From the Statehouse

Mike Pence's 2015 education agenda: Wins, losses and consolation prizes

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence focused on education issues in his state of the state speech in January as well as throughout the legislative session.

Gov. Mike Pence had a lot of big changes in mind for Indiana’s education system this year, and he declared victory when the legislature finished up its work last month.

Lawmakers, he said, had delivered on his December promise to make 2015 an “education session,” giving himself a perfect score for delivering all of his legislative goals for education.

That might be technically true.

But a close look at the education bills that passed suggest that, in some cases, Pence got little more than consolation prizes that fell well short of his original ambitions.

There’s a bill that addresses every one of Pence’s priorities: more money for schools in general, an extra funding boost for charter schools and career and technical education, an expanded the voucher program, more flexibility for teachers and schools to try innovative techniques, added bonus pay for highly rated teachers and big changes to the roles of the Indiana State Board of Education and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

But for some of them, it’s a pretty big stretch to say Pence got what he wanted.

That hasn’t stopped him from declaring victory.

“Hoosiers can rightly consider this legislative session a success,” Pence wrote in an op-ed last week. “I commend the members of the General Assembly and thank them for helping us provide flexibility and funding for students, parents, teachers and schools.”

Not unexpectedly, Democrats had a different view. They blasted the state’s new two-year budget, for instance, as rewarding wealthy suburban school districts at the expense of their poor urban counterparts.

“If this session was about education, the only thing we learned is the extent of damage one-party rule can inflict,” Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said in a statement.

Here’s a look at what became of the big issues on Pence’s agenda:

STATE BOARD LEADERSHIP

If there was one thing Pence was clear about, it was that he wanted the state board to have the option to remove state Superintendent Glenda Ritz as chair of the state board.

But until her term ends in 2016, she will be guaranteed that seat in state law.

Pence began the year championing House Bill 1609, which would have removed the guarantee that the state superintendent chair the state board this summer and left the state board unchanged.

But that wasn’t the bill the legislature ultimately passed.

Instead, lawmakers preferred Senate Bill 1, which doesn’t allow the state board to elect its chair until 2017.

The bill, which Pence signed into law last week, also changes the make-up of the state board, something Pence didn’t ask for and didn’t want. Now two of the appointments he formerly made go instead to the senate president and house speaker. Pence will now appoint eight of the 10 board members besides Ritz, rather than all 10.

Overall: Pence got what he wanted — sort of. It’s no secret that Pence and Ritz have had their differences, but this law will only threaten the leadership over the state board for future state superintendents. At the same time, Pence lost some of his appointing power.

SCHOOL FUNDING

From the beginning, Pence called for more money for schools and changes to how the state distributes it.

His proposed budget boosted aid for career and technical education, adult high school programs, preschool, basic state aid to schools, charter schools and merit-based raises for teachers.

So how did House Bill 1001, the final two-year budget passed by the General Assembly, line up with what he asked for?

First of all, he wanted schools to get more money, and they did. But the legislature gets more credit for that. Pence had proposed a $200 million jump in state aid for schools, but lawmakers went twice as big, settling for a more than $460 million increase for schools.

Pence got the extra bonus pay for high rated teachers that he asked for, and lawmakers agreed to remove a cap of $4,800 on the amount of tuition aid families can receive for their children to attend private elementary schools through the state voucher program. Now, like high school, the amount of the voucher will depend only on family income and the amount of per student aid in the child’s home school district.

The budget funneled about $48 million to career tech programs, and the way the state funds those programs was changed, but not exactly as Pence wanted. Going forward, funding will be based on student enrollment in introductory classes as well as more advanced ones. Pence had proposed funding the programs based on performance, such as how many students earn industry-recognized credentials.

Pence also pushed for a big $1,500 per-student grants for charter schools for outside-of-the-classroom costs like buildings and busing. That would have cost the state about $90 million over two years. Instead, the legislature set aside $10 million for grants of up to $500 per-student to help charter schools with those costs.

But all charter schools won’t qualify. Only those that received either an “A,” “B,” or “C” grade from the state or can show they out-perform nearby traditional public schools are eligible.

Overall: Pence generally met his goals. The governor’s proposed budget and the state’s final plan had much in common when it came to funding education programs, despite a sizable disparity in basic state aid amounts. Both Pence and lawmakers pushed for funding increases for adult high school students, the state’s preschool pilot program and support for teachers who earn high evaluation ratings, among other priorities.

FREEDOM TO TEACH

Back in December, Pence said there was a serious need to establish a “Freedom to Teach” program so schools and teachers could be freed from what he described as constricting rules placed on them by their districts, unions and the state.

The bill passed, but the final version was a ghost of the original proposal.

House Bill 1009, in its original state, would have made substantial changes to rules governing teachers unions. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the bill that passed focused on “innovation network schools,” a less expansive idea that gives schools more freedom than they have but less than what the governor wanted.

Previously, only Indianapolis Public Schools was allowed to partner with an outside group, like a charter school, to create an innovation school, but the bill would give the opportunity to any district in the state.

Some former “Freedom to Teach” was later added Senate Bill 538, which would give non-union professional organizations more rights to serve teachers than they previously had, but it still fell far short of the original idea.

Overall: Pence’s plans fell a little flat. Those who pitched the idea as a way to reign in unions and cut bureaucratic entanglements for schools with fresh ideas had to settle for much less, including Pence, who touted “Freedom to Teach” as the crown-jewel of his education agenda. Although $10 million per year was set aside for innovation network schools, which have the spirit of the original proposal, the schools are not as free from district oversight or union rules as Pence hoped for.

STATE TAKEOVER

House Bill 1638 set out to clarify when and how the state can step in to make changes in schools that consistently earn failing grades for low test scores.

It would have created “transformation zones” — special groups of struggling schools that would warrant more attention from the state, modeled after an appoach that’s been used in Evansville. It also would have let the Indiana State Board of Education take over an entire school district.

But early in the session, Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, persuaded her colleagues to scale back the bill and removed all references to transformation zones. Rogers thought the bill gave the state board too much power to decide the fate of a troubled school.

The only idea that remained from the original bill was a proposal to speed up the timeline by which a failing school can be taken over by the state. The state can now step in after four straight years of F grades, down from six years. The bill also contains language prohibiting schools from giving out gift cards to recruit students.

Pence backed the idea of “transformation zones” by setting aside money for it in his budget proposal, but he never explicitly pushed for the faster timeline to state takeover.

Overall: Pence can’t really claim a win. There was a lot of back-and-forth surrounding this bill, but the final version was focused very specifically on the takeover timeline and left out the big ideas Pence favored.

legal opinion

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

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.