Who Is In Charge

Educators worry legislature's effort to cut red tape could go too far

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

When are state rules for schools “distractions” or “red tape” and when do they matter to protecting kids or helping them learn?

That question is at the heart of a wide-ranging bill in Indiana Senate intended to reduce unnecessary regulation, but which has raised alarms among some educators that the roll backs could end up hindering efforts to support student learning.

Senate Bill 500 includes changes to rules on everything from firing teachers to collecting data to bullying to public school accreditation. The bill resulted from conversations Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, had with school leaders across the state, he said, who wanted fewer regulations to allow more focus on learning. Miller said part of the goal is to eliminate areas of law that are conflicting, obsolete or duplicate requirements in other parts of state law.

One example is portion of the bill aimed at cutting down the reams of data schools must report to the state.

Russ Skiba, an Indiana University professor and director of the school’s Equity Project, said the bill would repeal of laws that ask schools to collect statistics on gender, race, ethnicity, disability status of students who are expelled or suspended. The state would never have learned that serious school discipline is disproportionately applied at much higher rates for black students — news that made headlines last year — if schools weren’t asked to collect that data.

That information was so valuable that other bills were introduced this year to try to foster fairer discipline in schools based on data showing those disparities.

“(Removing) these reporting requirements would severely hamper our state and local school districts making decisions based on that data,” Skiba said. “When we don’t look at data, we place ourselves at risk.”

Superintendents from across the state, as well representatives from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the lobbying arm of education policy nonprofit the Institute for Quality Education, said they broadly agreed with the bill’s goal to get rid of administrative burdens on schools that keep them from focusing on teaching students.

“This is what I would call the boots-on-the-ground bill,” said Michael Beresford, assistant superintendent with Hamilton Southeastern schools. “This is something that will have immediate impact on schools in Indiana.”

But teachers and others said this bill is about much more than reporting.

For example, one provision would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to waive nearly any state rule or law it chooses at the request of a school. Gail Zeheralis, an Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist, said that could apply to collective bargaining, protection of personal data and other important rules.

“It’s also kind of a huge ‘trust-us’ bill because there are reasons that laws emerge and rules apply,” Zeheralis said. “If this were just about reports and reporting and obsolete statues, that would be one thing. But 44 percent of it constitutes policy changes.”

While there was support for getting rid of laws that several speakers did say seemed obsolete — does a requirement to teach about Arbor Day belong in state law, Miller asked? — some of the targeted regulations address important matters such as student health and safety. That seemed especially odd to John Barnes, state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s lobbyist, given that one of the General Assembly’s biggest priorities was student safety just a couple years ago, he said.

Another example: High school senior Hunter Sego and his mom, Kathy Sego, implored the committee not to repeal the 2007 Diabetes School Care Act, which allows students to carry and self-administer diabetes medication and trains teachers and school staff to help them if needed. Before the bill was passed, Hunter Sego said his school was “effectively punishing” him for having diabetes.

“If you take this away, we lose our immunity to do the right thing,” Kathy Sego said. “As a teacher, I want to do the right thing, and as a parent, I expect teachers to do the right thing.”

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said he was concerned that the committee wouldn’t have time to read the full 300-plus page bill and discuss all its key elements before a vote. That could shelve the whole idea of a major deregulation effort this year.

“This could be an insurmountable task for us to accomplish during this session,” Kruse said. “I have concerns here that we are not going to be able to do justice and the proper job in the limited amount of time that we have.”

The bill is expected to be voted on next week. The education committee considered six other bills today:

  • STEM dual-credit associate degree pilot programSenate Bill 259. The bill would create a pilot program of five high schools, to be chosen by the Indiana Department of Education, to allow students to take classes toward an associate’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math by the time they graduate high school. The bill passed committee 9-0 and will be next heard on the senate floor.
  • Bilingual recognitionSenate Bill 267. The bill would give bilingual high school students a special certificate. The bill passed 9-0 to go to the full senate.
  • School counselorsSenate Bill 277. Committee chairman Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, withdrew a bill that would have called for at least one school counselor in every elementary school in the state, not including charter or private schools, effectively killing it. Kruse said he heard a number of concerns about the bill, including its $60 million price tag.
  • Teaching ethnic historySenate Bill 495. The bill would require elementary and high schools to teach about ethnic minority groups in their social studies curriculum. The bill passed 8-2. Sen. Peter Miller, R-Avon, and Sen. Amanda Banks, R-Columbia City, voted no.
  • The “Merry Christmas” bill, Senate Bill 233. This bill would add language to current law to allow schools to have displays related to winter holidays, both religious and secular. Author Sen. James Smith, R-Charlestown, said that although these things are already legal, the bill gives schools additional support against lawsuits. The bill was held for a vote next week.
  • School discipline, Senate Bill 443. Authored by Kruse, the bill would prevent schools from suspending or expelling students based solely on attendance. It also provides grant money for schools to adopt positive, “evidence-based” discipline approaches and training for teachers and staff. The bill will be taken up for a vote by the committee next week.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.