From the Statehouse

Ferebee is grilled over IPS support of charter school bill

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indianapolis Public Schools’ new superintendent found himself on the defensive this morning, explaining to skeptical Democrats and union leaders his support for a bill allowing charter school partnerships in IPS schools.

House Bill 1321 would allow IPS to enter into partnerships with charter school operators or school management organizations.

Under the bill, IPS can collaborate with an outside group in two ways. A charter school can operate independently within an IPS school building. Or IPS can hire an outside group to run an IPS school, creating what the bill calls an “innovation school” and giving it greater freedoms than other district schools.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he needed the flexibility offered by the bill to execute strategies to improve some schools.

But the bill, which applies only to IPS, contains a provision that brought intense opposition from Indiana’s two statewide teachers unions — an outright prohibition of union bargaining for employees who work at “innovation schools” run under contract with the district. That provision was the main focus of those who spoke against the bill at today’s House Education Committee meeting.

Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, blasted what she said was the bill’s “complete and utter disrespect” for teachers.

“You’re setting yourself up to lose a lot of good teachers,” she told Ferebee.

Gail Zaheralis, of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the bill was imbued with anti-union sentiment.

“The implication throughout this bill is that bargaining salary and wages, and discussing with teachers matters of best practices, are hindering these schools,” she said. “That what’s offensive.”

IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee speaks to the House Education Committee. (Scott Elliott)
IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee speaks to the House Education Committee. (Scott Elliott)

Under the bill, IPS can enter into a contract with a charter school or other independent group to run a charter school within an IPS building and use IPS services, such as buses or meals. Or the district can contract with an outside group to run one of its own schools that has been rated a D or F for three years. In both cases, teachers and other workers may be employed by the outside group, with different pay scales and benefit offerings than the rest of the district. The outside group also can make major changes at the school, such as instituting a longer school day or school year, and choose to hire former IPS employees or not.

In return, the district can count the test scores from those schools in its cumulative averages and and is afforded a degree of control over where some charter schools locate and how they operate. Embracing charter schools in this way is a major departure from the district’s posture under Ferebee’s predecessor, Eugene White. In the past, the district sought to aggressively compete with charters and often resisted charter requests to use IPS buildings.

But in the hearing, Ferebee argued the bill was necessary to keep IPS from closing neighborhood schools, which he said were threatened by the district’s financial woes. An “oversaturation” of charter schools in the city “really puts us in danger of losing our neighborhood concept,” Ferebee said.

“We have the risk of having to close our neighborhood schools,” he said.

Last spring, the district announced it had a multi-million dollar deficit and used reserve funds to meet its budget this school year. Peggy Hinckley, then serving as interim superintendent, predicted IPS would have to close as many as 10 schools to make its spending match its income. IPS is likely to be reluctant to close higher performing magnet schools over mostly low-scoring neighborhood schools.

Upon his arrival from North Carolina in September, Ferebee said he was struck by a large construction project for the new Phalen Leadership Academy charter school on North Illinois Street, less than two miles from an IPS elementary school and another charter school. At the same time IPS had schools with excess space, Phalen was spending millions to convert a warehouse into a school.

“It was really a head scratcher to me,” he said.

Ferebee said he also noticed a pattern in IPS school performance: charter-like local control of schools within the district correlated with better test scores.

“Many of the most high performing schools in our district are our schools with the greatest autonomy over their instructional programs: our magnet programs,” he said.

That led him to create an “innovation network” of a three schools, giving the principal and teachers at those schools more control over how they operate.

“They were doing things really differently,” Ferebee said.

Two of those schools follow a program known as Project Restore developed by two former IPS School 99 teachers. Ferebee cited that program as a potential internal partner, managing IPS schools under a contract as prescribed in House Bill 1321. The Project Restore schools, he said, are interested in exploring a longer school day, longer school year and changes to the way teachers are compensated.

“They don’t have those opportunities now,” he said.

That’s because changing compensation or adding working days and hours for teachers would require negotiations with IPS’ teachers union.

Teachers should not be prohibited from bargaining with IPS over how they would be affected by those changes, union advocates said. Sally Sloan of the Indiana Federation of Teachers noted that state law makes employee bargaining an option for all of Indiana’s autonomous charter schools.

“I can’t see why these people shouldn’t have the same opportunity,” she said.

While the bill was passed by the education committee 9-4, heading next for a full House vote expected next week, key supporters expressed a willingness to consider Sloan’s proposal as an amendment, giving teachers the option of bargaining collectively.

“I wouldn’t have heartburn if it was similar to charter schools,” Ferebee said.

Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth shared Ferebee’s view, as did the bill’s author, Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office worked with IPS and Behning to create the bill.

“We’d be comfortable with it being consistent with charter school law,” Kloth said.

But that may not be enough to win support of the unions, or the Democrats. ISTA officials said they would continue to advocate for the teachers at any school managed by special management team under the bill to remain IPS employees and members of the IPS union.

ISTA lobbyist John O’Neil bristled at what he called “euphemisms” in the bill, such as the term “innovation schools,” which is the name for those run by “special management teams” from outside groups under contract with IPS.

In effect, he said, the bill creates a local complement to state takeover, a process that led to outside management of four IPS schools in 2012. It means veteran teachers can be fired and their replacements paid less so for-profit companies can make money, he said.

“Special management teams are outside companies that would manage these schools,” he said “‘Innovation schools’ is simply another name for takeover.”


legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.