Who Is In Charge

Lawmakers propose fixes for testing and teaching

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indiana lawmakers think they came up with some solutions for a few of the state’s biggest education issues from the past year: testing, teacher hiring and keeping great teachers in the classroom.

A study committee, in fact, came up with 20 recommendations in all after a couple months of work.

But it remains to be seen how many of the 17 that made into the final report become actual bills during next year’s legislative session, which begins in January.

In several cases, for example, the study committee ended up calling for, well, further study.

In all, 11 of the 20 recommendations dealt with teachers, four were centered on the state’s ISTEP test and two took up questions of whether the state should “pause” its A-to-F school letter grades for 2015.

Despite the large number of recommendations, they lacked solutions for some of the most hotly debated questions from last session. Indiana is still expected to move forward with a contract with British-based Pearson to write the 2016 ISTEP test, for example, rather than adopt a national test like the SAT for some students, as some legislators had called for.

There’s also no guarantee that anything will come of any of the proposals — nobody is bound to act on them.

Last year, preschool and disparities in discipline between white and minority students were topics of study, for example. But while preschool funding grew at the state and city level, few changes have been made to discipline processes.

For the big picture, read on about what proposals gained support and which were voted down. Then, check out our Storify at the very end for more detail on each vote and other happenings during the meeting.

Attracting and keeping teachers in Indiana schools

Perhaps the most bold recommendation called for new money — funds not already budgeted to schools and districts — to be used to increase salaries of teachers and other educators in the first 10 years of their careers. However, next year is not a budget year, meaning the legislature is very limited in how it could dole out any new funding.

The recommendation was passed by consent, meaning there was no vocal opposition, but some legislators, including Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, reminded the group to consider the needs of all teacher, not just ones early on in their careers.

“I also think back to a lot of that written testimony that was submitted by young teachers and people who are still in teacher training, and what impressed me is that they weren’t just looking at what am I going to get this year and next year,” Errington said. “But they were looking all the way down the road as to whether this is a viable profession.”

To that end, the group also supported recommendations that the General Assembly consider expanding the state’s loan forgiveness program for teachers who teach in higher-need subject or geographic areas, such as schools in rural parts of the state or struggling schools in urban centers.

Three of the proposals had more divided votes. A measure to study how teacher salaries for those teaching in shortage areas could be made more flexible passed 8-3, with Reps. Tony Cook, Dale DeVon and Rhonda Rhoads, all Republicans, voting no.

A proposal for changing how teacher benefit systems work passed 9-2, and one to consider additional funding for teacher training in schools and those pursuing master’s degrees passed 10-1.

Many of the recommendations centered on teacher pay and teacher mentorship programs received broad support from legislators in the committee and passed unanimously.

Both Republicans and Democrats agreed that mentoring for new teachers and incentives for teachers to enter areas that tend to see shortages, such as math, science, special education and foreign language, are important to combating issues some Indiana districts are having finding enough qualified candidates.

Still, it’s unclear if that will translate to legislative action. Last year, bills promoting a well-regarded program known as National Board Certification were never discussed despite strong support from the Indiana State Teachers Association and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Testing

ISTEP dominated conversation during last year’s legislative session. The biggest complaint was that the test was too long. But others key legislators also pushed controversial bills to get rid of the state test altogether. It failed, but the question was added to the committee’s work to study.

Going into next year’s session, not much will change — expect more study, more debate and, likely, no differences how the scores are used to rate schools.

Two proposals to suspend using ISTEP scores for school A-F letter grades failed in close 5-6 votes and were not included in the final recommendations. Ritz has supported such proposals given new standards implemented in 2014-15 and big changes to ISTEP, but the Indiana State Board of Education and Republican lawmakers have resisted.

Instead, the recommendations call for a survey on test length to see how much time kids actually spend on tests throughout the year.

Lawmakers also approved two ideas to study if more ISTEP questions should be released once the exams have been given (in addition to those already required by state law) so parents, kids and teachers know more about what to expect from the test.

Legislators also passed a recommendation to have the state board require ISTEP scores be delivered to the board by July 1 so schools have more time to evaluate them. Typically, the board receives scores in late summer, but in the past few years, problems with grading and questions about test validity have held things up.

“It takes some time to grade the written, component, and that can’t be done electronically,” Rep. Bob Behning said. “If they had the results by mid-June, (schools) could do something with it. Coming back later … especially teacher evaluation, when it gets later than that, it starts to complicate a lot of their decision-making.”

A failed, last-minute recommendation from Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, would’ve let schools decide for themselves whether they want to take ISTEP or any national test, such as the SAT or ACT.

But that raised concerns that different tests across districts would make comparing schools, rating teachers and deciding on school A-to-F grades very complicated and the recommendation was struck down before it even came up for a vote.

If you can’t see the Storify below, find it here.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.