’t be penalized if parental opt-outs cause testing participation to drop below the federally required 95 percent.

Department officials said the U.S. Department of Education has stressed its commitment to high test participation but isn’t giving direct answers on what it might do with policies like Colorado’s.

“Frankly, what we’ve heard from them [is] they’re trying to figure out for themselves what they’re going to do,” said Interim Education Commissioner Elliott Asp. “It’s almost like they’re not sure what they’re going to do.”

Significant percentages of students opted out of tests last spring; see this Chalkbeat story for details.

There are other loose ends with the flexibility application, so the board voted 7-0 to delay any action on the application until September.

The board wasn’t scheduled to act on graduation guidelines Wednesday, but Durham noted the board probably needs to vote in September so school districts will have time to develop their own graduation requirements that conform to the state’s guidelines.

The guidelines are required by a 2008 law but won’t go fully into effect until the 2020-21 school year.

The board approved a “menu” of guidelines — primarily scores on various tests — in 2013. But panels of educators studied the guidelines after that decision and recommended a larger menu of options and, in some cases, lower test scores.

Some board members are concerned about the lower scores, while others share district worries that the guidelines don’t provide enough flexibility, especially for small districts. The board declined to vote on the revised menu earlier this year.

“This is an important issue, and we’ve put it off,” Durham said. “The controversy has been around small school districts concerned that they couldn’t meet the requirements.”

Members discussed the idea of allowing individual districts to seek waivers from the guidelines.

Debora Scheffel, a Republican member from the 6th District, suggested the guidelines could be merely advisory.

“The legislature gave use a task … but not the discretion to not do the task,” Durham said. “Just allowing the districts to submit plans probably doesn’t meet the requirements of the statute.”

Durham said individual board members should come up with suggestions for what items should be on the guidelines menu.

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”