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.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: