The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of charter schools in Indiana: A mayor’s big role

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

(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.)

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated public schools that are tuition-free. The schools are overseen by governing boards that report to a sponsoring organization that gives the school permission to operate and can close down schools that don’t meet academic performance goals. Some governing boards hire for-profit or non-profit management companies to run the schools.

Charters are controversial. Proponents argue that they create more options for students to find a good fit for their interests and skills and create competitive pressure for all schools to educate students better in order to attract higher enrollment and the state aid dollars that come with those students. Critics say the schools are no better, and often worse, than the traditional public schools from which they drain students and money and that the schools are less publicly accountable as their boards are not elected.

The charter school movement in Indiana differs from other states’ in that it’s been a little slower moving, differently managed from most places and, proponents argue, somewhat better in quality overall than in other parts of the country.

The mayor’s unusual role

Indiana’s 2001 charter law remains the only one in the country that gives a city mayor — the mayor of Indianapolis — the ability to sponsor charter schools. Both ex-mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat, and current mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, have aggressively chartered schools in the city.

Originally, charter sponsoring also was available to universities and school districts. But for a decade the Indianapolis mayor was joined by just one other major sponsor — Ball State University. With just two active sponsors, charter schools expanded more slowly in Indiana than in most states with more expansive laws.

Perhaps as a result, Indiana’s charter schools looked different in other ways, too. For one, there were more homegrown charter schools in the Hoosier state and fewer national organizations operating charters in the state. Examples of homegrown charters are the Tindley Acclerated School, Christel House Academy, and Herron High School. There were some national chains, notably Concept Schools, Heritage Academies and KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program).

Sponsoring expands

Today, Ballard is still the only mayor in the country sponsoring charters. But in 2011, the legislature expanded chartering authority in two ways. It allowed private, nonprofit universities to sponsor charters and created a new statewide charter school board with sponsoring powers.

The law has helped fuel a recent expansion of charters. In 2012 and 2013, 21 new charters have opened, or a 50 percent increase. Also helping the expansion is a cooperative effort by the mayor’s office and The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education reform organization, to create a charter school incubator. The effort seeks to aid high-performing charters to replicate with new schools and to attract high-performing charter organizations around the country to come to Indianapolis.

Concerns also have been raised about whether more sponsors allow schools to “shop” for more accommodating oversight, allowing schools that are less likely to perform well to avoid accountability. In 2015, the legislature is considering new limits on charter sponsors aimed at preventing charter shopping.

Performance debated

There is considerable debate about the performance of charter schools in Indiana. Critics point out that charters generally rank in the bottom half of schools in the state for test performance, but advocates argue they compare well against the schools they were designed to compete with — those with high poverty and other challenges located nearby.

A pair of studies by Stanford University have shown Indiana’s charter schools have generally performed well when compared to charters in other states. The study’s authors have argued that the Hoosier state was helped by mostly choosy sponsoring by the Indianapolis mayor’s office and Ball State, which both rejected far more charter applications than they approved.

And yet the authors were critical of Ball State for allowing a small number of low-performing charters to keep operating. Soon after, the university ordered several of the low performers closed in 2013. A few managed to stay open by finding new sponsors, raising questions about whether Indiana’s charter law is strong enough to force low performers to close when their sponsors believe they should.

Access to new funding

In the 2015 legislative budget debate, Gov Mike Pence pushed for a big $1,500 per-student grants for charter schools for outside-of-the-classroom costs like buildings and busing. That would have cost the state about $90 million over two years. Instead, the legislature set aside $10 million for grants of up to $500 per-student to help charter schools with those costs.

But all charter schools won’t qualify. Only those that received either an “A,” “B,” or “C” grade from the state or can show they out-perform nearby traditional public schools are eligible.

The issues ahead

On the horizon, along with more charter schools, are questions about whether charters and school districts can forge working partnerships, especially in Indianapolis.

In 2014, the Indiana legislature passed a bill giving IPS the authority to hand empty buildings over for charter schools to use, or to hire charter school operators to run an IPS school.

Under these “innovation school” partnerships, IPS could count partner schools’ test scores in district averages. Charters would get space in IPS buildings and possibly district services like transportation and special education as well. The first such partnership will be wlith the Phalen Leadership Academy charter school at IPS School 103 in the fall of 2015.

The idea behind the bill, which IPS superintendent Lewis Ferebee helped craft, was strongly opposed by by unions and Democrats.

The Indiana State Teachers Union has argued the bill creates a newly uneven playing field for teachers when it comes to their bargaining rights. The bill permits the charter operators to hire teachers for the schools they run — even if they remain IPS schools — and disregard the district’s union contract when deciding what the pay and benefits will be.

In 2012, annual teacher pay in Indianapolis charter school, on average, was $10,000 to $25,000 less than IPS.

Also the state has seen a trend toward expanded offerings of online and blended learning charter schools, which shift some or all instruction to online venues. More than 10 such schools are on the drawing board to open in the next five years.

Can the city sustain so many new schools along with the traditional public and private school networks? Or can charters and traditional schools work more closely to share services and building space? Those are big unanswered questions going forward.

-Updated December 2015


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.