Future of Schools

These 22 education bills are still alive halfway through Indiana's 2016 legislative session

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Gov. Mike Pence didn’t advertise this year’s legislative session as the “education session” as he did with last year’s, but issues affecting Indiana schools have still been front and center for state lawmakers.

Halfway through the legislative session, more than two dozen education policy bills are still alive or have been signed into law.

The bills that Pence signed last month were geared toward protecting teachers and schools from the sting of lower 2015 ISTEP test scores. The bills included one that barred the state from giving schools grades based on 2015 scores that were lower than their 2014 scores and a second bill that said teachers evaluations and reviews could not be affected by those scores. Both bills were fast-tracked to the governor last month.

Bills still making their way through the two legislative chambers include many that are focused on testing and teacher pay.

The House and Senate are both considering measures that could lead to major changes in the state’s standardized testing program. The bills would ask educators and policymakers to form panels to study alternatives to the ISTEP exam. The bill that originated in the House is the bolder of the two. The House bill would eliminate ISTEP completely in 2017 in favor of a different kind of test that would be determined by the panel.

Although the House and Senate testing bills take separate approaches, there is broad agreement among Republicans and Democrats that ISTEP, which was plagued by scoring and design problems in 2015, needs to be seriously altered after Indiana completes its current contract for the 2016 and 2017 tests with British testing company Pearson.

Both chambers also have bills that would authorize extra pay for teachers in high-demand areas, such as science, math or in other shortage areas identified by school districts. The bills emerged from debates last year over teacher hiring. Some districts, especially those in rural, urban and high-poverty areas, say they’ve had trouble finding qualified teachers.

The teacher pay bills in both chambers have generated opposition from teachers unions because they allow districts to negotiate directly with teachers instead of going through their unions. That tension in the statehouse has Democrats and union supporters on one side butting heads with education reform advocates and Republicans on the other.

Now that the session has reached the halfway point, House bills are bound for the Senate while the Senate bills head to the House.

For those following along at home, here’s a handy scorecard for what’s coming up:

BILLS MOVING TO THE HOUSE

Charter school data. Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, would remove the requirement that charter schools report certain information to the state, such as student enrollment, students’ names and addresses and what school a student transferred from. The bill passed the Senate 48-0.

Teacher pay. Senate Bill 10, authored by Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, was altered slightly from when it was introduced. The latest version of the bill would allow districts to give teachers extra pay, outside of union-negotiated collective bargaining agreements, if they are in high-need positions or have advanced degrees or graduate credits. The bill is strongly opposed by teachers unions. It passed the Senate in a tight vote, 26-24.

ISTEP panel. Senate Bill 63, authored by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, would create an 18-member panel of teachers, administrators and policymakers to examine alternatives to the ISTEP test and report back to the governor and Indiana General Assembly. The bill passed the Senate 49-0.

Cursive writing. Senate Bill 73, by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, would require every school district and accredited private school to teach cursive handwriting. Similar bills passed the Senate in recent years, but not the House. The Senate passed the bill 30-18.

Various education issues. Senate Bill 93, authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, has many provisions, including one that would change the definition of “secondary school” to include elementary grades so lower-grade teachers can participate in a federal loan forgiveness programs for “highly qualified teachers in high needs areas.” The bill would also require that testing companies hired to create future ISTEP exams return scores to the State Board of Education no later than July 1. Additionally, the sweeping bill would make it easier for teachers from other states to become licensed in Indiana. The bill passed the Senate 49-0.

Curricular materials. Senate Bill 96, authored by Kenley, gives school districts four years, instead of 3, on contracts to buy or lease curricular materials, such as textbooks. It passed the Senate 49-0.

Out-of-school learning fund. Senate Bill 251, authored by Kruse, would create a fund to give schools grants to pay for programs before and after school. The bill also creates an advisory board to make recommendations about the fund to the Indiana Department of Education. It passed the Senate 31-18.

Ethnic history. Senate Bill 268, by Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, would require high schools to teach students the history of different racial and ethnic groups in U.S. History courses. A similar bill passed the Senate last year, but was defeated in the House. The bill passed the Senate 41-9.

Consolidation. Senate Bill 307, authored by Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, would allow school districts within the same county to merge administrative services to cut costs, but keep the “historical legacy” of the individual districts. The bill passed the Senate 48-2.

Teacher grants. Senate Bill 328, authored by Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, would create grants for aspiring teachers who are studying subjects that are teacher shortage areas. Students studying to be speech therapists would also be eligible. The bill passed the Senate 49-0.

Voucher deadline. Senate Bill 334, authored by Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, would extend the state’s deadline for private schools to accept students using tax-funded vouchers. The bill passed the Senate 40-9.

BILLS MOVING TO THE SENATE

Teacher scholarships. House Bill 1002, authored by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, would set up a system for aspiring teachers to get $7,500 per year towards four years of college tuition in exchange for teaching for five years in Indiana schools. To be eligible, students would have to rank in the top 20 percent of their high school graduating classes. The bill passed the House 96-1.

Teacher pay and pensions. House Bill 1004, authored by Behning, would allow districts to give extra pay, without union permission, to teachers who take a position the district deems hard to fill and make major changes to pension programs. The bill would also allow teachers to transfer teaching licenses from other states if they have bachelor’s degrees in the subject areas they teach, at least a 3.0 college grade point average and pass Indiana’s teacher license subject tests. The bill passed the House 57-42.

Teacher career pathways. House Bill 1005, authored by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would give extra pay to teachers who are rated effective and agree to mentor peers. The bill would also allow teachers in their first two years of work who are rated “ineffective” or “improvement necessary” to be eligible for salary raises. Right now they are not allowed to earn raises. The extra pay is not open to union negotiation. The bill passed the House 78-17.

Teacher scholarships. House Bill 1034, authored by Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, would make technical changes to the minority teacher scholarship and change its name in honor of the of former state Rep. William A. Crawford from Indianapolis who died last year. The bill passed the House 95-0.

Minority student teaching stipend. House Bill 1179, authored by Rep. Donna Harris, D-East Chicago, would let students from underrepresented ethnic groups who are pursuing degrees to become school administrators receive a stipend from the minority student teaching fund. The bill passed the House 93-0.

Workplace Spanish. House Bill 1209, authored by Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, would allow schools to recognize students who have passed certain Spanish language classes with a special designation on their high school transcripts. The bill passed the House 94-1.

High school diplomas. House Bill 1219, authored by Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, would require all public high schools to offer any diploma approved by the Indiana State Board of Education. It passed the House 93-0.

Federal funding. House Bill 1330, authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, would require, among other things, that the Indiana Department of Education make available to schools and districts the formula and data used to calculate school federal poverty aid. It passed the House 83-11.

Dual credit. House Bill 1370, authored by Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Mount Vernon, would set up partnerships between schools and universities for teachers in the state’s popular dual college credit program, which allows students to earn college credit while still in high school, to earn graduate credits for free or at a reduced rate. The bill is a response to a change in rules from the state’s accrediting body that says all dual credit teachers need master’s degrees or 18 graduate credit hours in the subjects they teach. It passed the House 93-0.

Innovation Network Schools. House Bill 1394, authored by Behning, would require the Indiana Department of Education to reset the accountability clock for schools that convert to become Innovation Network schools, autonomous schools that run in partnership with an outside organization or charter school that are still under the umbrella of a school district. Currently, schools with six consecutive years of F-grades can be taken over the state. In 2017, the timeline will be shortened to four years. The bill passed the House 86-8.

ISTEP rescore. House Bill 1395, authored by Behning, would give the Indiana State Board of Education the power to hire an outside company to rescore the 2015 ISTEP test if decides that such a move is necessary. The bill would also set a get rid of the ISTEP testing program by July 2017 and create a committee to study new testing options and review Indiana’s current A-F accountability system. The bill passed the House 86-11.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.