legislative goals

Indiana teachers union calls on lawmakers to restore $9.3 million in state dollars to public schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lawmakers begin the 2018 session Jan. 3.

Up against a short session and a legislature dominated by Republicans who have historically battled with unions, Indiana’s largest teachers union nevertheless announced an ambitious set of goals for next year that include a call for more school funding and greater transparency for charter schools.

The Indiana State Teachers Association listed some proposals that have been on the legislative agenda for years, as well as a call to address a problem identified just last month: a $9.3 million shortfall in state funding to school districts.

The union also is asking the legislature, which convenes again in January, to pass laws making kindergarten mandatory; shave the graduation system down to a single diploma; adjust new graduation pathways; provide more support for kids dealing with trauma; fix the teacher licensure exams that could be exacerbating teacher shortages; and increase contract negotiating power for unions.

Teresa Meredith, the Indiana State Teachers Association president, conceded that the agenda won’t be easy to accomplish in a state where Republicans hold the most power. And this year’s session doesn’t include budget-writing, so will be a “short session,” making it even more difficult to make major changes. This year, too, education appears to be less of a focus than in years past.

Yet Meredith said she is still hopeful, and is already in talks with both Republican and Democrat lawmakers.

“It’s always hard to tell going into a legislative session, especially a short one,” Meredith said. “Probably none of these are going to surface as key leading bills, but they may surface as an amendment … at least in amendment form, we have a great chance of being able to be heard and maybe have some change.”

Meredith said ISTA wants to ensure Indiana’s recently announced funding shortfall is restored. Lawmakers said filling the $9.3 million gap was a priority, but in a non-budget-year, it’s not yet clear where that money will come from or what the process will be.

“Although, this amount is a small percentage of Indiana’s entire school funding, every dollar matters in our state’s cash-strapped schools,” ISTA’s agenda said. “Our kids deserve the commitment from our state to receive the funding they were promised – not funding cuts in the middle of the school year.”

The desire to make 5-year-old kindergartners part of Indiana’s compulsory education law — now set at age 7 — lines up with one of state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s goals. Both McCormick and ISTA say students need more support to be successful, and kindergarten is a common-sense way to even the playing field between kids from different backgrounds.

“In all the years I taught kindergarten, it always amazed me that students would show up in first or second grade who had never been in school,” Meredith said. “Around 7,000 kids don’t show up for kindergarten each year … They are behind from the get-go.”

ISTA wants to allow for a one-year grace period if parents request it, allowing children to wait until age 6. While few children show up as late as second grade, this is a move some advocates have been pushing for several years now, especially as Indiana increases services to preschoolers. Across the nation, 34 states and D.C. set their mandatory schooling age as 5 or 6.

As in years past, ISTA is also hoping Indiana will adopt more regulations of the state’s charter school market, including beefing up licensing requirements for teachers, studying the current system and existing demand, as well as specific changes to virtual schools, which they said have been “wholly unimpressive for kids and taxpayers.”

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

Those requested changes would include a moratorium on virtual school growth and a funding formula change supported by other state policymakers so that money is distributed based on student academic progress rather than enrollment or attendance.

“There are concerns we have about transparency, in particular with virtual and voucher schools,” Meredith said. “When you look at the data and the stories we’ve read in the past few months on virtual schools, the class sizes and turnover … there are a lot of questions that have yet to be answered about that.”

The concerns come after Chalkbeat’s seven-month investigation into Indiana Virtual School, a full-time online charter school that demonstrated widespread low-performance and unusual spending, as well as a single-digit graduation rate in 2016.

Learn more about ISTA’s 2018 legislative priorities here.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Parents feel left out of the Gary takeover debate. This mom pushed to be included.

PHOTO: Photo by Samuel L. Love via Flickr
Gary's Roosevelt High School. Johnson's eldest daughters graduated from the school before it was taken over by the state in 2012.

Kendra S. Johnson braved an ice storm and sold candy to cover a $60 bus fare so she could testify against a bill that would strip local control from the Gary and Muncie school districts.

After the bad weather thwarted the Gary mom’s attempt to travel more than two hours to Indianapolis for an earlier hearing on House Bill 1315, Johnson raised the money to make it for Thursday’s next step in the process.

She delivered an impassioned speech to Senate Appropriations committee members urging them to make sure parents get a chance to weigh in on a bill that will massively change how their children are educated. The committee did not vote on the bill Thursday.

Parents, community members, education advocates and others have criticized lawmakers and other policymakers for failing to include more people in coming up with solutions for the troubled Gary and Muncie districts. The lengths that Johnson went underscores how difficult it can be for community members to make their voices heard.

“A lot of times, parents feel like they don’t have people or organizations who listen to them so they can have the strength and courage to speak up,” Johnson, a mother of six, told Chalkbeat. “If you don’t go take advantage of being included, it will be taken from you.”

The bill would expand on the responsibilities of Gary’s emergency manager, allow Ball State University to take control of Muncie Schools and put in place a new system to help the state identify schools that could be on the way toward serious financial problems.

The legislation builds on last year’s Senate Bill 567, which established that the state could take over districts. This year’s bill has seen ferocious, sometimes somber, debate in the legislature. Democrats representing Gary and Muncie implored members of the Republican majority to scale the bill back to allow more time for the community to be involved.

Republicans, such as the bill’s author and House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, have said the financial and academic problems in the two districts warrant decisive action sooner, not later. On Thursday, Appropriations Chairman Ryan Mishler said he’d hold the bill for a vote for at least another week to allow time for discussion. The bill already passed the House, so it just needs to make it through the Senate to be on its way to becoming law.

State takeover of schools has seen mixed results. WFYI Public Media’s Eric Weddle explored that issue in a new story, while also detailing Gary Schools’ decades-long struggle to stay afloat.

Weddle spoke with Sharmayne McKinley, principal at Daniel Hale Williams Elementary Schools about what she remembers from when the state first announced the district would be taken over last year. One of emergency manager Peggy Hinckley’s first moves was to buy new books. Their previous ones were 10 years old.

“You’d have thought we were little kids in the candy store getting supplies for our kids,” McKinley says. “That was a milestone.”

Johnson, 53, who lives in the Dorie Miller Public Housing complex, represents Indiana in the National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents and has been a parent advocate for several years now.

Because district takeover is uncharted territory in Indiana, there are many unknowns. Provisions in the bill that would make Muncie’s school board appointed and turn Gary’s into an advisory committee have elicited strong reactions from residents like Johnson who feel they’re losing their voices in their own schools.

“A lot of us don’t have the money to make the trip from Gary down here,” Johnson said. “The biggest reason I fight is so it can be said a voice was fighting for the parents, whether it was heard or not.”

Read the rest of WFYI’s story here, and find more of Chalkbeat’s legislative coverage here.

Indiana online schools

Indiana lawmakers aren’t cracking down on virtual charter schools despite calls for change

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Academy Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

Indiana lawmakers have killed three attempts to tighten the state’s charter school authorizing laws, even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for improved accountability of troubled online charter schools.

A Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable. The probe found that Indiana Virtual posted dismal academic results, hired few teachers, and had spending and business practices that raised ethical questions.

Special report: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

But with proposals to tighten regulations facing pushback from influential education advocates, Republican lawmakers — many of whom benefit from online schools’ lobbying and campaign contributions — say there’s little interest in making changes.

“I’m surprised myself,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican Senate Education Committee chairman who authored one of the charter school bills. “People from all different walks of life had concerns about different parts of the bill. Nobody came to me and said, ‘This is a great bill, go ahead and proceed with the bill.’”

Still, Holcomb is taking other steps to strengthen virtual charter school policy. With the Indiana State Board of Education, Holcomb’s team has been collecting information on best practices in virtual schools across the country.

PJ McGrew, the governor’s education policy director, said he hopes to have a plan to revise virtual school policies for the state board to consider in the spring. It could take about a year for the board to change that policy if they decide to move forward.

Lawmakers’ hesitation isn’t really surprising: Indiana has made sweeping changes to expand school choice, and Republican leaders have seldom supported laws that would restrict choice — even when issues are raised.

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the influential House Education Committee who has long advocated for charter schools and new school models, said he doesn’t want to “jump into something, making a judgment, without knowing what the answers are.”

He also pointed out that it isn’t always clear how the state should hold schools accountable in practice because education law can be difficult to enforce: “There is no education police.”

“I definitely see there are some alarms that we need to be focused on and alerted to,” Behning said. “But there are similar alarms in traditional public schools going off all over the place as well. That’s the place I think we do struggle with. At what point in time is it appropriate for us to intervene?”

None of the bills proposed by lawmakers this year dealt directly with virtual schools, applying instead to charter schools as a whole. And none of them received any hearings.

Kruse’s proposal, Senate Bill 350, would have effectively prevented struggling online charter schools — or any charter school — from easily replicating. It would have stopped an authorizer from offering a new charter to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically.

Three of Indiana’s largest online charter schools, including Indiana Virtual School, have recently opened second schools, which could help them stay in business if their first schools get shut down after years of poor performance

Two other proposals from Democrats, Senate Bills 315 and 406, went much further in dictating the results charter schools must show to enroll new students and open new schools.

Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat who proposed Senate Bill 315, said for his caucus, examining whether charter schools need more regulation and oversight has been a recurring priority.

“It isn’t a difficult question,” he said. “It just needs to be done.”

But lawmakers would be up against the charter school movement’s money and influence.

Indiana lawmakers, including Behning and Kruse, have seen campaign contributions from online education companies. K12 Inc., one of the largest online education providers in the country, has given more than $90,000 to Indiana Republican races since 2006, according to the state campaign contribution database. Connections, another large national provider, has given more than $20,000.

Those online providers, who operate five online charter schools in Indiana, also have spent tens of thousands of dollars each year for the last decade lobbying lawmakers.

Indiana Virtual School has also recently started lobbying lawmakers in Indiana. Tom Stoughton, the founder of Indiana Virtual School, was listed as a registered lobbyist for the school in January, even as school officials say he has distanced himself from the school. Stoughton’s involvement with the school’s for-profit management company has raised ethical questions.

In the first filing period for 2017, Indiana Virtual School spent almost $12,000 on lobbying, according to data from the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. In 2016, IVS spent a little more than $13,300.

Prominent charter school advocates can wield influence outside of lobbying, too. They have said they fear more prescriptive laws could hem in successful schools and authorizers, even though they have agreed that virtual schools, specifically, need more attention and oversight.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat in January.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider virtual-specific policies, such as completion-based funding, making enrollment more selective, or even making them a different kind of non-charter school so enrollment and governance can be more controlled.

Indiana falls short when it comes to virtual school regulation, according to the association’s most recent report, even as the state is praised for having the strongest charter school laws in the nation. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1.

Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools, has spoken in favor of making virtual schools a separate school type.

“We’ve got to turn this on its head,” Petrilli said. “It would be hard to do it within the general charter school rules which say you’ve got to take everybody … What we have learned is the charter school model and online learning are not a good fit for each other.”