The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of state takeover in Indiana: Getting tough with failing schools

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Arlington High School is one of three schools the administration recommends closing

(This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.)

In 2012, Indiana took a rare approach to trying to fix persistently struggling schools: total takeover. Schools were separated from school district oversight and handed off to be run independently by companies or non-profits under contract with the Indiana State Board of Education.

But like some other changes initiated by former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, the question is whether the policy will last under his replacement Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett in the 2012 election. Ritz contends the approach is unfair and less likely to produce results than providing supports to school districts that oversee failing schools.

In 2014, one operator backed out of their contract to run a state takeover school and Indianapolis Public Schools pushed hard to be reunited with its former schools. The state board struggled to navigate between managing the takeover schools with complete independence or working more closely with IPS.

At issue is whether state takeover is an effective way to to make struggling schools better, as supporters argue, or a way to take public resources and give them to private companies or organizations, as critics have argued.

In other places that have tried state takeovers, it has occurred most often at the district level. More commonly, state takeover has been driven by concerns that were not solely focused on academic struggles. In Cleveland and St. Louis, for example, state takeovers in the past decade have been motivated as much by management troubles in those school districts than just their academic woes.

Protests against state takeover in Indiana did not prevail during Bennett’s tenure, and the state’s approach has since been in the spotlight, with state takeover critics and proponents both eager to be proven right.

Public Law 221

The takeover options first emerged in Indiana emerged with Public Law 221, passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 1999. It gave the state board of education the option of state takeover when a school reached six consecutive years rated in the state’s lowest category (now an F on a A to F grading scale). In those cases, the state board must initiate intervention, the law states. The board has five options to do so:

  • State takeover.
  • Revise the school’s improvement plan.
  • Merge the school with a higher-scoring school.
  • Follow the Indiana Department of Education’s recommendation, such as to assign a “lead partner” organization to offer specialized assistance, such as teacher training or data analysis.
  • Follow options proposed at a public meeting, including closing the school.

The law had never been exercised before 2011, because the school rating system did not start the counting consecutive years in the lowest category until 2005. Some thought state takeover would never be used, but Bennett promised the state board would use its authority to make changes at any school that reached its sixth straight F rating. That summer, seven schools hit the threshold.

The first takeovers

T.C. Howe was turned over to be run by Florida-based Charter Schools USA, along with Emma Donnan Middle School and Manual High School, after the state took them over from IPS.

Five schools entered state takeover in 2012, meaning they were severed from school district control and turned over to private operators.  Four of the five were in Indianapolis. The fifth, Gary’s Roosevelt High School, was handed off to be overseen by Edison Learning of New York.

From Indianapolis Public Schools, Arlington High School was paired with Tindley Schools, a local non-profit charter school operator known for the high-scoring Tindley Accelerated School. Donnan Middle School was given over along with Manual and Howe high schools to Charter Schools USA, a Florida company, to manage.

Two other Indianapolis Public Schools — George Washington and Broad Ripple high schools — were assigned lead partners, a lesser form of intervention. In those cases, private companies were brought in to provide supports, such as teacher training or data analysis.

After a “transition” year, the five schools in state takeover were fully under independent control for the 2012-13 school year. Some of them, notably Howe High School, got off to bumpy starts, prompting parent complaints about safety and academic quality. All of the takeover schools saw steep enrollment drops from their last years of school district control, which the district had projected following an aggressive campaign to invite students at the takeover schools to stay in the district by transferring.

Results unclear

Since the takeover, most of the schools have remained among the worst performers on state tests and only one has risen above an F.

While students at some state takeover schools reported to the Indianapolis Star in 2013 that saw improved discipline and teaching, there was considerable turnover during the school year, suggesting the schools were less stable than before the takeovers.

Consider Indianapolis’ Arlington High School. Early test evidence showed Arlington had the biggest jump in state test scores at middle school grades among the three state takeover schools with middle school grades. But rather than attracting more students as a better performing school, its enrollment saw peaks and valleys. Arlington’s 2011-12 enrollment under IPS — 1,223 — dropped to 518 at the start of takeover the next year. Over the course of the 2012-13 school year 278 students left the school while 181 new students enrolled over the course of the school year, helping the school finish with 421 students on the books.

A change in oversight

Bennett’s 2012 election defeat affected the state’s approach to takeover. Ritz campaigned against state takeover and has said she would not recommend that intervention in the future.

Shortly after her election, the state board struck a deal to hand day-to-day oversight of the four Indianapolis schools in state takeover to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s charter school office.

Ballard promised to subject the takeovers to the same evaluation process that charter schools follow. For more than 20 charter schools, Ballard’s office examines each school’s financial, management and academic success to determine if they should continue to operate. The schools still make regular reports to the Indiana State Board of Education, which remains the final arbiter of the schools’ status.

Emma Donnan Middle School

Problems threaten takeover

In two cases, problems at the schools have raised questions about the long term viability of state takeover.

In Gary, Roosevelt High School has been repeated hampered by facilities problems. During the winter in 2014, heating problems forced the school to close for several days while the school’s operator, EdisonLearning, and the state debated with the Gary school district about who ad responsibility to make fixes.

The district argued that it could not afford to make repairs estimated at well over $1 million to permanently fix the school’s heading system. In the summer of 2014, the school’s water was shut off because the district, which maintains the building, had fallen behind on the bill.

But state education officials struggled to find a remedy. State law is not clear about who is responsible in such instances or how the state can enforce its rulings requiring actions by school district to address concerns at schools in state takeover.

Then in July of 2014, Tindley Schools, the Indianapolis charter school organization that manages the school under contract with the state, exercised a clause in its contract to exit Arlington High School. The group’s leader told the Indiana State Board of Education Tindley simply couldn’t afford to keep managing the school unless it received an additional $2.4 million in aid.

After months of debate, the state board returned Arlington to IPS to manage, but will continue to oversee the school and retains the right to again choose someone else to operate the school.

The problems have some asking if state takeover is still a viable solution for troubled schools or if the state board should reconsider whether to use the process in the future.

-Updated December 2015


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.