legislative update

Education wasn’t supposed to be a big deal for Indiana lawmakers in 2017, but major changes are on the horizon

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Indiana’s 2017 legislative session might have began with a focus on roads and transportation, but lawmakers have still devoted a lot of time to a variety of education debates that could wind up making big changes for the state’s schools.

In just a week, Indiana lawmakers are expected to wrap this year’s legislative session. Until then, both sides are debating more controversial bills and putting final touches on others before they are sent to Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Many of these proposals will see further debate over the next week as they go through conference committee, when House and Senate lawmakers come together to reach compromises. Once a compromise is reached, bills will go back up for final votes in the House and Senate. Here’s where everything stands now.

Tying teacher evaluations to tests still troubles Democrats, educators

House Bill 1003, which proposes a plan for a system of tests to replace ISTEP that would be known as “ILEARN,” was up for debate in conference committee on Wednesday.

While the House version of the bill primarily reflected recommendations from a state panel charged with considering how to change the exams, the Senate version was more prescriptive, including suggestions from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick to use a national college entrance test as the high school graduation exam.

The fact that neither bill version had a provision to remove test scores from teacher evaluations troubled a number of Democrats on the committee and educators who testified.

“Incorporating data based on a test that even the state legislature removed — you put us in a really difficult position when you required us to implement that,” said Scot Croner, superintendent in Blackford County.

Future of online program uncertain as preschool debate continues

Lawmakers also gathered Wednesday to wade through the many proposals on the table regarding Indiana’s preschool program in House Bill 1004, which it its current form would allow all of the state’s 92 counties to participate.

The original House plan expanded the program only up to 10 counties.

During the committee meeting, Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, reminded lawmakers that the state would only include suggested funding levels in the budget bill, not the preschool one — and the budget won’t be finalized likely until late next week. But money still factored into the conversation, with local and state advocates testifying and requesting as much funding as possible, particularly given the optimism around the state’s recent revenue report.

Behning also asked many of the educators and preschool advocates how they felt about a provision in the bill that would allocate $1 million per year for a Utah-based online preschool program called “Upstart,” which says it can prepare kids for kindergarten in 15 minutes per day, five days a week.

Read: How a computer program designed for home-based preschool in Utah could get a piece of Indiana’s education budget

Caryl Auslander, with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, summed up many of the comments made about the online program:

“We’re not necessarily against Upstart, but we’re really supportive of making sure the limited dollars we have to spend are spent on high-quality programs going forward,” she said.

Lawmakers and those from the public who testified were also split on whether the final proposal should include controversial language that would expand the state’s voucher program to children who receive a preschool grant.

“We believe that language should have been struck,” Joel Hand, with the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, said Wednesday. “We believe that intertwining the voucher program with the preschool debate is really inappropriate.”

State superintendent bill stalls after Senate squabble

At this point, lawmakers have not explicitly indicated they have a problem with the Senate version of House Bill 1005, a move which must be made before the bill can go to a conference committee for further debate.

The proposal would allow Gov. Eric Holcomb, and future state executives, to choose Indiana’s state superintendent, rather than let voters pick in an election. An original version of the House bill proposed starting in 2021, meaning current state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick would serve just one term alongside Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The current version — after some twists and turns in the Senate — now has the appointment beginning in 2025, which means Holcomb wouldn’t be around to make the pick.

But the hold-up isn’t necessarily unusual, House Republican spokeswoman Erin Reece said.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, the bill’s author, told reporters yesterday that he’s still discussing the bill with his caucus and working on other agenda items.

The bill will likely see heavy debate as the Senate and House work out a final version, particularly regarding when the new appointment would begin.

Charter- and voucher-related proposals could affect failing virtual and private schools

Two complicated omnibus bills dealing with charter schools and vouchers will head into their final rounds of negotiations on Monday, and another that creates a voucher-like program to let kids take classes outside their public schools is headed to the governor.

The first omnibus bill, House Bill 1382, would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row, among numerous other provisions. It also would require virtual schools to adopt “student engagement” policies, which would allow them to remove students showing low participation and poor attendance.

In the Senate, the bill was amended to include changes to how charter school teachers can be licensed. At charter schools, current Indiana law says that 90 percent of teachers must hold a state teaching license, or be in the process of pursuing one. One proposal in the bill would loosen restrictions on which state permits count as full-fledged licenses and give more discretion to the state board to make those decisions.

The second, House Bill 1384, would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades, which could have the most impact on both urban schools and virtual schools, whose grades tend to slip when students move in and out throughout a given school year.

The state board would also be tasked with determining a definition for “high-mobility” schools and the Indiana Department of Education would be required to publish a yearly report on the schools’ performance.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers. One would allow schools to appeal D or F grades that prohibit them from accepting new voucher students. Another would allow schools to become accredited more quickly, and thus accept voucher students sooner.

The voucher-like program that would be created by House Bill 1007 is known more widely as a “course access” program, and it could represent one way Indiana’s school choice strategy is broadening. Under the program as outlined in the bill, students could use public dollars to pay for outside schooling — one course at a time. Then, those course providers would get a cut of a school or district’s state funding.

The bill passed the House and was amended in committee to allow public school districts to deny students’ requests to enroll in outside courses if those courses are not actually required for graduation, would put a student above a full courseload of credits or are “logistically infeasible.”

School funding plans still coming into focus

Underlying many of the pending education bills is the debate over the state’s next two-year budget, which likely won’t be finalized until late next week.

The Senate proposal calls for raising education funding by $358 million, or 3.25 percent, over the next two years, while the House proposed a smaller $273 million, 2.8 percent funding increase for education last month. However, the House plan would include higher per-student funding.

Much of the Senate increase appears to come from revived provisions for teacher bonuses and boosts to the formula that adds dollars for districts with many poor students.

You can find more on the Senate education funding plan here, and House plan here.

Big gains

No. 1: This Denver turnaround school had the highest math growth in Colorado

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
University Prep Steele Street students at a celebration of their test scores Friday.

Denver’s University Prep faced a gargantuan task last year: Turn around a school where the previous year just 7 percent of third- through fifth-graders were on grade level in math and 6 percent were on grade level in English.

On Friday morning, dozens of those students — dressed in khaki pants and button-up sweaters — clustered on the lawn to listen to officials celebrate their charter school, University Prep Steele Street, for showing the most academic growth in Colorado on last spring’s state standardized math tests.

The high-poverty school also had the eighth-highest growth on state English tests. Another Denver charter, KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy high school, had the first-highest.

“I want to say clearly to all of you that no one is ever going to tell you what you can and can’t do — ever,” University Prep founder and executive director David Singer told his students. “You’re going to remind them what you did in a single year.”

By the end of last year, 43 percent of University Prep Steele Street third- through fifth-graders were at grade level in math and 37 percent were at grade level in English, according to state tests results released Thursday.

University Prep Steele Street students scored better, on average, than 91 percent of Colorado students who had similar tests scores the year before in math and better than 84 percent of students who had similar scores in English.

As Singer noted Friday, that type of skyrocketing improvement is rare among turnaround schools in Denver and nationwide.

“This might be one of the biggest wins we’ve ever seen in our city, our state and our country of what it truly means to transform a school,” he said.

Many of the kids were previously students at Pioneer Charter School, one of the city’s first-ever charters. Founded in 1997 in northeast Denver, Pioneer had struggled academically in recent years, posting some of the lowest test scores in all of Denver Public Schools.

In 2015, Pioneer’s board of directors decided to close the school, which served students in preschool through eighth grade. University Prep, an elementary charter school a couple miles away, applied to take it over. But unlike many school turnarounds, it wouldn’t be a gradual, one-grade-at-a-time, phase-in, phase-out transition. Instead, University Prep would be responsible for teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade on day one.

“When Pioneer Charter School became an option and we looked at our results up to that point of time and what we believed to be our capacity … we saw an opportunity,” Singer said.

A former math teacher at nearby Manual High School, which has itself been subject to several turnaround efforts, Singer started University Prep after becoming frustrated with the reality faced by many of his teenage students, who often showed up with gaps in their knowledge.

“When you walk into school at 14 or 15 and have a huge gap, the likelihood you get to be whatever you want to be is diminished,” he said.

The key to changing that, Singer realized, would be to start students on a path to success earlier. That’s why University Prep’s tagline is, “College starts in kindergarten.”

“It’s a significantly better pathway than the one of intense catch-up on the backend,” Singer said.

University Prep Arapahoe Street opened as a standalone charter school in 2010. Last year, its fourth- and fifth-graders outperformed district averages on both the English and math tests.

Several teachers and staff members from the original campus helped open Steele Street in 2016. The school started with 226 students, 89 percent of whom qualified for subsidized lunches. Ninety-seven percent were students of color and 71 percent were English language learners, more than twice the percentage in the district as a whole.

The biggest difference from the year before, Singer said, were the expectations. The work was more rigorous and there was more of it: three hours of literacy and more than 100 minutes of math each day as part of a schedule that stretched from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Lauren Argue was one of the teachers that moved from the original campus to Steele Street. She and Singer said the other big difference was the honest feedback students received from their teachers. That included sharing with students the fact that they were several grade levels behind, and starting the year by re-teaching second-grade math to fourth-graders.

“We had conversations of, ‘Here is where you’re at,’ but also expressing our unwavering belief that, ‘By the end of the year, you will grow a tremendous amount,’” Argue said.

While those hard conversations may have been uncomfortable at first for students and their families, Argue said they embraced them once they saw the progress students were making — progress that teachers made sure to celebrate at every opportunity.

“Kids learned the joy of what it means to do hard academic work and get through to the other side,” Singer said. “That became a source of pride.”

Ten-year-old Abril Sierra attended Pioneer since preschool. This year, she’s a fifth-grader at University Prep. On Friday, she said that while at times she thought her brain might explode, it felt good to tackle harder work. She credited her teachers with helping her achieve.

“The things that changed were definitely the perspective of how the teachers see you and believe in you,” Sierra said. “…They make you feel at home. You can trust them.”

By the numbers

NYC announces it will subsidize hiring from Absent Teacher Reserve — and sheds light on who is in the pool

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Ever since the city announced a new policy for placing teachers without permanent positions into schools, Chalkbeat and others have been asking questions about just who is in the pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve.

Now we have some answers.

The education department released figures on Friday that show a quarter of teachers currently in the the pool were also there five years ago, and a third ended up in the ATR because of disciplinary or legal issues. The average salary for teachers this past year was $94,000, according to the data.

The city also said it would extend budget incentives for schools that hire educators from the ATR, a change to its initial announcement. Principals have raised concerns about the cost of hiring from the ATR, since its members tend to be more senior, and therefore more expensive, than new teachers.

The ATR is comprised of teachers who don’t have regular positions, either because their jobs were eliminated or because of disciplinary issues. It cost almost $152 million in the last school year — far more than previously estimated — and currently stands at 822 teachers.

In July, the city announced a plan to cut the pool in half by placing teachers into vacancies still open after the new school year begins — even potentially over principals’ objection.

Critics have argued that the city’s new placement policy could place ineffective teachers in the neediest classrooms. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis called the move “shockingly irresponsible” in a statement.

“There are reasons why no principal has chosen to hire them and this policy is bad for kids, plain and simple,” she said.

But Randy Asher, the former principal of Brooklyn Technical High School who is now responsible for helping to shrink the pool, called the new policy “a common sense approach to treating ATR teachers like all other teachers,” since they now have the opportunity to be evaluated by a school principal.

Here’s what the latest numbers tell us about who is in the pool.

How did educators end up in the Absent Teacher Reserve?

Most of the educators in the ATR were placed there because their schools had closed (38 percent) or due to budget cuts (30 percent.)

Another 32 percent entered the pool because of a legal or disciplinary case.

How effective are they?

A majority — 74 percent — received an evaluation rating of “highly effective,” “effective” or “satisfactory” in 2015-16, the most current year available. Current ratings for teachers citywide were not immediately available, but in 2014-15, 93 percent of teachers overall were rated effective or highly effective, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Twelve percent of teachers in the pool received an “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” rating in 2015-16, and about 7 percent received a “developing” rating, one step up from ineffective.

Some teachers in the ATR say evaluations can be unfair since teachers are often placed in classrooms outside of the subjects they are equipped to teach and because they are bounced between classrooms.

Asked whether teachers with poor ratings would be placed in classrooms, Asher said “all” teachers in the ATR have traditionally been placed in school assignments.

“They’re in schools, no matter what. It’s a question of what is their role in the school, and how are they supported and evaluated,” he said. “Obviously we will look at each individual teacher and each individual assignment on a case-by-case basis.”

How experienced are they?

Teachers in the ATR have an average of 18 years of experience with the education department, and earn an average salary of $94,000. By comparison, the base salary for a New York City teacher as of May 2017 was $54,000.

How long have they been in the pool?

Almost half the educators who are currently in the pool were also there two years ago. A quarter were in the ATR five years ago. That doesn’t mean that teachers have remained in the ATR for that entire time. They could have been hired for a time, and returned to the pool.

Still, the figures could be fuel for those who argue educators in the ATR either aren’t seriously looking for permanent jobs — or that the educators in the pool are simply undesirable hires.

How will schools pay for them?

Teachers in the ATR have argued that their higher salaries are one reason principals avoid hiring them — a concern that principals voiced in a recent Chalkbeat report.

“This is part of the injustice of the ATR placement,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “Schools might not want them and they will cost schools more in the future, taking away from other budget priorities.”

Under the policy announced Friday, the education department will subsidize the cost of ATRs who are permanently hired, paying 50 percent of their salaries next school year and 25 percent the following school year.

Where have they worked previously?

This question is important because the answer gives a sense of where educators in the ATR are likely to be placed this fall. The education department’s original policy called for an educator to be placed within the same district they left, but the change announced in July allowed for placement anywhere within the same borough.

Almost half of ATR members, as of June 2016-17, came from high schools. That isn’t surprising: Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein targeted large high schools for closure, breaking them up into smaller schools as part of a turnaround strategy.

Of the school districts serving K- 8 students, District 19 in Brooklyn’s East New York and District 24 in Queens had among the most educators in the ATR. Each had 26.

What subjects do they teach?

The largest share of teachers in the ATR — 27 percent — are licensed to teach in early childhood or elementary school grades. Another 11 percent are licensed social studies teachers, 9 percent are math teachers and 8 percent are English teachers.

Questions have been raised in the past about whether the teachers in the pool had skills that were too narrow or out of date. A 2010 Chalkbeat story found that a quarter of teachers then in the pool were licensed to teach relatively obscure classes like swimming, jewelry-making and accounting.