breaking

Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students work on an assignment at Decatur Central High School. (File Photo)

Indiana schools could get two A-F grades in 2018 — one official grade based on state requirements, and a separate calculation based on the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

The proposal comes as changes in graduation rate calculations and dual credit teacher training have complicated the state’s plan to comply with the new law, which went into effect this school year.

There was an opportunity to make adjustments when the plan was introduced in June, but Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indiana education officials endorsed it with few major changes. It’s unclear why separate state and federal grades weren’t considered earlier.

The proposal highlights the pressure Indiana and other states face to quickly adjust to ESSA and changing expectations from Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education. A number of regulations were either thrown out when she came into office or could not be finished in time by the Obama Administration. Indiana, too, saw a dramatic election that brought in a new schools chief, governor and other key education policymakers.

The idea to create dual standards was revealed tonight when Ken Folks, chief of governmental affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, spoke with educators and community members at Noblesville East Middle School.

Adam Baker, state department of education spokesman, said officials need more time to figure out how to meet the federal rules for graduation rate and new regional rules regarding dual credit teaching. Both factor heavily into high school A-F grades, and the changes could result in lower grades for many schools.

“We are trying to support schools and trying to do what’s best to make this transition a lot smoother,” Baker said.

Read: Educators to state officials: ‘Indiana needs just one diploma’

Here’s how it might look:

About a year from now, after students take the spring 2018 ISTEP test, schools will get a letter grade from the state that won’t encompass any of the changes proposed in Indiana’s ESSA plan.

The state grade would determine where a school falls on the timeline for state intervention — public schools, for example, can only have four consecutive years of F grades before takeover or other serious improvement plans are on the table.

But nothing about the ESSA rules will change or pause. Unlike in 2016, federal officials have no plans to give states a reprieve from accountability sanctions. Every school will still receive a percentage calculation based on federal guidelines using the same 100-point scale that state letter grades are based on, where 90 percent is an A, 80 is percent a B, and so on.

The federal calculation would count under rules for identifying struggling schools and those that govern Title I funding. For example, any high school where the four-year federal graduation rate is lower than 67 percent would be considered under “comprehensive support” from the state.

Conversations with the governor’s office and the state board around the specifics of the state/federal split are still happening, Baker said, and the dual system would only be for 2018.

Grades based on 2017 ISTEP tests that are set to come out next month, which schools have already seen, are not part of this change.

This idea was floated a month ago at a state board of education work session that was held to build consensus around the state’s ESSA plan. Board members asked state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and her staff why there couldn’t just be two grades next year.

At the time, Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, McCormick’s chief of staff, told board members that in the past, Indiana did operate two accountability systems, one for state and one for federal.

“The reason Indiana moved from two accountability systems to one was because it was confusing and caused chaos,” she said. “We would have schools that could look very different in the two systems.”

But as the ESSA plan’s due date rapidly approached and diploma and dual credit situations remained in limbo, Baker said the department changed its mind. Keeping the state’s grading system consistent, even if it meant a separate federal piece, ended up making more sense than a series of state grades with big fluctuations.

“The extra time wasn’t like, ‘OK, let’s give ourselves a fifth quarter,” Baker said. “It was more or less like, this is coming down the pipeline — what can we do (for schools)? Our hope is that things will change.”

See all of Chalkbeat Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”

 

Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: