Future of Schools

Why Indiana matters when it comes to education

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
A new charter high school is planned for the East side of Indianapolis.

(NOTE: Much has changed since this post was first published in October of 2013. This post has not been updated to reflect those changes but the “basics of” stories linked to below have been updated.)

People know cities like New York City, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., are hotbeds for educational change.

But do they know about Indianapolis? They should.

From vouchers to charter schools, Common Core to A through F grading, there is a lot going on here.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about every one of the issues listed below to give Chalkbeat readers a thorough understanding of what’s going on here in Indiana. As those stories are posted, I’ll connect them via links to the bullet points below. So check back here frequently for a guide to the basics of major education issues in Indiana.

But back to the core question — why Indiana? Of all the cities across the country that Chalkbeat could have expanded to, why did we choose to come here?

The fact is, Indianapolis, and Indiana generally, has begun to rival those other places mentioned above that everyone knows about when it comes to education — not to mention other emerging centers for education experimentation like Colorado and Tennessee —  as one of the most interesting places to watch.

While Indiana has plenty of the elements of what’s come to be known as “education reform” movement — school choice, standards reform and a rethinking of teacher training and instructional methods — it’s also taken some unique approaches that have distinguished it from other places.

Indianapolis, as a city and state capitol, likes to think of itself as an innovation center. That attitude has carried over to its view of educational change. For instance, Indianapolis is unusual in that its mayor plays an ever-increasing role in education, but does it by sponsoring charter schools, not by running the school district, as other cities have tried.

The progenitors of mayor charter school sponsoring have since birthed another major new educational player in the city and state. The non-profit group, The Mind Trust, created a rare example of an education entrepreneur fellowship, which aims to fund the development of innovative educational ideas on the condition that the entrepreneurs try their new ideas first in Indianapolis.

Since 2010, the state has seen a run of major legislative reforms in education and fierce battles over who controls the state education department and the Indianapolis Public School Board. Among the major issues the state continues to grapple with are:

  • Vouchers. Indiana’s three-year-old voucher program was just expanded and has grown faster than any voucher program in history to second largest in the U.S. this year. It will likely be No. 1 in the nation in 2014.
  • Charter schools. In 2011, the state expanded sponsoring authority, which has helped attract new players to the state like Carpe Diem from Arizona, and spur replication of high-performing, locally-run charter schools. Explosive growth of charters appears to be just around the corner.
  • Teacher evaluation. Another major 2011 law completely overhauled the process by which teachers performance is reviewed, adding student test scores as a factor and tying evaluation results to pay raises and even job security. In 2014, teachers will feel those effects for the first time.
  • Merit Pay. The new evaluations also will lead to new pay systems in Indiana school districts that will allow for the best rated teachers to be paid more and the lowest rated to be blocked from receiving more pay.
  • State Takeover. Indiana is a rare example of a state that took direct control of five failing schools in 2012, handing them over to be run by private companies or non-profits.
  • Unions. Changes in labor law have limited unions to bargaining just on pay and benefits while narrowing the negotiating window to 60 days between Aug. 1 and Oct. 1. That’s one of several challenges facing the Indiana State Teachers Association.
  • Common Core standards. Indiana was an early adopter of Common Core standards in 2010 but lawmakers in 2013 ordered a reconsideration, with a year of study and debate that culminated in a vote by the state board of education to replace the standards in 2014.
  • New Indiana standards. In place of Common Core, Indiana created its own new standards in early 2014 and now teachers are scrambling to prepare students for new 2015 tests based on them.
  • Indianapolis Public Schools. The state’s poorest and second largest school district has undergone a transformation since the start of 2013, with a new, reform-oriented school board that has replaced the superintendent and is aiming for more changes. New Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is working on his plan for how to approach all the district’s issues.
  • Tony Bennett. The hard-charging, charismatic Bennett was the aggressive face of school reform as state superintendent from 2008-12 before his stunning defeat to underfunded and lesser known school teacher Glenda Ritz. Bennett left Indiana to lead the education department in Florida but resigned less than a year into his term following a controversy after his email directives to staff from Indiana were published. Bennett has said he is considering a move back to Indiana.
  • Glenda Ritz. The only Democrat currently holding statewide office, Ritz has crossed swords with Republican leaders, some of whom have taken steps to limit her power and control over the Indiana Department of Education. She may be in a fight for her political life when the legislature begins its work anew in January.
  • Testing. In a debate that is tied to the Common Core, Indiana must decide in 2014 whether to replace or alter its glitch-plagued state test, ISTEP, to conform to college and career-ready standards. At the same time, Ritz is urging a reform of the state third grade reading test from a pass-fail design to an exam that establishes a student’s numerical reading level.
  • A to F grading. Letter grades for schools based on state test scores were new to Indiana in 2011 and the grading system was changed in 2012 to add growth measures based on student test score gain. More changes are in the works as schools await 2103 grades later this fall.
  • Early Childhood Education. Indiana is one of only nine states that provides not direct state aid to help children attend preschool. It also is among about a third of states that does not require kindergarten. But recent efforts aimed at increasing the state’s commitment to early childhood education have had some success.
  • School Funding. Indiana is unusual in that funding to operate schools comes entirely from the state. Local property taxes are only used for specific needs, like busing and school construction. That means the ongoing debate over who gets what, and how much, mostly happens in the politically-charged environment of the statehouse.
  • Mike Pence. As governor, he’s pushed for career and technical education, school choice and changes to standards and tests.
  • Township schools. Indianapolis has eight township school districts that together enroll a large majority of the city’s public schools but their successes and challenges are often overlooked.
  • NCLB waiver. Indiana is one of many states that has signed a waiver agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that guides some state policy, especially when it comes to standards, tests and helping schools with the lowest test scores improve.
  • English language learning. Indiana has seen huge growth in the enrollment of children in schools who are still learning English as a second language but the state, and some schools, have been slow to adapt to better serve them.

That’s just a taste of what you’ll read about here at Chalkbeat. Check back here frequently for more.


Follow the money

Final Denver school board campaign finance reports show who brought in the most late money

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Victoria Tisman, 8, left, works with paraprofessional Darlene Ontiveros on her Spanish at Bryant-Webster K-8 school in Denver.

Final campaign finance reports for this year’s hard-fought Denver school board elections are in, and they show a surge of late contributions to Angela Cobián, who was elected to represent southwest Denver and ended up bringing in more money than anyone else in the field.

The reports also showed the continued influence of independent groups seeking to sway the races. Groups that supported candidates who favor Denver Public Schools’ current direction raised and spent far more than groups that backed candidates looking to change things.

No independent group spent more during the election than Raising Colorado, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform. In the week and a half before the Nov. 7 election, it spent $126,985. That included nearly $57,000 to help elect Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent supportive of the district’s direction who lost her seat representing northeast Denver to challenger Jennifer Bacon. Raising Colorado spent $13,765 on mail opposing Bacon in that same period.

Teachers union-funded committees also were active in the campaign.

Individually, Cobián raised more money in the days before the election than the other nine candidates combined. She pulled in $25,335 between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

That includes a total of $11,000 from three members of the Walton family that founded Walmart: Jim, Alice and Steuart. The Waltons have over the years invested more than $1 billion in education-related causes, including the creation of charter schools.

Total money raised, spent by candidates
  • Angela Cobián: $123,144, $105,200
    Barbara O’Brien: $117,464, $115,654
    Mike Johnson: $106,536, $103,782
    Rachele Espiritu: $94,195, $87,840
    Jennifer Bacon: $68,967, $67,943
    Carrie A. Olson: $35,470, $35,470
    Robert Speth: $30,635, $31,845
    “Sochi” Gaytan: $28,977, $28,934
    Tay Anderson: $18,766, $16,865
    Julie Bañuelos: $12,962, $16,835

Cobián was supported in her candidacy by donors and groups that favor the district’s brand of education reform, which includes collaborating with charter schools. In the end, Cobián eclipsed board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who had been leading in contributions throughout the campaign, to raise the most money overall: a total of $123,144.

The two candidates vying to represent central-east Denver raised about $5,000 each in the waning days of the campaign. Incumbent Mike Johnson pulled in $5,300, including $5,000 from Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz. Teacher Carrie A. Olson, who won the seat, raised $4,946 from a host of donors, none of whom gave more than $500 during that time period.

The other candidates raised less than $5,000 each between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2.

O’Brien, who staved off two competitors to retain her seat representing the city at-large, spent the most in that period: $31,225. One of her competitors, Julie Bañuelos, spent the least.

money matters

In election of big spending, winning Aurora candidates spent less but got outside help

Four new board members, Kyla Armstrong-Romero, Marques Ivey, Kevin Cox and Debbie Gerkin after they were sworn in. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Public Schools)

A slate of Aurora school board candidates that won election last month were outspent by some of their rival campaigns — including in the final days of the race — but benefited from big spending by a union-backed independent committee.

Outside groups that backed the winning slate spent more overall during the campaign, but wound down as pro-education reform groups picked up their spending in the last period right before the election. Those efforts were not enough to push their candidates to victory.

According to the last campaign finance reports turned in on Thursday and covering activity from Oct. 26 through Dec. 2, Gail Pough and Miguel Lovato spent the most from their individual contributions.

Together Pough and Lovato spent more than $7,000 on calls, canvassing and consulting fees. Both candidates were supported by reform groups and had been reporting the most individual contributions in previous campaign finance reports.

But it was the slate of candidates endorsed by the teachers union — Kevin Cox, Debbie Gerkin, Kyla Armstrong-Romero and Marques Ivey — that prevailed on election night.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Gail Pough, $12,756.32; $12,328.81
  • Lea Steed, $1,965.00; $1,396.16
  • Kyla Armstrong Romero, $7,418.83; $3,606.12
  • Kevin Cox, $2,785.54; $2,993.07
  • Miguel Lovato, $16,856.00; $16,735.33
  • Jane Barber, $1,510.32; $1,510.32
  • Debbie Gerkin, $4,690.00; $4,516.21
  • Marques Ivey, $5,496.50; $5,638.57
  • Barbara Yamrick, did not file

The slate members spent varying amounts in the last few days before the election. For instance, Cox, who won the most votes, spent $403 while Ivey who recorded the fewest votes of the four winning candidates, spent $2,056.

Most of the slate candidates’ spending went to Facebook ads and consulting fees.

The four also reported large amounts in non-monetary contributions. Collectively, the slate members reported about $76,535 in non-monetary contributions, mostly from union funds, to cover in-kind mail, polling, office space and printing. All four also reported a non-monetary contribution in the form of a robocall from the Arapahoe County Democratic Party.

Other financial support for candidates, through independent expenditure committees, showed that the group Every Student Succeeds which was backed by union dollars and was supporting the union slate, spent less in the last days than the reform groups Raising Colorado and Families First Colorado which were supporting Pough and Lovato.

Overall, the independent expenditure committee groups spent more than $419,000 trying to sway Aurora voters.

Incumbent Barbara Yamrick failed to file any campaign finance reports throughout the campaign.

This story has been updated to include more information about in-kind contributions to the union-backed candidates.