Big changes

One group changes its name, and another celebrates a big birthday

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
CEO Robert Enlow announces the Friedman Foundation's name change to EdChoice.

The Indianapolis-based group that is the nation’s foremost advocate for publicly funded private school tuition vouchers has a new name: EdChoice.

That transition, announced Friday as part of a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of what had been known as the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, is one of two big milestones reached over the weekend by influential Indianapolis organizations that have pushed for vouchers, charter schools and other educational changes.

On Sunday, the Mind Trust reached its 10th anniversary. That group was founded by former Mayor Bart Peterson and his top education adviser David Harris to continue their work to support growth of charter schools in the city, more autonomy for schools in Indianapolis Public Schools and broader educational changes.

Here’s more on the two organizations and the what they are saying about the changes:

EdChoice

At its start in 1996, the foundation was created to advocate for Milton Friedman’s vision of universal school choice, primarily through private school tuition vouchers.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist famous for popularizing market-based solutions to a variety of policy problems, had first proposed the idea of vouchers in a famous 1955 paper that said parents should all be given the state subsidy set aside for a public education for their children and allowed to apply it to any school, public or private. He argued the competition among schools would spur innovations and higher quality offerings.

Gov. Mike Pence poses with students from Indianapolis' St Therese Little Flower Catholic School at an annual school choice rally sponsored by the Friedman Foundation in 2015.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence poses with students from Indianapolis’ St Therese Little Flower Catholic School at an annual school choice rally sponsored by the Friedman Foundation in 2015.

Nothing like Friedman’s original idea of universal vouchers has ever been tried. But more than 30 states have some sort of voucher program today. Indiana’s voucher program for general education students is the largest of its kind with more than 30,000 participants.

The push for vouchers has sparked a backlash from teachers unions and advocates of traditional public schools, who argue they drain away money needed to assure public schools can provide high quality programs.

They also question whether public funds should go to religious schools — the top destination for Indiana parents using vouchers.

The backlash has turned the issue into one of the most divisive in American education. Even many advocates of charter schools and critics of teachers unions oppose vouchers.

Dropping the Friedman name gives the organization a chance to build a new brand. On Friday, David Friedman said his late parents worried that the foundation’s fidelity to their original vision could fade over time, so they stipulated that after 20 years it either shut down or change its name.

“I came here tonight is to make it clear this is not a matter of rejection my parents but doing what they wanted done,” he said.

The organization’s CEO, Robert Enlow, said the revamped foundation would aim for an even stronger push on its advocacy in Indiana, and seek out new partners across the political spectrum.

“We will reach out and work with anyone and everyone to advance educational choice for all,” he said.

(EdChoice also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

The Mind Trust

Over the last decade, The Mind Trust both became perhaps the most influential private sector force for educational change in Indianapolis and also emerged as a national model for non-profits that aim to influence decision making in education in cities across the country.

“Systemic education change — while an arduous, time-intensive and sometimes disappointing process — is possible, and it is thriving today in Indianapolis,” Harris said of the organization’s efforts.

STEMNASIUM’s founder, Tariq Al-Nasir and Ivy McCottry, a senior marketing product manager at At&T who advises the program, pitch their ultimately winning idea for a new charter school to a panel of judges today at a Mind Trust competition at the Indiana Landmarks Center in Indianapolis.
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
STEMNASIUM’s founder, Tariq Al-Nasir and Ivy McCottry, a senior marketing product manager at AT&T who advises the program, pitch their ultimately winning idea for a new charter school to a panel of judges at a Mind Trust competition.

In its early years, the organization aimed to support the fledgling charter school movement started by Peterson, who had persuaded the legislature to make him the only mayor in the country with the power to award charters, and pressure Indianapolis Public Schools to make changes. Since its founding, the Mind Trust has invited education entrepreneurs to try their ideas in Indianapolis by offering thousands of dollars of support for planning and seeded organizations with education reform at the center of their missions.

For example, the group’s support helped Teach For America launch an Indiana region, placing recent college graduates as teachers in high poverty Indianapolis schools.

Critics of the group say the Mind Trust pushes an agenda that undermines teachers unions and traditional public schools. They argue that it has become too influential, particularly when it comes to decisions at IPS. Six of the seven current school board members received support from Mind Trust-connected individuals or organizations in the last two elections, including from the lobbying arm of the parent advocacy group Stand For Children, which The Mind Trust helped bring to Indiana.

In 2011, The Mind Trust issued a report calling for radical changes in the way Indianapolis Public Schools are organized and operated. Among their proposals was empowering principals with more decision making control, reduced administrative spending, a new initiative aimed a recruiting talented educators and expanded preschool offerings. At the time, the report was rejected by district leaders.

In 2016, most of those ideas have been endorsed by a reconstituted school board and a new superintendent.
The Mind Trust has expanded its work to supporting similar organizations and educational change strategies in other cities, including Nashville, Cincinnati and Kansas City, all of which have modeled at least parts of the group’s work.

“What’s happened with education reform in Indianapolis has major implications for the way we as a nation approach social challenges,” Harris said.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below:

Mergers and acquisitions

In a city where many charter schools operate alone, one charter network expands

Kindergarteners at Detroit's University Prep Academy charter school on the first day of school in 2017.

One of Detroit’s largest charter school networks is about to get even bigger.

The nonprofit organization that runs the seven-school University Prep network plans to take control of another two charter schools this summer — the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies elementary and the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies middle/high school.

The move would bring the organization’s student enrollment from 3,250 to nearly 4,500. It would also make the group, Detroit 90/90, the largest non-profit charter network in the city next year — a distinction that stands out in a city when most charter schools are either freestanding schools or part of two- or three-school networks.

Combined with the fact that the city’s 90 charter schools are overseen by a dozen different charter school authorizers, Detroit’s relative dearth of larger networks means that many different people run a school sector that makes up roughly half of Detroit’s schools. That makes it difficult for schools to collaborate on things like student transportation and special education.

Some charter advocates have suggested that if the city’s charter schools were more coordinated, they could better offer those services and others that large traditional school districts are more equipped to offer — and that many students need.

The decision to add the Henry Ford schools to the Detroit 90/90 network is intended to “create financial and operational efficiencies,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of UPrep Schools, and Deborah Parizek, executive director of the Henry Ford Learning Institute.

Those efficiencies could come in the areas of data management, human resources, or accounting — all of which Detroit 90/90 says on its website that it can help charter schools manage.

Ornstein and Parizek emphasized that students and their families are unlikely to experience changes when the merger takes effect on July 1. For example, the Henry Ford schools would remain in their current home at the A. Alfred Taubman Center in New Center and maintain their arts focus.  

“Any changes made to staff, schedule, courses, activities and the like will be the same type a family might experience year-to-year with any school,” they said in a statement.