Future of Schools

Betsy DeVos made a covert visit to Indianapolis last week. Here’s why.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is reportedly weighing whether to allow schools to pay for guns using federal money.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made a secret visit to Indianapolis last week.

DeVos’ public calendar for Feb. 5 said she had “no public events.” There were no press releases marking her trip to Indiana. Even the local school district did not know the U. S. Secretary of Education was coming.

But unbeknownst to most of the city, DeVos was visiting Cold Spring School, a public elementary school with an environmental science focus. As one of the first campuses in Indianapolis to voluntarily become an innovation school, Cold Spring is overseen by the district but has most of the flexibilities of charter schools. A staunch advocate of school choice, DeVos has highlighted innovation schools in the past, saying the schools are an “out-of-the-box” approach.

The Indianapolis Public Schools administration, however, was not involved with DeVos’ visit.

“The board and administration were not aware of the visit until after it had occurred,” said Mary Ann Sullivan, a member of the Indianapolis Public Schools board. “No one at the district or the board knew she was coming.”

The unannounced visit is part of a larger pattern for DeVos, who has been criticized for keeping many public appearances off her calendar. Critics say keeping plans private diminishes public trust and accountability.

When Chalkbeat learned about DeVos’ visit to Cold Spring Friday, we reached out to the school and to DeVos’ spokesperson to confirm the details and find out why she was here. Neither responded for more than 72 hours.

On Monday, DeVos’ spokesperson Liz Hill emailed an explanation for the visit.

“She was there filming for an upcoming TV special on innovation in education and her one-year anniversary in office,” Hill wrote. “It was closed press and not noticed to the public for that reason.”

Cold Spring School chief operating officer Carrie Bruns provided a similar statement to Chalkbeat on Monday that confirmed the details of the visit. “Cold Spring School was very honored to have been chosen for this visit,” Bruns added.

Indianapolis Public Schools, a district of about 31,000 students, has garnered national attention for creating innovation schools, which aim to release traditional schools from the tether of central office control. The schools are particularly controversial because their teachers are no longer employed by the district and they cannot join the district union.

Not everyone in Indianapolis welcomes DeVos’ praise. The innovation school strategy is contentious, but it has bipartisan support from Republican lawmakers in the statehouse, and Democratic elected officials and advocates from Indianapolis.

Sullivan, who previously served as a Democratic representative in the Indiana House, said DeVos is part of an administration that supports policies that will “deeply hurt” children. Sullivan said she is reserving judgment on what to make of the visit to Cold Spring until she learns more, but she is concerned that the TV story that DeVos was filming could potentially spark backlash.

“My biggest fear is — I don’t want the school or the strategy to be criticized because she’s choosing to uplift it,” Sullivan added.

parent power

Indianapolis charter booster launches parent advocacy fellowship

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When it comes to reforming education, one local nonprofit that supports charter schools wants parents and families to have a seat at the table.

The Mind Trust announced Wednesday that it is establishing a two-year fellowship to develop a parent advocacy organization — and seeking candidates to be a part of it.

The goal of the fellowship is to empower families — particularly low-income families and families of color — to advocate for changes in their publicly funded schools, said The Mind Trust executive director Brandon Brown.

“This is our attempt at really flipping the script, from a relatively top-down approach to education reform to a movement led by families that we hope will be sustainable over time,” Brown said.

A common criticism of education reform efforts, both in Indianapolis and across the nation, is that changes are forced onto communities, and that families affected have little or no input about those changes. But it remains to be seen whether The Mind Trust’s push for greater parent involvement can transcend hotly politicized divides in education. Locally, Stand for Children Indiana’s parent advocacy efforts have faced criticism from those who feel the group is trying to advance a political agenda supporting reform efforts.

Brown said the new parent advocacy group would be independent of The Mind Trust.

“That might mean that eventually they may choose to advocate for something that is not the direction we want to go,” he said.

Still, the group would likely focus on families at Indianapolis charter schools. Brown said he expects the fellow, who will receive coaching from The Mind Trust, to support charter concepts such as giving strong leaders more freedom to run their schools. The fellowship comes with an estimated salary of $75,000 to $90,000 per year.

But Seretha Edwards, a parent at School 43, said families need unbiased training and support — and she’s not sure The Mind Trust is the ideal vehicle for that.

“I’m sure if The Mind Trust is doing it, it’s going to be a biased vetting process,” said Edwards, who is involved in the IPS Community Coalition, a group critical of charter reforms.

It would be up to the fellow to decide what the new parent advocacy organization would look like, and what issues it would undertake, said Shannon Williams, The Mind Trust’s senior vice president of community engagement. She plans to work with community and faith organizations to find the right candidate. Ideally, that person, Williams said, would be a local parent who can connect with other parents and build a grassroots organization. Williams pointed to Memphis Lift and PAVE, or Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, in Washington, D.C., as potential models for parent engagement work.

In Indianapolis, Stand for Children provides a “University for Parents” to train families on how the educational system works and how to ask policymakers for changes. The organization works with parents at new innovation schools and supports parents in endorsing school board candidates. In the past, the group has arranged for parents to go door-to-door to gather support for the district’s referendums.

“I think the biggest thing that we have seen with families that we work with is that they just want a great school for their child,” said Stand Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller.

Cesar Roman, director of community engagement for the pro-school choice Institute for Quality Education, said more parent advocacy is badly needed in Indianapolis.

“What we often leave out is parents themselves and families themselves,” said Roman, who is also a member of Chalkbeat’s Reader Advisory Board. “The No. 1 place where we’ve gone wrong is not engaging people where they’re at.”

This is particularly an issue in low-income communities, experts say, in places like Indianapolis, where upward mobility has proved more challenging than in other American cities.

Wealthier people often have more social capital and more power to put pressure on schools, said Howard Fuller, founder of the now-shuttered Black Alliance for Educational Options, former Milwaukee schools superintendent, and a school-choice advocate.

But in low-income communities, schools “really feel less pressure, because they’re dealing with people who are traditionally powerless,” he said.

Fuller said it’s important for a parent advocacy organization to go beyond engagement, and give parents the power to push for changes.

“The question is, what kinds of parent organizations can be created that are there as a constant — not just for a particular issue or a particular problem,” he said.

The Mind Trust is accepting fellowship applications through March and expects to select a fellow in June.

yes vote

Denver teachers vote to strike in push for higher pay

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association announce the results of their strike vote Tuesday.

Denver teachers voted overwhelmingly to go on strike for the first time in 25 years. Amid a national wave of teacher activism, they’re seeking higher pay and also a fundamental change in how the district compensates educators.

Because of state rules, Monday is the earliest a Denver strike could start.

Ninety-three percent of the teachers and other instructional staff members who voted in a union election Saturday and Tuesday were in favor of a strike, according to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. That surpassed the two-thirds majority needed for a strike to happen.

“They’re striking for better pay, they’re striking for our profession, and they’re striking for Denver students,” said teacher Rob Gould, a member of the union’s negotiation team who announced the strike vote results Tuesday night.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova called the strike vote “not entirely unexpected.”

“From the correspondence that I’ve had with teachers by email and folks that I’ve talked with, it’s really clear there is a lot of frustration on the part of our teachers,” Cordova said.

She has pledged to keep schools open if teachers walk out. In an automated message to parents Tuesday evening, she made it clear that classes will take place as normal Wednesday and “into the foreseeable future.” The district is actively recruiting substitute teachers to fill in during a strike. It is offering to pay them $200 a day, which is double the normal rate.

The strike potentially affects 71,000 students in district-run schools. Another 21,000 students attend charter schools, where teachers are not union members.

Cordova said district officials plan to meet with Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday and share a letter asking for state intervention, which could delay a strike. Denver Classroom Teachers Association officials also plan to meet with Polis Wednesday, according to union Deputy Executive Director Corey Kern.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment cannot impose an agreement between the district and the union, but it can provide mediation or hold hearings to try to bring about a resolution. In 1994, the last time Denver teachers went on strike, Gov. Roy Romer helped negotiate a settlement — after the court refused to order teachers back to work.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to continue to work on finding the common ground,” Cordova said.

The strike vote in Denver comes after a weeklong strike by teachers in Los Angeles. It also follows a wave of activism and agitation for higher teacher pay that began sweeping the country last year. Here in Colorado, teachers from all over the state staged several rallies at the state Capitol last spring, demanding that lawmakers boost funding for the state’s schools.

The issue at hand in Denver is more localized. The teachers union and the school district had been negotiating for more than a year over how to revamp the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, called ProComp.

Late Friday night, an hour and a half before the most recent agreement was set to expire, the union rejected the district’s latest offer. Although the district offered to invest an additional $20 million into teacher pay and revamp ProComp to look more like a traditional salary schedule — which is what the union wanted — union negotiators said the district’s offer didn’t go far enough.

That rejection ended negotiations and set the stage for a strike. The union represents more than 60 percent of Denver’s 5,700 teachers, counselors, nurses, and other instructional staff.

Union officials did not release the number of teachers who voted on the strike or how many members it currently has. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have any purview. Kern said the vote was conducted electronically by a third party.

Cordova is in her third week on the job as superintendent. She has reminded the public repeatedly that she started her career as a Denver teacher and counts several teachers among her best friends. But her pledge to be more responsive than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, has been tested in the bargaining process and now will be tested even further.

Denver teachers have long been frustrated by ProComp. In its most recent iteration, ProComp paid teachers a base salary and then allowed them to earn additional bonuses and incentives for things such as working in a high-poverty school or hard-to-fill position.

Denver voters passed a special tax increase in 2005 to fund the ProComp incentives. The tax is expected to generate $33 million this year.

But many teachers found ProComp confusing. Relying on bonuses and incentives caused their pay to fluctuate in ways that made financial planning difficult, they said.

Chris Landis, a fifth grade teacher at Colfax Elementary, said his salary has varied by as much as $5,000 from one year to the next in the four years he’s been teaching in Denver. He sees the union proposal as creating more stability over the long run, which makes the strike a risk worth taking.

“As someone who wants to be a teacher for the rest of my life, the union proposal has a lot going for it,” he said. “Education is worth fighting for. I’m willing to take a personal hit to guarantee the future for our kids.”

The union wants smaller bonuses and more money for base pay. The union also wants the district to spend roughly $28 million more than it currently does on teacher compensation.

The district’s proposal would have increased base salaries, too, but not by as much. And it would have kept the bonuses and incentives more robust. For example, the district’s offer includes a $2,500 incentive for teachers who teach at schools serving a high proportion of students from low-income families, while the union proposal calls for a $1,500 incentive.

District officials said that incentive is key to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers at high-poverty schools, where teacher turnover can be high, and Cordova does not want to compromise on that.

In the end, the union and the district proposals were separated by about $8 million. District officials said they couldn’t come up with any more money, and would already have to make deep cuts to invest the additional $20 million they proposed.

Teachers called their bluff, pointing to what they called a top-heavy administration and noting that $8 million is less than 1 percent of Denver Public Schools’ annual $1 billion budget.

The strike will put pressure on teachers, too, though. The union has a very modest strike fund. A Go Fund Me started on Jan. 16 had raised a little more than $7,000 when the vote results were announced.

“Everybody is stressed out” about going without pay, said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School, “but this is the sacrifice we’re willing to make.”