Who Is In Charge

A new test, $22 million for preschool and 5 other major education bills that lawmakers approved in 2017

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, presents on the budget bill to House lawmakers on Friday.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Indiana’s 2017 legislative session came to a close.

It ended with a plan to replace ISTEP, new rules for charter and voucher schools and a compromise on the state’s next two-year budget. Next, the bills all head to Gov. Eric Holcomb to be signed into law.

Earlier this week, lawmakers also came to agreements that would expand the state’s preschool program and make the next state superintendent appointed, rather than elected.

Here are the major education issues now under consideration to become law:

TESTING

A plan to replace the state’s hated ISTEP testing system with “ILEARN” was approved by lawmakers Friday.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. For the most part, the test plan in House Bill 1003 resembles what was recommended by the group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement.

There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and high schools would give end-of-course exam in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I. An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test students in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. The bill would create a number of graduation “pathways” that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. New options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

While teacher evaluations would still have to include ISTEP scores in some way, districts would have flexibility to decide specifically how to do that.

CHARTER SCHOOLS AND VOUCHERS

Two bills dealing with charter schools and vouchers that passed easily in the House and Senate would make it easier for struggling schools to get a second chance.

Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, noted that public schools have the option to join “transformation zones” or “innovation networks” that allow them to avoid closure and make plans to improve, but charters and private schools don’t.

The bill that focuses on charter schools, 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. Even if the schools go beyond their four-year F-grade limit, authorizers can go to the state board to request a charter renewal.

The second, House Bill 1384, includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers. One would allow schools to waive D or F grades that prohibit the schools from accepting new voucher students. That waiver would be good for one year, and would be dependant upon the school’s ability to demonstrate that a majority of private school students made academic improvements in the prior year.

The bills would also …

  • Weakens the state’s “90 percent-10 percent” rule for licensing teachers in charter schools. Current Indiana law says that 90 percent of teachers must hold a traditional state teaching license, or be in the process of pursuing one, and 10 percent can hold an alternative teaching permit. Under the new language, the state’s specific charter school license appears to count toward the 90 percent, rather than the 10 percent as they have in the past (HB 1382).
  • 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 and determine a definition for “high-mobility” schools (HB 1384).
  • Allow private schools to become accredited more quickly, and thus accept voucher students sooner (HB 1384).

STATE TAKEOVER

A plan that would have allowed the state to take control over finances and academics in Gary and Muncie has been significantly scaled back — and would release Muncie from academic takeover altogether.

The measure passed the Senate and House late Friday. While Muncie schools see some relief from earlier sanctions, Gary would be on track for the state takeover, although a few provisions called for by local lawmakers were added in — such as first considering a Gary or Lake County resident as the “emergency manager” in charge of the takeover.

Kenley said he specified in the compromise version of the bill that these measures are “not precedent for and may not be appropriate for addressing issues faced by other” districts.

Lawmakers came up with the takeover strategy to solve longstanding financial troubles in Gary Community Schools, which has racked up $100 million in debt and dwindled to fewer than 6,000 students. The district has also been labeled an F since 2011, with seven schools considered failing.

But Muncie educators and lawmakers made their opposition known when their C-rated district was added into Senate Bill 567 for its own significant debt issues.

The bill originally designated Gary and Muncie as “distressed political subdivisions” and moved them under the auspices of an emergency manager, a fiscal management board, and a chief academic officer. In the new plan, Gary would remain a distressed political subdivision, but Muncie would be considered a “fiscally impaired” district — a less harsh label that wouldn’t require the district to have a chief academic officer, but still places it under a stringent plan to shore up its finances.

SCHOOL FUNDING

The budget was the last bill to pass Friday night, with wide margins of support in both houses.

The two-year plan would increase funding by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, a boost of $345 million that brings total education spending to $14.2 billion over the next two years. The state also approved increased support for English-learners, students with severe special needs, and career and technical education.

All Marion County school districts will see increases to per-student funding and tuition support — the base amount provided by the state to educate children.

Indiana also recommitted to teacher bonus payments at $30 million per year, adjusting the formula so that high-performing teachers at struggling schools could see higher bonuses than they did last year.

PRESCHOOL

A preschool deal passed the House and Senate Friday morning that would expand the program to 15 additional counties, up to 20 from the current five.

The cost of the expansion will be $22 million per year, which is less than advocates had lobbied for but close to what House Republicans and Holcomb supported.

It includes controversial language allowing a new, limited voucher “pathway.” If a child used a preschool scholarship to go to a program at a private school that accepts vouchers, they could then automatically receive a voucher for kindergarten if they stay at the same school.

The compromise plan would set aside $1 million per year to allow families who use an “in-home” online preschool program to be reimbursed for their costs. Priority would be given to parents of children who live in counties with no high-quality preschool providers, and the state would agree to study the online programs.

STATE SUPERINTENDENT

Last week, House and Senate lawmakers approved a bill that would allow future governors to choose Indiana’s state superintendent.

The final version of House Bill 1005 includes a residency requirement and qualifications for the “secretary of education” position. It also delays the appointment until 2025, meaning Holcomb wouldn’t be around to make the pick and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick could seek a second term.

You can find other education-related bills that passed this session here.

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.