Future of Schools

New state board members talk Glenda Ritz, testing, state takeover

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Michele Walker, who heads Indiana's state testing program for the Indiana Department of Education, speaks to the state board earlier this month.

A major overhaul for the Indiana State Board of Education this week, fueled by a change in state law that prompted five new appointments, means new people bringing new opinions to the debates about key issues.

But what do the new board members — a retired superintendent, an online school principal, an energy company official, an assistant superintendent and the CEO of an education non-profit — believe about the big questions facing Indiana’s schools?

Chalkbeat asked each new board member about the same four issues: state takeover, testing, A-to-F grading and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s leadership.

Gov. Mike Pence said his appointments — three new board members and five holdovers — were driven more by state law requirements that dictate where state board members must live, their backgrounds in education and their political affiliations than anything else. Two other new board members were appointed by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

Pence said Thursday he was grateful for the work of those who stepped down or were not reappointed, and he expected the new board would have a positive influence. The board has struggled through turmoil driven by disagreements over policy and procedures the last two years.

“I truly believe this will provide a fresh start for the state board of education,” Pence said. “The reappointments and appointments I think represent a new blend of individuals that I think are going to bring renewed energy, fresh perspective and a level of experience that I’m confident is going to help the board refocus on student achievement.”

Here is where the new board members said they stand on four key questions:

SHOULD INDIANA CONTINUE TO TAKE OVER FAILING SCHOOLS?

Steve Yager, retired superintendent from Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne

Yager said he wouldn’t talk about current state takeover practices until he was able to learn more.

“I’m not well read enough on that to have an opinion before I even take a seat,” Yager said.

Byron Ernest, the head of schools for the online charter school network Hoosier Academies

Ernest has experience with state takeover — he served as the principal of Manual High School in Indianapolis from 2013 to 2014 after it was handed off by the state board to be run by Charter Schools USA.

He said he doesn’t think the current system is necessarily the best one.

“If a school is not performing then I think it’s in the best interests of our students that we put that school in the best position to not be failing,” Ernest said. “Now does that mean that the takeover has to look like what I went to at Manual? No, not necessarily.”

Eddie Melton, community relations manager at Northern Indiana Public Service Company

Melton said state takeover should be a last resort.

The state board, he said, should think about “what can we do collectively to help support school districts so that they can build the systems to be successful.”

He said he didn’t have an opinion about takeovers the board has approved in the past.

“Not being a part of the process in the past, I’m not sure what was done in terms of that,” he said. “So I can’t judge the past of the decisions made. I can just give my perspective moving forward.”

Vince Bertram, the CEO of Project Lead The Way

Bertram said he is a strong believer in accountability but thinks the state needs to take a hard look at whether its current intervention strategies are working. He said he doesn’t know the answer.

“I want to ask us to look deeply at the evidence,” Bertram said. “I think we need to ask ourselves tough questions every day and we need to confront the realities of those answers. Whether it’s a takeover or any other accountability measure, it’s critical we have that kind of introspection.”

Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, an assistant superintendent in Warren Township

Kwiatkowski has more background in state takeover than any board member: she once oversaw the process for the Indiana Department of Education.

In 2011, it was her recommendations the board used when it severed four Indianapolis Public Schools and one school in Gary from district control and handed them off to be run independently.

“They were having tremendous problems,” said Kwiatkowski, who visited all of the schools.

Still, four years after she left that job, Kwiatkowski said she need to brush up on everything that’s happened to those school since before making up her mind if the strategy should be used again.

“I think it would be very important as a board member to look at has it been successful or not,” she said. “I believe every school is very unique.”

HOW WOULD YOU CHANGE ISTEP?

Yager

Yager said he wanted the board to look at a variety of options for moving forward with ISTEP, and he supported a push for a shorter test.

“I’m in favor of shortening the process, but I also know we have to follow federal guidelines,” he said.

Ernest

Ernest thinks Indiana should be able to chart its own course on tests, rather than simply follow what other states are doing.

“I tend to lean on that we need to be doing what’s right for Indiana,” Ernest said. “So that means if we need to individualize that for Indiana and not use something that is ready-made, out-of-the-box to use, then we need to do that.”

Melton

Melton promised to brush up on this issue as well.

“I would definitely want to come in and really study the issues and concerns,” Melton said. “At this point I don’t have any recommendations. I would really be very open into learning more about (educators’) concerns so I can better assess.”

Bertram

Bertram said he believes the current ISTEP exam doesn’t capture a comprehensive picture of student performance.

“The bigger question is how do we effectively measure the outcomes we’re interested in, and are we measuring the right kind of outcomes?” Bertram said. “Is there something better for our students and are we willing to make that kind of commitment? What evidence do we have that any gain on ISTEP is an indicator of improved performance beyond school?”

Kwiatkowski

One thing Kwiatkowski is sure of, as an assistant superintendent in Warren Township, is that Pence was right to complain about the length of ISTEP in February.

“Shortening the time for ISTEP is something we need to do,” she said. “This year ISTEP drug on too long. It affected every student in our schools. Schedules had to be changed. We really had to make adjustments.”

IS AN A-TO-F SCALE A FAIR WAY TO JUDGE SCHOOLS?

Yager

Yager co-chaired with Ritz a committee that made recommendations to the state board that led to the newly retooled A-to-F grading system it approved earlier this month. He said he thinks it’s far better than the one it replaced, especially when it comes to measuring how students have improved.

“I don’t know that there is a perfect answer to the testing situation and how kids should be tested,” Yager said. “But I know that what we have proposed is something that is a lot more fair.”

Ernest

Test scores can only tell us so much, Ernest said. Accountability for schools is important, but it shouldn’t rely solely on what the state can see on tests like ISTEP. Other factors, like classwork, attendance and five-year graduation rate can also provide information about students and understanding about how schools are serving them.

“I just think we need to adapt the accountability to where we are and what we’re doing,” Ernest said. “So, looking more at the student and then what the school is able to do with those students while they have them in their care.”

Melton

Melton said he want to hear more about what people have to say about A-to-F grading.

“That’s something I would definitely want to learn from the community from various parts of the state,” he said.

Bertram

Schools, Bertram said, need freedom and support, and then they can be better judged on their efforts.

“If we’re going to hold schools accountable we (need to be) giving them the resources necessary to effect change,” Bertram said, “the freedom to work outside of a system that’s been proven to not be highly effective.”

Kwiatkowski

Kwiakowski said getting A-to-F grades right, so they are useful to parents and schools, is critical.

“It’s an easy way for parents to understand,” she said. “We really have to make sure the criteria to put grades on schools are looking at the right thing.”

For her district, the grades have mostly seemed fair, Kwiatkowski said.

“They’ve been a pretty good match for us,” she said. “We have some years that we may have some unique circumstance that we think are not fair that one year but overall (the grade were) pretty fair matches.”

HAS GLENDA RITZ BEEN A GOOD LEADER AS STATE SUPERINTENDENT?

Yager

While Ritz has been in office, Yager said he’s only attended a couple state board meetings. He wouldn’t comment on Ritz’s effectiveness as board leader, he said he respects her focus on students.

“She really cares about kids and learning, and I respect that a great deal,” Yager said. “That’s kind of the same thing that I’m interested in — children learning, and girls and boys and what’s best for them.”

Ernest

Petty arguments and politics have no place on the board, Ernest said, no matter who is the leader.

“I think we’ve got to drop that at the door,” he said. “I was appointed by the speaker to, again, help drive good policy, good procedures for Indiana education, and so I’m going to work with whoever is in that position.”

Melton

Melton was the one new board member who said unequivocally that Ritz was doing well.

“I think she’s done a great job in this role,” Melton said. “I’m looking forward to working with her and the entire board.”

Bertram

Bertram said he was eager to begin working with Ritz.

“I would not have accepted this opportunity if I wasn’t interested in working with Superintendent Ritz,” Bertram said. “This is going to require a great deal of collaboration. I look forward to sitting down and finding ways to work together to realize our state’s potential. She has a significant job ahead of her as well as an amazing opportunity to lead education in the state. I think it’s our obligation as a state board to help support that effort. I’m looking ward to sitting down with her and listening and being part of this journey moving forward.”

Kwiatkowski

Kwiatkowski said she has not closely followed state board discussions since leaving the education department. Ritz’s impact on education was hard to judge even for someone who works in public schools, she said, as many factors have been at play.

“We’ve had a lot of changes over the last couple of years,” she said. “We’ve had new standards and new assessments. We’ve had different issues with funding. All of those are complex issues for districts. I don’t think it would be fair for me to say are we better or not better.”

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana’s push to raise teacher pay is creating some unlikely allies

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Middle school math teacher Eliana Moore, left, gives Armando Flynn, 13, some extra attention to help with a lesson in algebra.

It’s not every day that the state’s teachers union, Republican leaders, and education advocacy groups find themselves working toward the same goal. But this year, as Indiana puts teacher pay at the forefront of its legislative priorities, there seems to be an all-hands-on-deck approach to make it happen — and that means some unlikely allies.

During Tuesday’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, House Speaker Brian Bosma announced in a speech to fellow lawmakers that Republican Reps. Bob Behning and Todd Huston — as well as representatives from the Indiana State Teachers Association, advocacy group Stand for Children, and the educator organization Teach Plus — were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget.

“The most important profession for the future is those that serve in our classrooms,” Bosma said, adding that although the state has made increases over the past few years in school funding, pay for teachers has not kept pace even as administrative spending has increased.

It’s an unusual partnership because the teachers union has frequently had tension with Republicans who favor school choice and expanding the state’s charter school and private school voucher programs. The union, which staunchly advocates for traditional public schools, has also clashed over charter partnerships with districts, a model that Teach Plus and Stand for Children have supported, even though they aren’t inherently partisan.

Why now? The combination of local districts struggling to hire teachers and keep them in the classroom and a larger national conversation about teacher compensation has put raising teacher pay in the spotlight, both in Indiana and across the country. Last week, teachers in Portage, Indiana, picketed to push for larger raises as they negotiate a new contract.

“It’s been a crisis that’s been coming — we’ve seen it coming … and finally people are starting to connect the dots between compensation and retention,” said Teresa Meredith, president of ISTA, the state’s largest teachers union. “We finally had to take a step back and say, obviously fighting each other is not getting anything done.”

Meredith said state-driven policies that have led to more testing and dialed up the need for schools to compete for students naturally has resulted in increased spending on staff members who aren’t in the classroom. Now, she said, lawmakers are seeing how that’s affecting school budgets, and, in turn, making it difficult to attract and retain teachers.

The desire to figure out ways to keep teachers in the classroom also brought Teach Plus to the table, said Rachel Hathaway, program manager for the national organization’s Indiana arm. Teach Plus helps train teachers to be policy advocates.

“There is a moment happening this year that can bring folks together to really elevate the profession and support teachers to make sure they are able to stay in the classroom,” Hathaway said. Teach Plus has “a history of knowing the importance of teacher recruitment and retention and ensuring we have high-quality teachers in front of our students.”

And it’s that impact at the classroom level, Stand for Children Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller said, that speaks to his group’s mission. Stand is an organization that aims to help parents learn how to advocate for their children in schools, but the group has been criticized, such as during the recent Indianapolis Public Schools board election, because they do not have to disclose their spending.

“At the end of the day, data shows one of the most important single factors in children’s education is the educator at the front of the room,” Ohlemiller said.

Indiana’s plans for how to boost teacher salaries are expected to come into sharper focus over the next few weeks. But Bosma cautioned again Tuesday that there might not be much extra money to work with, casting some doubt on the state’s ability to raise pay enough to make a meaningful difference for educators across the state.

“We’re going to have more needs, more critical needs, than we have available dollars,” Bosma said.

Bosma wouldn’t offer details about how much money House Republicans would add for teacher pay, but said after funding obligations to the Department of Child Services, that state would have an optimistic $50 million per year in new revenue for other funding requests. If teacher pay were to receive just a piece of that, it would be far less than the $81 million per year or so that Senate Democrats have called for — which they figure would amount to a 5 percent raise for teachers and counselors over the next two years.

And if curbing teacher shortages is as much of a priority as the state’s majority is now pushing, state Democrat leaders say, Indiana needs to prove that come January by making it a meaningful part of the budget.

“We have the resources,” Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, said on Friday when his caucus presented its 2019 priorities. “We can make that sacrifice to make sure our teachers know we respect and appreciate them.”

cry for help

View from the child care trenches: ‘Those of us cleaning the poop are not making it’

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat

At the end of three hours of briefings Monday on advancing care for Illinois’ tiniest residents, an on-the-ground provider’s 3-minute plea shook awake a gathering of the state’s top early childhood leaders and reminded them why they were there.

“We are in a crisis and unable to get help,” said Holtz, who in seven years has cycled through 147 staff members at her two day care centers in south central Effingham.

Turnover in that time among her 35 employees has been enough to staff the two centers more than four times over.

Speaking to the early learning council that directs how the state funds services for children from birth to age 5, Holtz said half of those departing sought better-paying jobs in other fields. Others headed to public school districts that pay better. Some she let go.

“Down here in the trenches, those of us who are cleaning the poop and plunging the toilets — we’re the ones who are not making it,” said Holtz, ticking off how well-intentioned Illinois directives make it tough to run a childcare business. She listed state policies like raising degree requirements for jobs that pay $8.50 to $10.25 an hour in her area, an endless stream of “health and safety” trainings, and lead and radon tests that cost her $1,000 apiece.

In a meeting that focused mainly on future ambitions, Holtz redirected attention to a present hazard: a critical shortage of qualified staffers to work in infant centers, daycare programs, and community-based preschools.  

The issue threatens to undercut any sort of universal pre-K program, which governor-elect J.B. Pritzker pledged to pursue as a candidate.

Preschool expert GG Weisenfeld said Illinois meets many established early learning benchmarks. But the state lags in salary parity. Other shortcomings: a revolving door of the state’s top leadership in early learning and a lack of full-day programs.   

“For preschools housed within public schools, those teachers have salary parity with other teachers,” said Weisenfeld, the lead author of a new state preschool policy scan from the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Unfortunately, when programs are housed in community-based centers, those teachers do not.”

But the state’s powerful Early Learning Council barely touched on that topic at its quarterly meeting Monday.

Holtz, one of only two people to address the council, said she drove several hours from Effingham for her three minutes at the mic. She said she supports the state’s push for better quality, but that effort doesn’t pencil out for her and other caregivers. One state subsidized program for low-income families reimburses her only $23 per day per child. That’s not enough to pay a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree.

“When we do hire them, they uniformly all leave for better pay and benefits — and less stress. The stress is up there with the reasons for leaving, along with pay.”

As Illinois focuses on raising the quality of early learning throughout the state by requiring bachelor’s degrees for lead teachers in preschools, it faces a conundrum: Teachers with college degrees want to and can earn more than minimum wage elsewhere. (A 2017 state report said the median hourly wage for a licensed childcare center teacher was $12.50. Assistant teachers and infant caregivers generally made less.)

Jill Andrews, another downstate center director who heads up the Southern Illinois Child Care Assistance Task Force and made the trek with Holtz, handed out folders with her own set of recommendations.

Among them: raising state reimbursement rates for publicly funded child care programs, helping child care providers qualify for state health insurance, and offering community college credit as an incentive for workers to pursue training.