Future of Schools

Skeptical at first, these Ritz supporters are now optimistic about McCormick

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Jennifer McCormick’s campaign for state superintendent last year left many voters wondering what side of the education reform debate she was on.

Supporters rallied around the Yorktown Republican for her experiences as a public school teacher, principal and superintendent. And while she raised an impressive sum of money from donors who had previously backed the choice-based reform star Tony Bennett, she maintained she wasn’t Bennett 2.0.

Her critics — often Democrats — weren’t so easily convinced, particularly given those deep-pocketed contributors, which included Hoosiers for Quality Education (the political arm of the school-choice advocacy group Institute for Quality Education) and Christel DeHaan, the founder of the network of Christel House charter schools.

But now, almost a year after she beat Glenda Ritz in an election night upset, some of those Ritz supporters who were skeptical have changed their tune. Maybe she’s not so bad after all, they said.

In her policies and recent comments since taking office, McCormick has just as often clashed with her Republican colleagues and pro-school-choice funders as she has been aligned with them. Yet even during the election, there were few policy areas where McCormick and Ritz had major departures.

That became especially clear at an event hosted by the Indiana Coalition for Public Education last month, where McCormick voiced her support for increased transparency and accountability for charter schools and private schools that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers.

MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, an Indianapolis attorney who has been skeptical of choice-based school reform efforts, said while she thought McCormick was qualified for the position, she was initially quite worried about the influence of those who financed her campaign.

“My fear did not come from anything that I specifically knew about her,” Schlegel Ruegger said. “My fear came from which organizations or individuals were providing much of her campaign financing. Unfortunately we’ve learned in Indiana over the last several years that money does seem to be talking very loudly.”

Over time, and after listening to her testify before the Senate Education Committee on testing, Schlegel Ruegger said she was pleased that McCormick seemed to distance herself from the views of her contributors, especially at the recent ICPE event. Schlegel Ruegger is a member of the group.

“I’m eager to see what else she may say” about charter and voucher transparency, Schlegel Ruegger said. “I’m interested to hear her say things like that in front of audiences who aren’t as eager to hear it as the audience Saturday.”

Kristina Frey, a Washington Township parent who leads the Parent Council Network and also an ICPE member, said she thinks she was wrong to jump to conclusions so early. Frey said Washington Township came out strongly for Ritz, as the district where she was an educator, and she appreciated McCormick’s willingness to come out and meet parents in her district, even if they might be skeptical.

“I was wrong in my fears,” Frey said. “I have a lot of respect for Jennifer based on what I’ve seen so far. I think it took real guts to actually stand up in front of the General Assembly and have her say things that are contrary to what the leadership of the party believes.”

Both women said they hope McCormick can take a less passive approach with the legislature this session. Compared to her predecessors, McCormick’s administration was much more quiet during last year’s session, testifying far less on bills and declining to share a legislative agenda.

“I’d love to see her be — I think what schools call it is be much more of a ‘critical friend’ with the legislature,” Schlegel Ruegger said. “She is at a very interesting vantage point — between the views of her funders and her own experiences as a superintendent in public schools. And I would love to see her use that vantage point to critically look at legislation that comes through.”

Frey pointed out, however, that the power of the state’s schools chief is limited. That will be particularly true come 2025, when the governor will make the elected position an appointed member of his cabinet. Lawmakers voted to make the change this past year.

“Just like with Glenda Ritz we learned that the superintendent of public instruction has a limited role in actually setting policy, so though I am very happy with some of her public stances, I still believe that it will be very difficult for her to really do much to impact those things,” Frey said.

It’s unclear whether voters’ perception of McCormick will carry over to the legislature. McCormick opted to mostly promote the few education policies Gov. Eric Holcomb backed this year, but since then, her comments around supporting full-day kindergarten and school choice are largely at odds with what Republican education power players have typically supported.

House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, was vague about the extent to which that tension has entered into work between the General Assembly and the education department.

“Nobody is going to always agree on everything,” Behning said. “There are differences, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get along.”

Callie Marksbury, a Lafayette teacher and a former treasurer for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she hopes there aren’t as many roadblocks thrown up at McCormick as there were for Ritz in terms of impact on state policy. During the election, the state’s teachers unions primarily backed Ritz.

“Please let the legislature leave her alone,” Marksbury said. “Let her do what she said she’s going to do.”

Current law says Indiana would appoint its schools chief in 2025. This story has been corrected to reflect that. 

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.