Future of Schools

In an about-face, Pence joins Ritz in calling for relief from testing sanctions

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Gov. Mike Pence.

Just months ago, Gov. Mike Pence’s fierce opposition to efforts by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to get Indiana to at least consider a “pause” to sanctions for schools, teachers and students for low test scores made the topic political kryptonite.

The Indiana State Board of Education refused to even discuss it when Ritz raised the idea in February.

But today Pence reversed course in a letter to Ritz today suggesting teachers shouldn’t be punished for an expected big dip in ISTEP scores the state board is set to discuss Wednesday.

Another key Republican — Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, quickly issued a statement supporting Pence, changing his position, too.

After months of saying that challenging new state standards and ISTEP tests shouldn’t derail state accountability, Gov. Mike Pence wrote to Ritz:

“Our schools and teachers are doing the same great work today as they did in years past; we are experiencing the normal consequences of higher standards and a new exam. Given the transition Indiana has undergone this year with our academic standards and assessment, our response should reflect fairness to our students, our teachers and our schools.”

Pence said he is asking Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly to create legislation that would ensure “test results will not negatively impact teacher evaluations or performance bonuses this year.”

That move is very much in line with a move Ritz for more than a year has lobbied hard for: a temporary pause in accountability. She raised that idea to the state board more than once, only to be shot down each time.

Samantha Hart, Ritz’s spokeswoman, said Ritz welcomes the governor’s decision, but it’s too little, too late given the worry it’s already caused teachers and schools.

“Superintendent Ritz supports strong accountability as long as it is fair, open and transparent,” Hart said in a statement. “The superintendent looks forward to working with Indiana’s leadership to take advantage of federal flexibility for both teacher evaluations and the assignment of A-F accountability grades for the 2014-15 school year.”

As recently as this past spring, after issuing an executive order to shorten ISTEP tests that had grown to more than 12 hours for some students, Pence said accountability was of paramount importance, regardless of changes to tests or standards.

“We grade our kids every day,” Pence said at a press conference in early February. “We can test and grade our schools every year.”

In June of 2014, Pence followed a newspaper column from Ritz advocating for an accountability pause with a letter directly to Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, saying a move like this would never happen on his watch.

“Indiana will not go backwards when it comes to measuring performance in our schools on my watch,” he said in the letter to Duncan. “We do not support a pause in accountability as it relates to delivering A to F grades to schools, determining intervention strategies in under-performing schools, or teacher evaluations that reflect classroom performance.”

In Long’s statement today he applauded Pence, but he contradicted his own position from February.

“As we make this transition with our new standards and test, it is important to be as fair as possible to our students, teachers and schools,” Long said in a statement. “It appears that accomplishing this goal may require legislative action, and Senate Republicans are prepared to act as needed. I’m confident we can find a way to modify portions of our accountability system for one year without suspending it.”

Just eight months ago, after Pence dramatically called for rush legislation to shorten ISTEP, Long was on the other side of the fence.

He sent a letter to the state board saying accountability should in no way be changed for one year of test scores. The state’s accountability system primarily affects teacher evaluation ratings and school A-to-F grades. The ratings can block teachers from raises and poor grades can lead schools into state takeover.

“At no time did I suggest that pause in accountability was appropriate; in fact, I expressed grave concern at the impact this delay would have on our children,” Long wrote in a letter from Feb. 11. “I, along with Speaker (Brian) Bosma, support Governor Pence taking bold action to ensure accountability remains in place.”

Pence’s letter to Ritz today isn’t clear about what could happen to A-to-F grades or if they’d be included in the proposed legislation.

“It is important to ensure that our A-F system fairly reflects the efforts of our students and teachers during this transition year,” Pence said. “I welcome recommendations from the board as we craft solutions that preserve accountability and transparency for Indiana’s academic system.”

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”