Who Is In Charge

Challenging Ritz, McCormick cites politics and management problems

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Jennifer McCormick introduced herself and her run for state superintendent today by criticizing Glenda Ritz’s management of the Indiana Department of Education and calling for a debate that gets beyond politics.

“We need to strive for excellence,” she said. “We need to quit focusing on political squabbling. If we do that, success will come. It is time to put students before politics. It is time (for) excellence and achievement to be a forethought versus an afterthought.”

McCormick, the superintendent of Yorktown schools in Delaware County, is running as a Republican challenger to Ritz. She said she has not always voted Republican, arguing she viewed the work of superintendent as needing a shift away from political debates.

“The politics have got to be left out of it,” she said. “It’s time to move forward. It’s time to communicate and collaborate and play nice.”

Ritz has been locked in a three-year battle with Gov. Mike Pence and his appointees on the Indiana State Board of Education over the direction of education policy in the state.

Ritz’s campaign spokeswoman, Annie Mansfield, cited Ritz’s accomplishments in her statement responding to McCormick’s announcement.

“We welcome her to the race and look forward to talking about Superintendent Ritz’s record of improving over 100 public schools in her first year, resulting in over 61,000 students no longer attending schools that got a D or an F from the state, as well as fighting to hold students, schools, teachers and communities harmless as we transitioned to newer standards,” she said.

McCormick, however, said she ran in part out of frustration with the poor level of service she and other superintendents have received from the education department under Ritz.

She said, for example, that ISTEP guidance districts normally receive well in advance of the test date said only arrived in December for a test that is given starting in February.

“The last few years have been very difficult,” she said. “Ask your local districts. Indiana was at one point a leader in the nation. Today we are not. Today we have a Department of Education that is disorganized and disconnected from schools.”

McCormick, 46, argued she was a more experienced educator and leader, having worked as a special education teacher, a middle school English teacher, an elementary school principal and a superintendent.

“I know what it takes to be a leader in education,” she said. “I have done it and I will continue to do it. That sets me apart from our current superintendent.”

Married to a high school science teacher in her district, she also has a son who is a high school senior in Yorktown.

Her campaign would be upbeat and positive, McCormick said.

“We preach no bullying to the students and I will practice that,” she said. “I will not run a negative campaign.”

Even so, McCormick announced her run at the Statehouse surrounded by representatives of interest groups that supported Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, or have been critical of Ritz: Stand For Children, the Institute for Quality Education and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

There were also several former staff members from Bennett’s education department team on hand. McCormick did not mention Bennett, but Bennett cited her work in Yorktown in his final “state of education” address, given just months before he was defeated by Ritz in the 2012 election.

“Yorktown Schools, led by Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and a host of ambitious principals and teachers, have revamped their entire K-12 model based on providing every student a head start on college with a rich selection of Advanced Placement courses,” Bennett said in that speech. “In grade 3, Yorktown students begin an advanced curriculum designed to prepare them for college-level coursework as early as middle school. Yorktown has become one of Indiana’s AP leaders, and their model for college preparation has become an example for forward thinking districts around the state.”

Yorktown schools are good performers. The district ranks high in the state for test scores and graduation rates . It is rated an A by the state. The district has fairly low poverty, with only about a third of students who come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To qualify, a family of four cannot exceed $44,863 in annual income.

But the district does have financial problems. It is one of a handful around the state that has been handicapped by tax caps.

In 2010, the Indiana legislature sought to make property taxes, which sometimes shifted up or down unexpectedly for homeowners when their home values changed, more steady.

Tax caps were the result: homeowners could not pay more than one percent of the total assessed value of their property in property taxes. While this stabilized tax bills, it made funding for some school services that still are paid by property taxes, such as transportation, less stable. When a district hit the maximum amount it can collect in property taxes, money can run short as expenses still grow.

That happened to Yorktown, necessitating cutbacks. One of them was the district librarian.

“The gal retired so we used those funds for some more reading specialists,” she said. “We outsource our librarian services. We keep a pulse on it. We keep an eye on how many books have been checked out and the atmosphere and the climate of the library. It’s worked for us.”

Before she was elected state superintendent, Ritz was working as a school librarian in Washington Township. Ritz is also a National Board certified teacher.

Jennifer McCormick on the issues

Here’s what McCormick had to say on key issues:

Teacher training. “We need to enhance our professional development. We need to increase the quality of candidates coming into education. We also need to retain those very qualified teachers that are in the classroom.”

Unions. “I’ve always had a good relationship with our unions. I had been a member of union when I taught. I am not anti-union. I am pro-teacher.”

Overhauling ISTEP. “When I talk about a team effort, you can’t make a decision on assessment unilaterally. It has to be a team effort. Once we hit that point there has to be a lot of people at the table having those discussions. I’m not saying ISTEP is a bad thing, I’m saying it’s not the answer.”

Ritz’s proposal to judge students on shorter tests given throughout the school year. “I think if you ask most educators there is power in both. You have to have summative assessments. You have to have formative assessments. The two have different purposes, but they both serve a purpose.”

Common Core standards. “We were one of those districts that jumped on it early and we lived through those changes in the standards, but the standards are set. The standards are the standards. They’ve been adopted, they’ve been accepted. There is a lot of money that has gone into that. From my standpoint, Indiana has really solid standards. We need to stick with them for a while so we can have some stability.”

School funding. “I don’t think any educator is ever going to be pleased with anything at this point, honestly. As your district changes, the funding changes. We have been hit with circuit breakers, as have a lot of school districts in Indiana. I know its very complex, but we will deal with the resources we’re dealt.”

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: