Looking ahead

Funding for Indiana schools, preschool and teachers have seen major changes. Lawmakers are now taking a second look.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma presents legislative priorities for Indiana House Republicans at the beginning of the session. Bosma is the author of the bill to appoint the next state superintendent, one of this year's priorities.

In the first week of the 2017 legislative session, three education issues — school funding, preschool and teacher pay —  are already getting attention from both sides of the aisle.

Bills will continue to be released over the next week, when testing and other education issues are expected to make an appearance.

School funding

House Republicans are proposing fundamental changes in how money is distributed to school districts.

Instead of funneling all money to school and district general funds, which restrict how the money is spent, it would also be distributed to other parts of their budgets. House Speaker Brian Bosma says this proposal is designed to give schools more decision making power in how they use state money.

The House will release a budget draft in the next month or so, which will offer more details about how this plan would work, and Gov.-Elect Eric Holcomb is expected to present his budget next week.

Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said he hopes traditional public schools’ funding isn’t compromised by growing enrollment in private and charter schools.

“There are communities throughout Indiana that are seeing their school systems asphyxiated by recent changes to state funding,” Pelath said. “I’d like to hear something about the 95 percent of school-age children that are in your traditional public schools.”

Preschool

Advocates had hoped 2017 would be a year of major expansion for the state’s $10 million preschool program, but it’s becoming clear that funding will likely fall short of their expectations.

The program has provided preschool support to about 1,600 kids in five counties, but demand has far exceeded supply.

Bosma said Wednesday that significant growth probably wouldn’t be possible in a year when state revenue is forecasted to be about $300 million short of earlier projections. He has suggested expanding preschool to perhaps 10 counties for $20 million.

For the most part, Indiana Republicans agree on growing the program conservatively. On Thursday, Holcomb announced his proposal to also double the current preschool funding amount to $20 million, but he suggested keeping it within the original five counties.

Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane said he and his caucus have been disappointed in the modest proposals they’ve heard from Republicans.

“I can assure you there are communities around the state that have been working on this, investing in this, and know for their individual communities that this is a good thing,” Lanane said. “Far more than just 10 communities throughout the state.”

Teaching

After Republicans backed major changes to teacher pay in 2011 and 2013, legislative leaders are now saying they might need to reconsider some of them.

Just one week in, lawmakers have already proposed a number of bills dealing with teacher pay. The subject that has garnered considerable attention since news of teacher shortages sprung up in 2015.

Thursday, Bosma even acknowledged that a Republican-led effort passed in 2013 to give high-performing teachers extra pay might have been a mistake given anger over how the bonuses were meted out last month.

“I think we’re going to have to take a hard look at that,” Bosma said. “In fact, it’s received so much criticism and allegations that we disrespected teachers with this, that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. The concept was to reward teachers that are well-rated, and some are upset that there was a disparity in this. That wasn’t our intention.”

WFYI Public Media reported that wealthy school districts received the majority of the $40 million bonus dollars. Carmel teachers received $2,422 per teacher, while those in Wayne Township saw $42 per teacher. The bonuses are based on schools’ ISTEP passing rates and graduation rates, which tend to be higher in wealthier districts. That said, most teachers across the state continued to be rated “effective” or “highly effective,” in both high- and low-performing districts.

The Indiana State Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state, also supports increasing teacher pay. Indiana average teacher salaries rank in the bottom half of states.

ISTA also wants lawmakers to reinstate extra pay for teachers who obtain advanced degrees and address collective bargaining rights, which have been curtailed in Indiana since 2011.

“Our future is directly linked to teacher recruitment and retention,” said ISTA President Teresa Meredith. “We need the best educators to teach our kids and bolster our schools.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: