Big questions

5 questions on Lewis Ferebee’s record in Indianapolis as he seeks to lead D.C. schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Lewis Ferebee

As Lewis Ferebee faces confirmation hearings before securing the top job in Washington, D.C., schools, his record as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools offers insight into how he would lead.

The D.C. Council has long been expected to sign off on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s superintendent choice, according to the Washington Post, and the council’s chair reportedly said this week that Ferebee remains on track for confirmation. Ferebee is already two weeks into his stint as interim chancellor. Still, council members have vowed a rigorous process.

That process kicked off with a community meeting last week and will continue with a second Wednesday evening. At the third hearing, set for Feb. 12, Ferebee will answer lawmakers’ questions under oath.

That means Ferebee could still face difficult questions about his record, his vision for the future, and how he would adjust to a new district with different priorities and challenges. Here are some questions that council and community members could ask if they want to get a better sense of Ferebee and his potential impact.

Does he think more D.C. schools should operate like charter schools? When his nomination was announced, Ferebee said he did not intend to “transport strategies from Indianapolis.” But he made his name with his cornerstone initiative, “innovation schools” that are part of the district but run by outside operators. Ferebee lobbied Indiana lawmakers to allow the arrangement, and four years after the program launched, innovation schools enroll more than a quarter of Indianapolis Public Schools students. They take many forms, from struggling neighborhood schools that are handed over to charter operators to largely independent charter schools that work with the district.

The endeavor has won Ferebee national attention, and it might be one of the reasons Bowser chose him to lead D.C.’s school system. Does he want to emulate the model in D.C.? If so, what pieces would he want to put in place, which would he want to leave behind, and what challenges would he anticipate in making all of that happen? Those questions would help council members understand how much Ferebee plans to shake up existing schools and how involved he wants to be in the day-to-day operations of local schools. They would also shed light on how developed his thoughts are about the differences between the two districts.

How ready is he for a bigger stage? One big difference that Ferebee can reasonably expect in D.C. is more scrutiny and public criticism than he faced for much of his tenure in Indianapolis. There, he enjoyed unusual support from influential local leaders and the school board that hired him and little organized opposition, in part because of a weakened local teachers union. Washington, As a result, he could make major changes even amid criticism from parents and teachers who sometimes said they felt blindsided by changes and ignored when they offered feedback. (The climate might have been one reason that the sex-abuse reporting scandal that is attracting significant attention in D.C. caused controversy in Indianapolis but did not derail him.)

Even school board members who supported his leadership raised concerns that the district was not doing enough to communicate with and engage families. That pressure is likely to be even stronger in D.C., where the resignation of the last permanent chancellor amid scandal has created a strong appetite for transparency,  a theme at Ferebee’s first confirmation hearing last week. And while the D.C teachers union also is not considered especially powerful, educators everywhere are watching activism get results right now, presenting another opportunity for conflict.

Is Ferebee ready for more scrutiny, more criticism, and more pressure to engage families than he faced before? Council members should listen for indications of how he would weather challenges that are sure to lie ahead and how he plans to adjust his approach to avert them. Doing so could be essential if they want to avoid another confirmation process for another chancellor in the not-too-distant future.

Will he be a leader or a follower? In Indianapolis, Ferebee worked for a school board that largely supported remaking Indianapolis Public Schools into a “portfolio” district that brought charter schools into the fold, a strategy pushed by powerful local allies. He carried out that vision faithfully, expanding innovation schools and joining a common enrollment system used for district and charter schools. And the daylight between him and that coalition rarely showed. How did his decisions in Indianapolis diverge from those advocated by portfolio advocates? In what ways did he push back against the board that hired him? As chancellor in Washington, D.C., will he carry out Bowser’s vision for the schools, continue to pursue the portfolio approach — or develop a new strategy for improving the district? Knowing the answers to those questions will help council members understand how Ferebee sees the role of chancellor and how he would approach the challenge of improving struggling schools.

What is his plan for improving test results for students of color? D.C. is brimming with frustration over the school system’s performance. Earlier this month, council members gave a series of speeches critiquing the schools, with the council chairman describing the gap in passing rates between white students and children of color as “embarrassing.”

As chancellor, Ferebee would be charged with tackling that gap — but his track record for improving test scores for students of color is weak. Observers in D.C. have clearly picked up on that: A recent profile of Ferebee emphasizes the bleak test results for schools under his direct supervision. His allies have pointed to test gains at schools where outside operators have been given vast control day-to-day management. In a system where Ferebee will have a harder time partnering with outside managers, at least without major changes, what are his ideas for achieving a different outcome? And to what extent does oversight of what happens inside classrooms — what students are taught and how — fit into Ferebee’s vision for his chancellorship in D.C.?

What are his personal ambitions? Ferebee has been a fixture on the education policy conference circuit in recent years, stepping away from Indianapolis to represent the district at gatherings of education officials in other cities. This was an approach that elevated the Indianapolis story and his personal profile. Is D.C. the bigger stage Ferebee has been seeking? If the council wants someone focused on local schools and more interested in local solutions than advancing a particular ideology, members should listen closely to how Ferebee responds to questions about his own future.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.