Future of Schools

Top Republican, Democrat take opposite views of NCLB waiver concerns

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Indiana Sen. Minority Leader Tim Lanane, Senate President David Long, House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath (left to right, back row) at a special legislative corrections session last year.
In less than two weeks, Indiana could potentially lose its federal No Child Left Behind law waiver unless state leaders can convince the U.S. Department of Education it is on track to raise its academic standards and institute a tougher state test next year.
Last week, Gov. Mike Pence pledged that Indiana would meet the those expectations. He rejected a suggestion by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz that the state consider asking federal officials for leeway to delay accountability measures, like A to F grades for schools and teacher evaluation based on in part on student test scores.
At stake is Indiana losing control over more than $230 million annually that schools use to pay for programs that benefit poor children.
The U.S. Dept. of Education demanded in early May that Indiana officials show how it planned to meet the promises of a waiver, which the state signed with federal officials in 2012 to release Indiana from sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Chalkbeat asked a top Democrat and a top Republican, who returned to the Statehouse for one day as the legislature took up technical corrections to bills they passed earlier this year in a special session, where they stood on the questions surrounding the waiver.Here’s what they had to say:
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis
On whether the legislature should step in to make sure Indiana retains its NCLB waiver:“We’ve been involved in meeting with both the superintendent and the governor and their staffs and we’ve done some outreach to Washington D.C.. We’re watching this very closely and want to be sure that that waiver stays in place. It’s of utmost importance to the state.”

On taking a pause in accountability:

“(Senate President David) Long, the governor and I are all in agreement that there should be no step back from accountability measures that were difficult to obtain and hard fought. A new test, yes there’s generally some impact of that, but it can be dealt with statistically. There’s no reason to suspend, for two years essentially, the accountability measures that were adopted by the General Assembly.”

On collateral damage from Indiana’s reversal on Common Core:

“There’s some smoke and mirrors pointing in that direction, but the change from Common Core has nothing to do with the NCLB waiver despite some comments from the (Indiana) Department of Education to that effect. It has to do with maintaining accountability. There should be no step back.”

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson

On whether the legislature should step in to make sure Indiana retains its NCLB waiver:

“I really don’t think we should play much of a role. I think we ought to leave that to Supterintendent Ritz. She’s been having the conversations with the federal officials on that and I trust her judgment on these things. As I’ve said on other matters involving her, everyone should step aside and let her do her job.”

On taking a pause in accountability:

“We have a brand new test and we’ve had trouble with tests in the past. This whole issue of how you fairly assign grades and evaluate teachers, I trust (Ritz’s) judgment on. Taking one year out to make sure we’ve got this system done right, to me, that’s a reasonable request.”

On collateral damage from Indiana’s reversal on Common Core:

“One of the reasons this is all happening is because legislators stuck their noses into this thing and messed around with Common Core standards and now it’s resulting in all of these ramifications.”

 

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.