Future of Teaching

Ritz-led effort to block teacher certification changes narrowly fails

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

In a close vote today, the Indiana State Board of Education blocked an effort, led by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, to kill proposed changes to teacher certification.

The debate centered on a proposed “adjunct” teacher license. The rules allow for anyone with at least 6,000 hours of professional work and a 3.0 college GPA in the subject they wish to teach to work in a high school. They would not need any background in teaching. The work experience requirements are a change from an earlier version of the proposed rules that would have allowed anyone with a four-year college degree and a 3.0 GPA to teach if they pass a test of content knowledge.

Those who would use the adjunct certificate, now renamed “career specialist,” would not need any teacher training at the start, but would be required to begin a training program when starting a teaching job.

Ritz and other educators on the board — college professor Brad Oliver, principal Troy Albert and teachers Cari Whicker and Sarah O’Brien — opposed the idea as unneeded, arguing existing rules already allow people who change careers to easily become teachers.

But their criticism wasn’t enough. The other six board members voted to pursue the proposal, which will face a vote at a future board meeting as part of the third iteration of the Rules for Education Preparation and Accountability, or REPA III.

The new license is not needed, said Oliver, who is the dean of the School of Educational Leadership at Indiana Wesleyan University.

“There is no question there are teachers out there who did not come through traditional preparation who need to be in the classroom,” Oliver said. “That flexibility is currently in the rules.”

The deans of the education schools at Indiana University, Butler University and the University of Indianapolis, where many teachers are trained, have also spoken out against the proposed rules as diminishing expectations for what teachers should know before they begin working in classrooms.

But the opposing view from other board members was that one more avenue into teaching might help attract additional talented teachers.

“We’re just giving professional people an opportunity,” board member Dan Elsener said.

When the rules were first proposed as part of what was called REPA II in 2012, they brought a wave of protest. Educators who testified against them said the state shouldn’t allow candidates with no teacher training to become classroom teachers.

The state board made some changes to the original proposal in late 2012 but passed the new rules despite a plea from Ritz, who had just been elected but had not yet taken her post, to delay until she could participate in the debate as a member of the state board.

The new rules, however, were never put in place. A missed deadline forced the rules to go back through a year-long approval process. The missed deadline was one of the first signs of tension between Ritz and the rest of the board, who each blamed the other.

Today’s debate centered on the question of whether new teachers, likely those changing careers, should be allowed to teach right away or first take courses in teaching methods.

“I know some great scientists who may not be great teachers,” Whicker said, advocating for some teacher training first.

But most of the board thought the benefits of potentially attracting talented professionals to teaching outweighed the risks. New teachers using the career specialist license would have to begin a training program and would be subject to evaluation. Like all teachers, if they are rated ineffective they could be fired immediately.

“There is no reason to fear this will lead to unqualified educators,” board member Andrea Neal said. “These teachers will be held accountable through the teacher evaluation system.”

The evaluation system was another point of contention on the board today, leading Ritz to exercise her power as board chair to overrule the other board members for the first time since a series of tense meetings last fall.

Board member David Freitas began the meeting with a motion to establish stronger guidelines for how schools judge teacher effectiveness.

On Tuesday, some board members were not pleased to hear staff reports that schools counted test scores for as little as 10 percent of teachers’ effectiveness ratings.

But Ritz quickly denied the motion. Under the board’s rules, which have been debated in recent months, a motion can only be added to the agenda with support from three board members and Ritz, as the chair.

Nearly all the other board members said they wanted to consider Freitas’ motion, but Ritz stuck to her decision.

Afterward, Ritz said she was open to the discussion Freitas wanted to have, but preferred he follow the board’s normal process for adding agenda items, with Freitas forwarding the language for his motion in advance of the next meeting.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Ritz and others questioned how many limits the state board could set for schools under a law that was designed to give lots of local flexibility.

“Allowing it to come in June will allow my department to actually check out the rule-making authority of the board in regards to that topic,” Ritz said after the meeting.

Ritz and the board have disagreed in recent months over her directions to schools about procedures for evaluation teachers, particularly her ruling that schools did not have to use test scores for teacher evaluations in cases where online testing glitches affected their students’ scores last year. Ritz has been generally critical of Indiana’s approach to testing as too punitive.

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect changes to the proposed career specialist certificate that were not fully detailed in the meeting. Prior rules would have allowed anyone with a college degree and a 3.0 GPA to teach. Work experience was added as a requirement.

Teacher Pay

‘Our teachers have waited long enough’: Educators say Indiana needs to act now on teacher pay

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in Decatur Township work on physics problems with their teacher.

Educators and advocates are pushing state leaders to take action this year to raise teacher compensation — not to wait for additional research, as Gov. Eric Holcomb proposed last week.

“Our teachers have waited long enough,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “It doesn’t take a two-year study to discover what we already know: teachers need to be valued, respected, and paid as professionals.”

Holcomb’s proposal last week to study raises in the upcoming budget-writing session and make bigger steps in 2021 didn’t sit well with some, since lawmakers and advocates spent the fall talking up the need to make teacher salaries competitive with other states. But given the state’s tight budget situation, Holcomb suggested studying the impact of raises for at least a year, as well as looking at how much money would be needed and how districts would be expected to get the money to teachers.

Read: Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

The proposal drew quick criticism. Education leaders and advocacy groups took to Twitter to express their hopes that Holcomb and lawmakers would find ways to address teacher salaries this year as well as into the future.

“IN must respond now,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick tweeted Friday morning, remarking that too many teachers across the state are leaving the profession because pay is too low. “Kids deserve & depend upon excellent teachers.”

“We can’t wait to act because Hoosier children are counting on all us to come together to ensure our schools can attract and retain the best teachers,” Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, said in a blog post titled “The time to act on teacher pay is now.

ISTA’s 2019 legislative agenda, released Monday, will continue pushing for lawmakers and state leaders to find creative solutions to raise teacher pay and make Indiana competitive with other states.

And ISTA says they might have voters on their side. A recent ISTA poll of more than 600 Hoosiers, conducted by Emma White Research, shows that funding for education is a priority across the state, with more than 86 percent of those sampled supporting sending more money to public schools. About 72 percent of people polled believe educators are underpaid.

But it’s unclear if there would be enough money in the budget to spend on across-the-board raises after other funding obligations are met, such as funding needed by the Department of Child Services to deal with effects of the state’s opioid crisis. Senate Democrats have called for $81 million a year to ensure 5 percent raises for teachers and counselors over the next two years. Republicans have strong majorities in both chambers.

Neither ISTA, lawmakers, Holcomb nor other education groups have released specific plans for either how much they’d like to see set aside for teachers or strategies for how a pay increase could feasibly be carried out. However, the effort has brought together some unlikely allies — the union, a vocal advocate for traditional public schools, rarely aligns its education policy with groups like Stand and Teach Plus Indiana that have favored increased school-choice options, such as charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition.

With limited dollars to go around, the focus will have to also be on how to make existing education dollars go farther, Meredith said. She, along with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma last month, pointed to the need to curtail spending on administration, which, they argue, could free up money for other expenses such as teacher compensation.

Some have also pointed to the state’s recent budget surplus and reserves as evidence that Indiana could spend more on education if there was political will to do so.

“The surplus has come on the backs of educators and their students,” Meredith said. “Elected leaders must do more. They must do more to declare teacher pay a priority in this session, and they must take action.”

ISTA is also hoping lawmakers will act to:

  • Restore collective bargaining rights so educators can negotiate work hours and class size, as well as salaries and benefits.
  • Remove teacher evaluation results from decisions about salary until the state’s new ILEARN test has been in place for a few years.
  • Invest in school counselors, psychologists, and social workers
  • Strengthen regulations for charter and virtual charter schools, including putting a moratorium on new virtual schools until those safeguards can be enacted.
  • Study districts that have focused on how to best teach students who have experienced trauma.

Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.

Charter strike

Chicago charter files federal labor complaint against union over strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, left, met Dec. 7, 2018, with striking Acero teachers and their supporters, who were protesting at his office.

As the acrimonious teacher strike against Acero charter schools wound down its fourth day, both sides ratcheted up pressure, neither giving any indication of backing down.

The charter network sought a court order to halt the strike, and filed a federal complaint claiming that the strike was illegal.

Meanwhile, powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas heavy with Acero schools, addressed strikers who had marched into his office Friday.

“My heart is with you,” Burke told them. He promised to speak with Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez in an effort to end the strike before Monday, according to both Burke’s office and Acero.

Some 30 teachers and parents wedged into the foyer of Burke’s office between a lit-up Christmas tree and a statute of a horse wearing a green beanie labeled “Ald. Ed Burke.”

They demanded that he use his clout to pressure Rodriguez to agree to teachers’ contract demands, among them smaller class sizes and better compensation for teachers and paraprofessionals. Later Friday, Acero issued a statement confirming that the two, political allies, had met. The network did not explain the content or nature of the discussion.

About 500 teachers have been striking since Tuesday, with 7,500 students out of school. Seven of Acero’s 15 schools are in Burke’s ward.

Acero filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the Chicago Teachers Union and is appealing to the National Labor Relations Board to halt the strike. The charter management organization also sought a temporary restraining order to force teachers back to work. You can read the NLRB complaint below.

In response, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a press release, “Acero’s management is desperate and our pressure is working.” He insisted that the strike is a legal protest over wages and working conditions.

In response to strikers’ accusations that Rodriguez is uninvolved in the negotiations, Acero also issued a statement insisting that Rodriguez had met with management negotiators throughout the talks. Union officials have complained of Rodriguez being absent from the bargaining table.

Acero’s roots

Acero, once the nation’s largest Hispanic charter school operator, sprang from a community organizing tool to build Latino political power on Chicago’s Southwest side.

The history of Acero illustrates how charter schools in Chicago are intertwined in local politics, and how their growth would have been impossible without political support.

The United Neighborhood Organization was founded in 1984 by a Jesuit priest who recognized the struggle of immigrants in Chicago’s fast-growing Mexican-American community. Soon a South Side community organizer named Danny Solis joined and turned the organization’s focus first to local school politics and eventually to citywide influence.

Over the years, UNO’s power in neighborhoods grew as it nurtured local leaders like Juan Rangel, who eventually became CEO of the network. Both Rangel and Solis also ran for aldermanic positions, with Solis eventually winning an appointment in 1995 as alderman of the 25th ward, which encompassed the Pilsen neighborhood.

Rangel, meanwhile, had worked his way to the head of UNO just as then-Mayor Richard Daley and his school leadership team were ushering in an era of school choice in Chicago, and looking for community groups to take up the mantle.

“When charters emerged, UNO was one of the first entries into the charter market,” said Stephanie Farmer, a professor of sociology at Roosevelt University who researches charter school finance. “They did work their political connections to get state funding.”

UNO first proposed two charter schools in 1997.  Two decades later, it runs 15 schools spread across both the Southwest and Northwest sides of the city.

Enter Ed Burke. Halfway through an ambitious construction project for a new campus, UNO ran out of money and was forced to turn to its political allies, among them Burke, who helped the network get a $65 million low-interest loan from bankers. Several years later, Rangel supported Burke’s brother in his run for an Illinois House seat.

Farmer called this a clear example of the benefits of political patronage, without which Acero could not have grown as much as it has.

“They became patronage benefactors. It was both a way for UNO to build political power and then also a way for Burke to solidify his relations with the Latino political machine,” she said. “They were the only [charter school] who got as much state money as they did for the buildings.”

Rangel’s tenure at UNO ended abruptly and in disgrace. Accused of nepotism and misusing public funds, and under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he quit.

The charter school arm of UNO formally separated from the organization in 2013 and, in 2015, renamed itself the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN). In 2017, it rebranded itself as Acero in an effort to distance itself from Rangel’s misdeeds.

Today, charters in Chicago face a harsher climate than they did during Acero’s initial expansion.

Chicago Public Schools recommended this week that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide rising against the independently operated public schools. And the state’s new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters.

But Burke’s ability to call Acero’s CEO and encourage him to come to an agreement shows that politics may still play a significant role in the charter industry.

It also shows a more critical turn both toward machine politics and education in Chicago, Farmer said,  “The strikers are highlighting that Burke’s machine doesn’t work for the ward’s children.”