Top teacher

She went from corporate America to the classroom. Now she’s Indiana’s 2019 Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Tamara Markey was named 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year.

Tamara Markey’s path to becoming a teacher was circuitous. She earned an engineering degree, worked in the oil industry, and was a stay-at-home mom before her life-changing decision to study education.

Now, just a few short years into her teaching career, she has won a stunning accolade: 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year.

Markey, who teaches high school pre-engineering at the McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology in Lawrence Township, learned of the award at a surprise ceremony Thursday where she was surrounded by students, colleagues, and family.

“When we talked to you, our team came back after interviews and was like, ‘We got the girl. We got the one,’ ” said Indiana State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. “Your whole demeanor is passion.”

Over the next year, Markey will have a rare platform to speak publicly about education issues by supporting Indiana Department of Education initiatives and serving as a voice for teachers. As the Indiana Teacher of the Year, she will also be considered for National Teacher of the Year. Markey was stunned by the recognition.

“This is truly an honor to be able to represent all of the teachers, educators in the State of Indiana,” said Markey, who teaches courses from Project Lead the Way, a non-profit organization that provides training and curriculum for project-based learning. “This is the best job that anyone could have. It’s such a privilege, truly a privilege to be an educator.”

For her students, Markey’s selection as state teacher of the year was not much of a surprise.

“I think she’s a really good teacher,” said 10th-grader Jeremiah Smith, who takes engineering and design with Markey. “She always has us something to do, and all the work she does leads us up to build us into what we want to be.”

Over the next year, Markey said she plans to advocate for the importance of meeting the needs of students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as well as “diversity that’s beyond just what the eye sees.”

“If we are able to incorporate and connect learning to our students’ experiences, that’s when magic really happens in the classroom,” Markey said.

As a teacher in Lawrence, Markey has led an effort to encourage girls to study science, technology, engineering, and math. The program connects middle school girls with mentors from the community in engineering or technological fields. It appears to be paying off by increasing the number of girls who take STEM courses in high school, Markey said.

For Markey, teaching has always been a passion but it took her years to make it to the classroom. As a college student, she put aside her love for education for a higher-paying career in engineering.

“I had a counselor say, ‘You know, you’re black, you’re female, and you’re good at math and science. You need to be an engineer,’ ” she said. “But that desire to teach never went away.”

After graduating from Purdue University with a degree in industrial engineering, Markey worked in the oil industry for about nine years. Then, she left that career to stay at home with her children for 12 years. As a stay at home mom, she was active in her children’s schools, allowing her to satisfy a little bit of her desire to be involved in education, Markey said.

Five years ago, she made a dramatic change, going back to school to study education through a Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow.

When Markey was working in the oil industry, her husband Maurice Markey said he could tell she only did the job because it was expected of her. Now that she’s teaching, she comes home excited about her job every day. “She just has a genuine passion for teaching and what she does,” he said.

Charter strike

Chicago charter files federal labor complaint against union over strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, left, met Dec. 7, 2018, with striking Acero teachers and their supporters, who were protesting at his office.

As the acrimonious teacher strike against Acero charter schools wound down its fourth day, both sides ratcheted up pressure, neither giving any indication of backing down.

The charter network sought a court order to halt the strike, and filed a federal complaint claiming that the strike was illegal.

Meanwhile, powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas heavy with Acero schools, addressed strikers who had marched into his office Friday.

“My heart is with you,” Burke told them. He promised to speak with Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez in an effort to end the strike before Monday, according to both Burke’s office and Acero.

Some 30 teachers and parents wedged into the foyer of Burke’s office between a lit-up Christmas tree and a statute of a horse wearing a green beanie labeled “Ald. Ed Burke.”

They demanded that he use his clout to pressure Rodriguez to agree to teachers’ contract demands, among them smaller class sizes and better compensation for teachers and paraprofessionals. Later Friday, Acero issued a statement confirming that the two, political allies, had met. The network did not explain the content or nature of the discussion.

About 500 teachers have been striking since Tuesday, with 7,500 students out of school. Seven of Acero’s 15 schools are in Burke’s ward.

Acero filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the Chicago Teachers Union and is appealing to the National Labor Relations Board to halt the strike. The charter management organization also sought a temporary restraining order to force teachers back to work. You can read the NLRB complaint below.

In response, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a press release, “Acero’s management is desperate and our pressure is working.” He insisted that the strike is a legal protest over wages and working conditions.

In response to strikers’ accusations that Rodriguez is uninvolved in the negotiations, Acero also issued a statement insisting that Rodriguez had met with management negotiators throughout the talks. Union officials have complained of Rodriguez being absent from the bargaining table.

Acero’s roots

Acero, once the nation’s largest Hispanic charter school operator, sprang from a community organizing tool to build Latino political power on Chicago’s Southwest side.

The history of Acero illustrates how charter schools in Chicago are intertwined in local politics, and how their growth would have been impossible without political support.

The United Neighborhood Organization was founded in 1984 by a Jesuit priest who recognized the struggle of immigrants in Chicago’s fast-growing Mexican-American community. Soon a South Side community organizer named Danny Solis joined and turned the organization’s focus first to local school politics and eventually to citywide influence.

Over the years, UNO’s power in neighborhoods grew as it nurtured local leaders like Juan Rangel, who eventually became CEO of the network. Both Rangel and Solis also ran for aldermanic positions, with Solis eventually winning an appointment in 1995 as alderman of the 25th ward, which encompassed the Pilsen neighborhood.

Rangel, meanwhile, had worked his way to the head of UNO just as then-Mayor Richard Daley and his school leadership team were ushering in an era of school choice in Chicago, and looking for community groups to take up the mantle.

“When charters emerged, UNO was one of the first entries into the charter market,” said Stephanie Farmer, a professor of sociology at Roosevelt University who researches charter school finance. “They did work their political connections to get state funding.”

UNO first proposed two charter schools in 1997.  Two decades later, it runs 15 schools spread across both the Southwest and Northwest sides of the city.

Enter Ed Burke. Halfway through an ambitious construction project for a new campus, UNO ran out of money and was forced to turn to its political allies, among them Burke, who helped the network get a $65 million low-interest loan from bankers. Several years later, Rangel supported Burke’s brother in his run for an Illinois House seat.

Farmer called this a clear example of the benefits of political patronage, without which Acero could not have grown as much as it has.

“They became patronage benefactors. It was both a way for UNO to build political power and then also a way for Burke to solidify his relations with the Latino political machine,” she said. “They were the only [charter school] who got as much state money as they did for the buildings.”

Rangel’s tenure at UNO ended abruptly and in disgrace. Accused of nepotism and misusing public funds, and under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he quit.

The charter school arm of UNO formally separated from the organization in 2013 and, in 2015, renamed itself the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN). In 2017, it rebranded itself as Acero in an effort to distance itself from Rangel’s misdeeds.

Today, charters in Chicago face a harsher climate than they did during Acero’s initial expansion.

Chicago Public Schools recommended this week that the school board deny all new charter applications for the next school year, bending to the political tide rising against the independently operated public schools. And the state’s new governor, Democratic businessman J.B. Pritzker, said while campaigning that he supported a moratorium on new charters.

But Burke’s ability to call Acero’s CEO and encourage him to come to an agreement shows that politics may still play a significant role in the charter industry.

It also shows a more critical turn both toward machine politics and education in Chicago, Farmer said,  “The strikers are highlighting that Burke’s machine doesn’t work for the ward’s children.”



money matters

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb proposes pumping brakes on teacher pay, cutting performance bonuses

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

As educators and lawmakers call for increases in teacher pay, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is suggesting a far more measured approach, potentially tempering expectations that meaningful raises could be possible in the coming two years.

In his legislative agenda announced Thursday, Holcomb proposed devoting 2019 to studying teacher pay — how much money would be needed, how the state can ensure districts direct funds to salaries, and what amount makes Indiana competitive with surrounding states. He suggested that actual raises might not come until following years.

“We want to do it right, and it’s a big number. We have some ground to make up here,” Holcomb, a Republican entering his third year as governor, said. “And we want to … make sure we are showing local communities that the state is investing in them. We want them to have local control.”

It’s not clear if lawmakers will go along with this plan, however, as some have already made strong calls for upping teacher pay, which even by conservative estimates would probably cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Democrat Phil GiaQuinta, the House Minority Leader from Fort Wayne, said the governor should take bolder steps to “increase teacher pay right now. We don’t need to study this issue before making a final decision.”

With the upcoming year projected to have a tight budget and little new revenue available, Holcomb also proposed eliminating $30 million in annual performance bonuses for teachers, and he is not supporting an increase in state money for pre-Kindergarten.

Instead, Holcomb is suggesting to split the $30 million bonus pool in two other efforts that his administration said are more equitable and impactful: sending about $20 million per year in overall state aid for districts, and putting the remaining $10 million per year toward increasing teachers’ school supply tax credit, from $100 to $500.

His decision to not support an increase in pre-K funding is a departure from years past, and flies in the face of advocates calling for Indiana to make pre-K accessible statewide to 4-year-olds from low-income families. In 2017, Holcomb was a key force in the decision to nearly double the state’s investment in its pre-K voucher program, known as On My Way Pre-K.

Essentially, officials with the Holcomb administration said Indiana can do more with the $20 million per year that it’s already spending on pre-K. One goal would be adding 500 students to the program each year by widening application windows and creating a website where families can apply for the vouchers, rather than in person during business hours. The program, currently serving about 3,000 students across 20 counties, is heading into the fourth year of its five-year pilot.

Officials from Holcomb’s office said that available federal dollars have increased from prior years, putting less pressure on the state to set aside more money. The state is also pursuing another federal grant, which could bring in up to $10 million to help preschool providers identify and address gaps in their current offerings.

Then, in 2021, officials would ask for more state dollars to expand the program to more counties and families, Holcomb’s staff said. Last month, House Speaker Brian Bosma said he would support adding more money to the program so long as it was focused on low-income families, but he also raised the possibility that the state might have to rely on federal funding.

Lawmakers can choose whether to follow Holcomb’s lead, but the governor doesn’t craft legislation. He can, however, veto bills at the end of the General Assembly’s session.

Holcomb, a Republican entering his third year as governor, did not outline exactly what he wants to spend on K-12 through 2021, deferring those specifics until the state releases its final revenue forecast of the year, although he did call for adding dollars to the state’s overall school funding. A budget proposal from the governor’s office is expected in early January.

The governor also wants to:

  • Set aside about $3 million per year to fund computer science training for teachers.
  • Move up the date to appoint the state’s next schools chief, from 2025 to 2021.
  • Require students to enroll in a one-semester class as freshman or sophomores that introduces them to college and career planning.
  • Change the career and technical education funding formula to favor classes that result in students earning a certificate or credential before they graduate.
  • Loosen the rules for workplace specialist licenses, which allow people with experience in skilled trades to become high school CTE teachers.

The rest of Holcomb’s agenda revolved around workforce development, expanding the state’s trail system, combating the health and mental effects of substance abuse, and creating a hate crimes law.

Read more from Chalkbeat: ‘Indiana’s war on teachers is winning’: Here’s what superintendents say is causing teacher shortages

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

Indiana faces a tight budget in 2019, lawmakers say. Will expanding pre-K be in the cards?