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.”

Idea pitch

Despite concerns, Jeffco school board agrees to spend $1 million to start funding school innovations

Students at Lumberg Elementary School in Jeffco Public Schools work on their assigned iPads during a class project. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Jeffco school employees can apply for a piece of a $1 million fund that will pay for an innovative idea for improving education in the district.

The school board for Jeffco Public Schools on Thursday approved shifting $1 million from the district’s rainy day fund to an innovation pool that will be used to provide grants to launch the new ideas.

The district will be open for applications as soon as Friday.

The board had reservations about the plan, which was proposed by the new schools superintendent, Jason Glass, in November, as part of a discussion about ways to encourage innovation and choice in the district. The board was concerned about how quickly the process was set to start, whether there was better use of the money, and how they might play a role in the process.

Glass conceded that the idea was an experiment and that pushing ahead so quickly might create some initial problems.

“This effort is going to be imperfect because it’s the first time that we’ve done it and we don’t really know how it’s going to turn out,” Glass said. “There are going to be problems and there are going to be things we learn from this. It’s sort of a micro experiment. We’re going to learn a lot about how to do this.”

During the November discussion, Glass had suggested one use for the innovation money: a new arts school to open in the fall to attract students to the district. He said that the money could also be used to help start up other choice schools. School board members balked, saying they were concerned that a new arts school would compete with existing arts programs in Jeffco schools. The board, which is supported by the teachers union, has been reluctant to open additional choice schools in the district, instead throwing most of their support behind the district-run schools.

Board members also expressed concerns about what they said was a rushed process for starting the fund.

The plan calls for teachers, school leaders and other district employees to apply for the money by pitching their idea and explaining its benefit to education in the district. A committee will then consider the proposals and recommend those that should be funded out of the $1 million.

Board members said they felt it was too soon to start the application process on Friday. They also questioned why the money could not also help existing district programs.

“I think a great deal of innovation is happening,” said board member Amanda Stevens.

Some board members also suggested that one of them should serve on the committee, at least to monitor the process. But Glass was adamant.

“Do you want me to run the district and be the superintendent or not?” Glass asked the board. “I can set this up and execute it, but what you’re talking about is really stepping over into management, so I caution you about that.”

Glass later said he might be open to finding another way for board members to be involved as observers, but the board president, Ron Mitchell, said he would rather have the superintendent provide thorough reports about the process. The discussion is expected to resume at a later time.

Stevens said many of the board’s questions about details and the kind of ideas that will come forth will, presumably, be answered as the process unfolds.

“Trying is the only way we get any of that information,” Stevens said.

Future of Schools

Indiana’s graduation rate has barely changed in 6 years while most of the nation is on the rise

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Mbeomo Msambilwa walks down the hallway at the newcomer school

Indiana has failed to significantly increase the number of students who finish high school even as it leads the nation in embracing school choice policies that have been praised by some education advocates across the nation.

From 2007 to 2011, Indiana’s graduation rate steadily climbed from 78 percent to 87 percent. But since 2011, it has risen just one-tenth of one percentage point. Data released by the state this week showed 87 percent of students graduated in 2017, down slightly from 89 percent in 2016.

That’s a sharp contrast with trends across the country. The most recent national graduation rate was lower than Indiana’s, but it increased by about 5 percentage points between 2011 and 2016. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of students who graduate after four years by the number in a high school cohort.

While Hoosier graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past six years, state education policy has been in upheaval.

Since 2011, Indiana policymakers have limited the power of teachers unions, changed how teachers are evaluated, created an A-F grading system for schools and began taking control of schools with poor performance. They vastly expanded the state’s charter school system and established a statewide program where some students could get public money to pay for private school tuition.

Although politicians at the time did not promise that these changes would guarantee widespread higher academic performance, it was part of their arguments in advancing the new policies. But graduation rates have barely budged.

“We recognize there is still work to be done, and will continue to partner with local districts to ensure every student graduates prepared for life beyond high school,” state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement.

The picture is more positive in Marion County, with notable gains in some schools and districts. Wayne Township’s Ben Davis University High School graduated 100 percent of its seniors, the highest in Marion County.

At the district level, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate (97 percent). Beech Grove Schools, which enrolls just over 3,000 students, made the biggest jump of any district in the county, increasing 8 percentage points to 95 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools also made gains in graduation rates for the second year in a row. Eighty-three percent of students graduated, up 6 percentage points from 2016. The improvement significantly narrowed the gap between the district and the state average. The increase this year is especially notable because there was also a decline in the number of graduates who earned diplomas without passing state tests. Indiana requires students to pass state tests to graduate unless they can get a waiver by meeting other criteria.

The district has made increasing the number of students who graduate a priority in recent years, including by hiring high school graduation coaches who are tasked with helping students get to the finish line.

In IPS, most of the gains were at schools slated to close at the end of this year. The only campus with a substantially higher graduation rate that will remain open is Arsenal Technical High School. The district’s highest graduation rate was at Broad Ripple High School (98 percent), which will close.

Across the state, Asian (88 percent) and white (89 percent) students, and students who do not come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (95 percent) have the highest graduation rates. Black students and kids with special needs had graduation rates below 80 percent.

The biggest change was among students who are learning English as a new language. They had a graduation rate of 61 percent, down 14 percentage points from last year.