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. 

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year