School Choice

Questions remain about Mayor-elect Joe Hogsett's education plans

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indianapolis Mayor-elect Joe Hogsett won easily in Tuesday's election.

The question about Mayor-elect Joe Hogsett, who cruised to an easy defeat of Chuck Brewer Tuesday, that people in education in the city want answered is pretty simple: what kind of Democrat will he be?

Will Hogsett be a “new” Democrat in the mold of former Mayor Bart Peterson and continue what Peterson began 15 years ago — a consistent stretch of education policy that favors opening new charter schools and change in Indianapolis Public Schools?

Or will he prove to be a traditional Democrat, standing with unions, party leaders and most Democrats who see charter schools and other reform efforts as an attack on working class teachers and other school employees or an effort to create a pathway for companies to profit from education?

Hogsett defeated Brewer easily Tuesday, returning the mayor’s office to Democratic control for the first time in eight years when Mayor Greg Ballard leaves office in January.

But in a campaign that focused on crime and other issues, with education mostly in the background, Hogsett straddled the fence between the two Democratic camps on school issues.

Hogsett likes to point out that he represented the Indiana State Teachers Association early in his career as an attorney, and several unions gave his campaign $10,000 or more. But he has strong ties to Peterson allies, some of whom have pushed to expand charter schools and make other changes in education since the end of his second term in 2008. Peterson himself even contributed $10,500 to Hogsett’s campaign.

His five-point education plan focused on issues that sound more traditional than reform-oriented: Studying ways to reduce the impact of poverty on schools, expanding state-supported preschool for poor children, launching a mentoring program for kids, selling city-owned homes for little or no cost to teachers and working to ensure discipline in schools is fair to children of all races.

Hogsett also told Chalkbeat last year he saw the mayor’s role as more of a “convener” than an activist and thought the scope of the mayor’s education policy should focus less on Indianapolis Public Schools and draw in township schools more often.

But in the same interview, Hogsett heaped praise on IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee for embracing bold ideas, some of which have angered teachers unions and other traditional Democrats. Ferebee has forged a series of partnerships with charter schools and has called for tougher teacher evaluation in the district, for example.

Hogsett said his top priorities were teacher pay and teacher quality. He said he supported the charter schools that Peterson and Ballard helped launch since 2002, but he also called for tough accountability for charter schools that fail. He was not enthusiastic about public funding of private school tuition through vouchers.

Last week he called for improved communication from IPS in the wake of recent decisions to close Key Learning Community School and shift programs at two other schools that angered parents who said they were not told about the plan before it was publicly discussed.

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.