Future of Schools

Key legislative education leader fighting for his political survival

Indiana House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis. (Scott Elliott)

One of the Indiana legislature’s most high profile champions of testing, accountability and choice-based education reform is scrambling to save his political career.

But the challenge facing Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, in today’s primary election doesn’t come from a Tea Party conservative, like the battles some of his Republican statehouse colleagues face.

His opponent, an electrician named Mike Scott, is a union-backed Republican who has taken aim at Behning’s central role in changing education in the state over the past several years as a centerpiece of his case against the incumbent.

Scott argues Behning has supported an agenda that is damaging to public schools by grading them unfairly, tying the hands of local school leaders and taking dollars away to support experiments like charter schools and vouchers.

The unexpectedly close race has raised new questions about the political potency of a coalition of voters, spanning both political parties, that is increasingly skeptical of the sorts of reforms Behning is identified with.

It was voters concerned about too much testing, federal intrusion in local school curriculum, the state’s commitment to supporting public schools financially and what some saw as a derisive attitude toward teachers that helped propel Glenda Ritz’s stunning 2012 upset of then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett.

Could the same sentiments now sweep Behning out of office?

He is taking the threat seriously. Scott garnered only 37 percent of the vote when he challenged Behning in 2012 but a worried Behning went up with television ads critical of Scott last week.

Behning said he doesn’t believe his political problems are true reflection of voter discontent with his education stances. He argues Scott has effectively painted an unfair portrait of his work in the legislature.

Even so, he said, the race could have an impact on efforts to make educational change in the state.

“If I lose tomorrow, it really wouldn’t be because of education reform,” he said Monday, “although education reform would take a huge hit by taking out Bennett and then taking out me.”

Scott, on the other hand, thinks voters are finally asking tough questions about the direction the state has been led in education under former Gov. Mitch Daniels, Bennett and Behning.

“Bob over the past two years has done some things people do not want,” Scott said. “I never would have supported the agenda that has been started back in 2005 or so that was put in place to actually defund public education. That’s really what’s happening.”

A key role in educational change

For 22 years, Behning has represented the 91st House district, including Decatur Township, southwest Marion County and parts of Morgan and Hendricks counties. For six of those years, he chaired the House Education Committee.

In that role, Behning helped shepherd through the legislature bills to support the education agenda pushed by Daniels and Bennett. That led to new laws that created private school vouchers, expanded charter schools and instituted teacher evaluation. He was also an early backer of Common Core standards.

His vocal support for those ideas, along with A to F school grading and accountability based on testing, made Behning a lightning rod for critics, and they have rallied to support Scott.

Scott, who estimated his campaign has knocked the doors on about 85 percent of the homes in the district, said voters have been receptive to his candidacy and his complaints about Behning.

Behning’s own polling has consistently shown him in the lead, he said, but by smaller margins than he expected. He declined to say how close the race was in his polls.

Behning said he has been targeted by mailings from third party groups and responded with a flurry of fundraising in the campaign’s final month. Last week he began running the T.V. ads and he was campaigning door to door on Monday.

Behning’s view is that Scott and his allies have painted him unfairly as a big spending, big government liberal.

“They’re trying to say I’m a liberal who wants the federal government to take control of our schools,” he complained. “Those are some of the most untrue things.”

Finding a compelling message

But what has changed since Behning trounced Scott in the primary two years ago?

Scott looks no further than Decatur Township schools. Smack in the middle of Behning’s district, Decatur schools have been hit hard by property tax caps, instituted by the legislature in 2010 as part of an effort to make property taxes more stable. A byproduct of that change was limits on the flexibility schools once had to manage their finances.

For Decatur and a few others, the consequences have led to tough choices. The district today is seeking $27 million from voters, saying it will be forced to cut busing altogether if the referendum fails.

Mike Scott
Mike Scott

Scott has done all he could to get voters coming out to support the school referendum to blame Behning for the district’s fiscal woes.

What’s happening to Decatur schools, Scott said, is connected to a wider effort that began under Daniels, and includes vouchers and charter schools that drain money from public school districts, to put a squeeze on funding for local schools.

“People want their pubic schools,” Scott said. “Bob is going against them. He has not listened to them.”

Assisting Scott in getting that message out has been Hoosiers for Public Education, a political action committee that backs public schools. Joel Hand, one of the PAC’s organizers, said the group targeted Behning as a chief opponent of its philosophy, which calls for local control paired with strong state financial support of local schools and blames school choice and Bennett-style accountability systems as diminishing both.

“He has, in the opinion of our board, consistently attacked public education in supporting private education through his support of vouchers,” Hand said.

The group has gained some momentum by highlighting Behning’s support for Common Core, academic standards that 45 states agreed to follow in an effort to ensure that graduates are ready for college and careers.

“Until about the last six months he was probably the leading legislative advocate in favor of Common Core,” Hand said. “More recently he’s changed his tune.”

Indiana has seen an intense backlash against its 2010 adoption of Common Core, which led to bills that paused implementation of the standards in 2013 and voided Common Core in Indiana this year.

While Behning voted for Common Core as a member of the Education Roundtable in 2010 and sought to protect it in the legislature the past two years, he notes he ultimately voted for the bills pausing and then voiding Common Core.

“That doesn’t make me look as bad, but they didn’t share all those facts,” Behning said.

Mud flies in campaign’s final weeks

Behning insists his record has been misrepresented, and he defined his television ads, which Scott has called “attack” ads, as fair and necessary to inform voters who know little about Scott.

“In primaries, you have your more conservatives come out,” Behning said. “People didn’t have a clue who he was.”

The ads highlight Scott’s union connections.

“This district would not support a union-backed opponent,” Behning said.

Behning has benefited from a flood of contributions, especially from business interests. Among his recent benefactors are Hoosiers from Economic Growth, which gave him $45,000, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce-backed political action committee, which gave him $25,000.

But Behning said he regretted his campaign didn’t get more aggressive sooner.

“One thing we probably didn’t do is respond as quickly as we could have on some things,” he said.

Still, Robert Vane, a Republican political strategist, said Behning was smart to recognize the seriousness of his political challenge before it was too late.

Indiana has seen a string of insurgent victories that began with Brent Waltz’s Republican primary upset win over powerful Senate Finance Committee Chairman Larry Borst in 2004, Vane said. Since then, Senate President Bob Garton was defeated by Greg Walker in 2006, Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson was shocked by Greg Ballard in 2007, Bennett was defeated by Ritz in 2012 and U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar lost in the primary to Richard Mourdock, also in 2012.

In each case, Vane said, part of the problem was incumbents failing to recognize that their challengers were credible threats.

Vane said his he knows Behning’s district well. His parents live there. Scott’s populist strategy makes good sense for Decatur Township voters, he said.

“Thats a working class district,” Vane said. “It’s not Zionsville or Carmel. It’s working class Republicans.”

He’s not convinced Behning’s struggles can be blamed solely on his education record, or that Behning will actually lose today.

“I’ve seen nothing that indicates school reform is anything less than very popular in Indiana,” Vane said. “Do I think Scott has a smart strategy? I do. But I wouldn’t bet against Bob Behning and the school reform movement either.”

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.

Q&A

‘The war on teachers still exists.’ Newark Teachers Union chief on the Janus ruling, Roger León, and threats from Washington

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
"We took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists," said NTU President John Abeigon.

The past few weeks have been a rollercoaster ride for Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

The high point came on July 1 when Roger León, a veteran Newark educator, became the district’s new superintendent. Abeigon had fought incessantly with the previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf, protesting his confirmation vote and trading insults with him in the press during contentious contract negotiations. León, by contrast, is Abeigon’s longtime acquaintance who held a two-hour introductory meeting with the union’s leadership soon after he was selected as schools chief.

The low point arrived on June 27 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employees who choose not to join their labor unions no longer must pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. The case, which was bankrolled by anti-union conservative groups, was brought by a state worker in Illinois named Mark Janus who argued that he should not be forced to support a union whose political views he disagreed with.

“In Newark, we have a word for a guy like that: Jerk-off,” Abeigon said in an interview last week at the union’s four-story headquarters near City Hall. “‘Free rider’ might be more politically correct. But that’s just jerk-off by another name.”

In Newark, about 93 percent of the roughly 4,000 teachers, aides, and clerks represented by the NTU are full members, Abeigon said. They pay 1.1 percent of their annual salary in dues — or about $770 per year for a teacher earning $70,000 annually. The remaining employees are so-called agency-fee payers, who pay .85 percent of their salary to the union, or $595 per year for someone making $70,000.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Janus, the union can no longer charge such fees. That means any NTU member who wants could end their membership but still enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining for free. Abeigon said none of his members dropped out after the ruling — but they only had four days to decide before the union’s July 1 enrollment deadline. It’s possible more could leave when the next window opens on Jan. 1.

During the hour-long interview with Chalkbeat, Abeigon gave his take on the ruling, the new superintendent, and the issues he’ll raise when contract negotiations with the district start this fall.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: The Janus ruling was a major blow to unions that could leave them with less money, members, and political clout. What will it mean for your union?

Abeigon: Right now, Newark has no one requesting to drop out.

It makes sense given what we’ve been through in the past 10 years with [former superintendents] Cami Anderson and Chris Cerf attempting to annihilate us. It doesn’t make sense to drop out. It’s not worth it. For $700 I’m going to kick my union in the face? After all we’ve been through? After all the wins we’ve had?

What incentive do your members have to keep paying dues?

The right to run for office, the right to vote for your union leadership. Access to discount benefit programs that we have that are only available to full-time members, access to professional development that we provide gratis.

What about representation if they come up for disciplinary charges or tenure charges?

Right now, [non-dues payers] would be entitled to that. However, [the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey] had a meeting yesterday. And there will be other meetings with the state legislature to correct that through the legislative process.

So essentially a law that would allow unions to only provide certain services to dues-paying members?

Correct.

It sounds like you’re also counting on your members to think beyond their personal financial interest and consider the greater good of the union.

We don’t have a separate source of income. We don’t sell T-shirts. We don’t invest in real estate. Our dues go to services and to protect members. If there’s no dues, there’s no service, there’s no protection. It’s that simple.

Our members know we’re not one of these unions that spend millions of dollars on staff and Cadillacs and vacations and conferences. I would say that 98 percent of union dues are spent on legal and professional services that we provide our members.

Some pundits have said the ruling could be a blessing in disguise to unions by forcing them to be more responsive to members and provide better services. Do you feel any pressure to be more responsive now?

If someone is working in a union that is not responsive and doesn’t provide services, this could be an incentive for that union to wake up and start listening to its members.

But if you look at the makeup of my executive board, my negotiation committees, my professional development committees, the workshops that we have here, I would argue there’s not a more progressive union in the state than the NTU.

So in your view, you’re already a responsive union that meets members’ needs?

Above and beyond.

Try to get in contact with another local union president while he’s on vacation through Facebook Messenger, and see if he responds. The staff in this building, we’re available 24-7.

Moving on to the new superintendent, Roger León. This is the first time the board has been able to choose a superintendent in over 20 years, rather than have one appointed by the state. And it chose a lifelong Newarker who’s a veteran educator. To you, what’s the significance of that?

It’s huge. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.

Now, not only do we have Roger, but we have [Gov. Phil] Murphy and [Commissioner Lamont] Repollet in the state Department of Education. So things should be a little more democratic.

And you know, democracy isn’t pretty. But there’s a process.

[León’s] going to learn where his role is as a superintendent who is answerable to a school board. And the school board is going to learn how to represent the parents to whom they’re responsible and the children.

How do you think your dealings with León, someone who’s from the district and worked here for over 25 years, will be different than they were with the state-appointed superintendents?

We’ll deal with him the same way we dealt with every single superintendent who preceded him. When they’re right, it’s because they listened to us, and when they’re wrong, it’s because they didn’t.

Tell me about León. Have you interacted with him over the years?

I’ve interacted with him a hundred times. I went to Montclair State with him; we took education law classes together.

Roger’s all about the kids. After that, he’s all about the teachers and administrators in the building who are in charge of providing those kids with an education.

Roger also comes from poverty. He went to Hawkins Street School as a child, and he still lives in the same house and the same neighborhood, and is loved and respected by the same people.

So it shouldn’t be all that difficult to express to Roger what’s wrong with a situation and how it can be remedied.

León also has a reputation for having very high standards. Is that a positive thing, or could it be a challenge for you if he thinks teachers are under-performing?

We expect him to be about high standards. But we also expect him to be about reasonable high standards.

If you’re in a classroom with 14, 15 kids, air-conditioned, parental support, you can have a certain expectation. If you’re in a classroom with 30 kids and it’s 105 degrees and gunshots interrupt the lesson, you have to adjust and monitor your expectations.

Does that mean lowering expectations for students facing those challenges?

No. But don’t expect the same results in the same amount of time.

One of the first things León did was force out 31 officials who were connected to his predecessors, Anderson and Cerf. What did you think about that?

It was a good start, but there’s still more of them to go.

Anyone associated with education reform or the corporate-charter school agenda needs to be identified, isolated, and let go. I would push Roger that anyone in the administrative sector who was hired by Cami or Cerf be terminated immediately.

You’ve called for Newark Enrolls, the district’s single enrollment system for traditional and charter schools, to be dismantled. But just recently León made a comment saying he was planning to keep it. Did that concern you?

Well it takes time to dismantle something, you can’t just dismantle it overnight. You have to replace it with something. I’ll give him time. But little by little it has to be demolished.

The purpose of Newark Enrolls was solely to put children in the empty seats at charter schools.

It had nothing to do with accommodating Newark parents. How do you accommodate a Newark parent by telling her that two of her kids are going to go to one school, and the the third is going to go to another school across town when she’s got a full-time job and has to get them to both schools?

León has limited control over charter schools. He can’t open or close charters, but he has talked about getting the two sectors to collaborate by having principals and teachers share ideas and best practices.

There’s nothing we can share. I disagree with him on that.

We have nothing to learn from the corporate charter industry. Everything that they use are things we’ve been arguing for for decades. We’ve been looking for legislation year after year to mandate a class-size minimum and maximum of 15 to 20 [students]. We didn’t need to learn that from them. We’ve been looking for that legislation forever. We can never get it.

Another issue you’ve brought up before are the extended hours at low-performing schools that was built into the 2012 teachers contract.

Another corporate-reform failure. It failed big because they thought they knew everything.

Every teacher can tell you that if you’re doing something wrong, or a kid’s not getting it, keeping him there an additional three hours a day is only going to frustrate him. It’s going to attack his self-esteem, and he’s going to act out. And that’s exactly what we saw happen.

So will you push León to get rid of that?

Yes. We want a restoration of the after-school program that has worked successfully in the traditional schools.

The contract that was negotiated in 2012 was considered groundbreaking. It had performance pay, longer hours for some schools, a new teacher evaluation system, and teacher raises.

We are a progressive union. We did negotiate those things.

And where they were successful is because we made them work. Where they failed is because the district was not being run by educators. It was being run by corporate charter reformers.

So now when the current contract is set to expire after this school year, will you try to keep any of those policies in the new contract?

We’re going to be trying to negotiate them all away.

Including performance pay?

Except for that. We have no problem with getting more money into the pockets of our members.

That’s what we’re about. We’re a union. It’s the Newark Teachers Union. A lot of people forget that. No, I’m not the parents union. I’m not the taxpayers union. I’m not the children’s union. The children in this city got more advocates than you can throw a…They got the [Advocates for Children of New Jersey], they got the Education Law Center, they got the parents and the other thing. Everyone and their mother in this city is an advocate for the children.

Wherever there’s a child in this city, one of my members is within three feet of that kid. You think I want any harm to come to that child? No, because the collateral damage will hit the teacher.

This moment seems like it’s been a bit of whiplash for your union. In Newark, you have a new locally controlled school board and a superintendent who’s an educator. But at the national level, you have a Supreme Court ruling that goes against unions. How are you feeling in this moment?

Locally, it’s a win that we’ve been working for for a long time — the return to local control.

But we were never not mindful that the war on teachers was a national one. And we took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists. That we may be lucky, we may have spared ourselves now, we may have found a moment to breathe without being directly attacked. But we still have to keep our helmets on for attacks that come from Washington.

But we’ll deal with it. We’ll survive those attacks, too.