The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of Mike Pence on education: A battle for control

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence visited IPS School 88 in May.

(This post is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other posts, see this story on why Indiana matters when it comes to education.)

Just more than a year into his term, Gov. Mike Pence took a rare and risky step by surprising the Senate Education Committee by personally testifying for a preschool bill he was pushing.

The bill, to create a small preschool pilot program in five counties, was Pence’s top education priority. He knew several fellow Republicans were strongly opposed and that the bill was likely to be defeated by the committee.

He tried to persuade them to reconsider.

He said he understood that some believed education before Kindergarten belonged in the home, led by the family. But he urged them to consider children from families that are poor or where children face steep barriers to learning that are not their fault.

“It’s not that they are not willing and bright,” he said. “As a parent and as your governor, I find that not only unacceptable, but heartbreaking.”

It didn’t work: the bill was defeated in committee and presumed dead.

But Pence’s lobbying ultimately helped revive and pass the bill, getting Indiana off the list of just 10 U.S. states that spent no direct state funds to help poor children attend preschool.

Pence, who was 53 when he was elected governor in 2012, did not have a long record on education when he sought to lead Indiana. The Columbus, Ind., native had been an attorney and conservative radio talk show host before he was elected to five terms in Congress beginning in 2002. As a Congressman, he focused primarily on foreign affairs, the federal budget and social issues.

On education, he was perhaps best known for casting one of just 25 Republican votes against then-President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind education law in 2001, raising concerns about federal intrusion into local education decisions.

As governor, however, education has been a primary focus for Pence.

His main push has been to improve career and technical education programs. But he’s also been a strong advocate for state support for preschool, school choice, locally created academic standards and school accountability.

His election coincided with the shocking upset of then-state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who shared many of Pence’s education views, by Glenda Ritz, a teacher and school librarian with a very different approach to education policy.

Pence and Ritz were soon at odds, and the tug-of-war for control of the future direction of education in Indiana continues.

A push to improve career and technical education

Early on in his campaign, Pence argued that Indiana has focused too much on trying to prepare all children for college and had let slip programs that prepared high school graduates to go directly to work in good paying jobs that did not necessarily require college.

In the first legislative session after he was elected, Pence successfully pushed through two bills creating regional works councils and a state career council.

The regional councils are composed of educators, business leaders and others. The goal is to help schools in the region better understand the skills students need for jobs at nearby companies and to foster relationships that could lead to internships for students and improve courses in technical fields.

The state council’s goal is to unify job creation and education efforts in hopes each can learn from the other.

Pence said he hopes the councils and other efforts would lead to more students taking more courses that prepare them for jobs and that more graduates will leave school with industry certifications that qualify them to work or enter further training.

There’s some evidence the focus on career and technical programs is paying off.

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported participation in such programs rose by nearly 2,000 students statewide from Pence’s first year in office to his second year, and state data showed nearly all students who took the courses went on to further training, college or directly to jobs.

Preschool becomes a priority

In Pence’s first year in office, a bill to create a pilot program to offer tuition aid for poor children to attend preschool went nowhere and was not part of his agenda.

But that summer, Pence began visiting preschools and learning more about their difficulties attracting the poorest families to enroll their children. By 2014, Pence strongly endorsed a pilot program similar to the 2013 proposal. The final version that he signed into law picked five counties, launched in early 2015 and eventually will pay preschool tuition for about 1,500 poor children. It includes a study of whether the programs help students academically and parent satisfaction.

But getting the bill passed was difficult road. The Indiana Senate Education Committee defeated it in a committee vote, and it appeared dead. But negotiations between Pence and leaders of the House and Senate resurrected the program with funding redirected from other state departments.

Despite building a reputation as a preschool champion, Pence angered proponents for early education later that year when he instructed state officials not to send in an application for a federal education grant they were working on that might have garnered the state as much as $80 million for preschool.

After withering criticism, Pence said the grant would have required changes to the preschool pilot program that had not even begun, and he feared federal requirements could interfere with state efforts to manage its preschool efforts.

Championing school choice

Each year since his election, Pence has spoken at an annual school choice rally at the statehouse, affirming his strong support for publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition for low- and middle-income families and for charter schools, which are publicly funded but managed independently from school districts.

“Children in this state ought to be afforded opportunities for quality education,” Pence said at the 2015 rally. “Those decisions should be made in the best interests of our kids, and those decisions should be made by parents.”

Pence has pushed to expand both charter schools and vouchers, with some big legislative wins in 2015.

But Pence didn’t get everything he wanted. He proposed a $1,500 per-student grant to provide extra aid for charter schools for expenses beyond the classroom. Instead, lawmakers approved a $10 million grant fund for up to $500 per student for schools with good test scores or ones that can show they out-perform nearby traditional public schools. But that still constituted the first significant extra bump in aid for charter schools after years of lobbying by advocates.

But in perhaps an even bigger boost, charter schools also were given access to a $50 million state fund from which they can seek loans for school construction or to buy computers and technology.

For vouchers, Pence persuaded lawmakers to lift a $4,800 cap on the amount of tuition aid families can receive. Previously, elementary schools were limited at that figure, but high schools were limited only by the amount of per-student state aid paid to the school districts where they live to cover the cost of their educations.

Standards, testing and Common Core

Much like his long-running support of school choice, Pence also pushed forward on another of his career-long concerns — that the federal government exercises too much control over American life — by changing the state’s plan for testing students.

Under former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Bennett, Indiana was an early adopter of shared Common Core standards that 45 other states ultimately adopted. The states also sought to share common tests, creating two consortia to develop them.

Indiana was originally part of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and had planned to adopt PARCC tests in place of the state ISTEP exam in 2014-15. But in the summer of 2013, Pence announced Indiana would withdraw from PARCC and seek a different approach for testing.

That raised questions about whether Pence would support the state’s ongoing transition to Common Core standards. For months he said he was studying the question.

But in his 2014 State of the State address, Pence called for Indiana to develop its own standards and void its adoption of Common Core. Lawmakers then passed a bill to dump Common Core.

Pence found an unlikely ally in Ritz, who agreed that Indiana should make its own standards.

When state committees produced draft standards that spring, Common Core opponents rejected them as too similar. But with Pence and Ritz endorsing them, the new standards were approved in the spring of 2014.

That meant Indiana needed an overhauled state exam matched to the new standards — and fast. The standards went into effect for 2014-15, so the test needed to be ready by March of 2015.

Just before testing was to begin, an angry Pence called a press conference to criticize the much longer exam.

Pence and the state board blamed Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education. Eventually, they forged a compromise, and a bill to make changes to state law to allow the test to be shortened was fast-tracked for Pence’s signature.

The short tumultuous run of CECI

Tension with Ritz came soon after the end of the 2013 legislative session. The final state budget that year, approved by the legislature in April, gave Pence more latitude to manage state education funds, which allowed him in August to create the Center for Education and Career Innovation, or CECI.

The center, using money that had previously been managed by the education department under the state superintendent, hired separate staff for the Indiana State Board of Education. Pence said the center was designed to coordinate education policy across multiple agencies, including the education department, the state board, the Education Roundtable and the Commission for Higher Education.

But Ritz said it was a power grab.

Ritz, the only Democrat holding statewide office, soon clashed with the state board, appointed entirely by Pence or his Republican predecessor Mitch Daniels. Board members used their new staff from the center to propose agenda items and policies that Ritz objected to. Sometimes she angered other board members by using her procedural power as chairwoman to block votes on some agenda items.

Ritz even sued the rest of the board in October of 2013, arguing the other board members violated state transparency laws when they sent a letter to Republican legislative leaders asking for their help to calculate school A-to-F grades without discussing it publicly. A judge tossed out the suit because Ritz filed it without Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s assistance.

In November of 2013, the political battle reached a new height when Ritz ended and walked out of a school board meeting rather than allow a vote on a motion by board member Brad Oliver. She said she feared the motion would give CECI control over a process to revise A-to-F grading, which she believed fell under her purview.

In December of 2013, the board met with Kris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, seeking to end its conflicts. In its last meeting of the year, it made minor changes to its own rules, including the process for how items can be placed on the agenda.

A year later, Pence shocked many by announcing his plan to dissolve CECI, citing Ritz’s complaints about it and a desire to reduce tension.

A head-to-head battle with Ritz fizzles

The dissolution of CECI, however, was only one-half of the bargain Pence offered. He also called for a bill to remove the guarantee in state law that Ritz chair the state board, allowing board members to instead elect their own leader.

Ritz again characterized the move as a power grab in emotional testimony to the House Education Committee. But ultimately, Ritz won a reprieve.

The final bill did give the state board the right to pick its own leader — but not until after Ritz’s term ended in 2017. The bill diminished Pence’s power to appoint the state board, giving two of the 10 appointments to legislative leaders — House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President David Long.

The bill also required all new nominations for the state board, which led to five new board members among the 11 seats.

But that victory for Ritz was tempered by other changes the legislature made, giving the state board more control over A-to-F grades for schools, state testing, rules for private school tuition vouchers and charter school grants.

Those changes made Ritz angry and said it forced her to consider a run against Pence. After a month of weighing the possibilities, Ritz announced she, indeed, would be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor. But the campaign lasted only 10 weeks. Instead, she is seeking re-election in 2016.

Pence was expected to face a rematch of his close 2012 election by again facing off with Democrat John Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker in 2016. But he instead joined the national Republican ticket as Donald Trump’s choice for vice president.

-Updated October 2016


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.