Future of Schools

Ritz blames Pence, CECI for "undermining" her leadership

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz reached an agreement on how to handle a predicted drop in ISTEP passing rates for 2015.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz today ripped Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career Innovation, saying it is “determined to undermine our work” at the Indiana Department of Education, and charged that the State Board of Education’s proposed actions Wednesday could threaten Indiana’s standing with federal education officials.

“The Board has made it clear that they will not listen to me or the department,” she said in a statement. “I have asked that the governor remove this resolution from consideration tomorrow before our schools and students suffer the consequences.“

A different resolution on the board’s agenda for Wednesday that would create a board committee to consider a proposal that would shift authority for determining when and where the board meets from Ritz to CECI and allow board members to appeal any ruling she makes during the meeting has already drawn the ire of Ritz’s allies, including the Indiana State Teachers Association.

But the board on Wednesday will also reconsider a resolution that prompted the latest debate over who has more authority to guide state education policy, Ritz and the education department or Pence and CECI.

On June 23, Ritz refused to allow a vote on a resolution board member Brad Oliver offered that addressed Indiana’s status with the U.S. Department of Education.

Oliver and others complained that they felt Ritz’s team failed to provide information to the board in a timely manner about her answer to a request from federal officials about how the state would keep promises it made in 2012 in return for a waiver from sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Oliver said the board wanted to clarify for federal officials that it opposed a suggestion from Ritz to allow a one-year reprieve for Indiana schools from the consequences that accompany A to F school grades, such as the possibility of state takeover for those who earn six straight F grades.

Oliver argued the grades and accountability were required by state law. In addition, the resolution suggests the state board would not agree in advance to any changes Ritz might propose to state tests.

Ritz’s supporters saw the resolution as an attack on her work to reassure federal officials that the state would not violate the terms of its waiver. But today Ritz said the resolution could actually harm Indiana’s chances of keeping the waiver.

“Let me be clear,” Ritz said. “If passed, this resolution will place our waiver in serious jeopardy. This resolution unfairly questions the honesty and capacity of my administration to implement the waiver and may result in ramifications from Washington.”

A U.S. Department of Education spokesman could not be immediately reached for a response. But CECI rejected the notion that the state board was harming the waiver effort.

“It’s unfortunate these discussions couldn’t have taken place earlier as requested by the board on multiple occasions,” CECI spokeswoman Lou Ann Baker said in  a statement. “The board has every confidence that U.S. Department of Education will review the (Indiana) Department of Education’s proposal on its merits as submitted.”

Ritz said she strongly favors keeping the waiver but blamed Pence’s appointees for obstructing her efforts.

“Unfortunately, the governor-appointed State Board of Education and his separate education staff appear determined to undermine our work,” she said.

Federal officials sent Ritz a letter in May giving 60 days for her to explain how Indiana would address areas of concern about the waiver.

NCLB, signed in 2002, requires state to establish testing and accountability systems to raise all children to proficiency in math and English. But test score growth expectations in NCLB that many states complained were unrealistically tough led President Obama’s administration to permit “waivers” from some of those rules.

Indiana was approved to use its own A to F school grading system for accountability under the waiver and pledged to adopt Common Core academic standards to meet a requirement to follow standards that would produce graduates who are “college and career ready.”

Among the concerns federal officials wanted Indiana to address is how its new standards will ensure college and career readiness now that the state legislature has voided its adoption of Common Core.

The letter also raised questions about whether Indiana was adequately overseeing and supporting schools that are identified as poor performers, and Ritz’s critics blamed her for what they said was poor state education department oversight.

Ritz’s team submitted its response by the June 30 deadline and is awaiting word on how it was received.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.