analysis

Why Colorado’s testing opt-out movement could struggle to build on 2015’s big numbers

Fairview High School seniors protest CMAS tests during the 2014-15 school year (photo by Nicholas Garcia).

A year ago, thousands of Colorado students, parents and educators fed up with state tests used to hold schools, districts and teachers accountable said enough was enough.

More than 100,000 kids in grades three through 11 did not take new tests in math and language arts designed to measure how well they stack up to state academic standards.

Only about half of the state’s 11th graders took the exams. Just one grade — third — saw participation rates hit the 95 percent threshold set as the minimum required under federal law.

Colorado had become an epicenter of the opt-out movement.

This year, things are different.

Here are five reasons opt-out organizers may have a hard time building on that momentum this testing season:

There are fewer tests, and they’re shorter.

On the very last day of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers passed compromise legislation that pared back state assessments. Not everyone was satisfied, but the political dynamics of shared governance meant pragmatism was going to win out.

The biggest headline was the elimination of PARCC language arts and math tests in 10th and 11th grades — and the preservation of ninth grade tests at the insistence of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose veto pen held sway over the spring.

The biggest reason why PARCC opt-out numbers will plummet this year: High school sophomores and juniors accounted for more than half — 53,000 — of the roughly 104,000 Colorado students who did not take PARCC exams last spring, according to state data.

At the same time, PARCC exams got a little shorter for the states that remain in the increasingly skeletal multi-state collective that give the online Common Core tests.

At least one Colorado opt-out activist has said the goal for this year is to grow the number of opt-outs three-fold — to 300,000.

But former teacher Angela Engel, founder and executive director of United for Kids, a volunteer-run nonprofit that focuses not just on opt-out but more broadly on equity, innovation and organizing parents, cautioned against using raw numbers as a measuring stick.

With 10th and 11th grade PARCC testing gone, Engel argues the strength of the opt-out movement is better measured in the percentage of students that opt-out this spring.

“One of my concerns is that it’ll appear that opt-out is actually on the decline, when it’s not,” she said. “What is in decline is the amount of testing.”

Two opt-out hot spots last year report things haven’t changed much so far this year. In the Boulder Valley School District, about half of ninth-graders, a quarter of middle-schoolers and one in 10 elementary school students have opted out of PARCC this spring, officials say. The Cherry Creek School District says opt-out figures there are tracking with last year’s, too.

Colorado Education Commissioner Rich Crandall told Chalkbeat earlier this spring he expects much greater participation rates on this year’s state tests.

“I think we’re in a fair place,” Crandall said of Colorado’s testing landscape. “It’s definitely not too much testing, and I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.”

The political noise has quieted — for now.

A year ago, backlash against Common Core standards and the debut of PARCC tests dominated headlines. As online PARCC tests arrived — and not without glitches — state lawmakers got to work.

Not only was testing reform the signature education issue of the session, it was one of the biggest issues of the session, period.

Even before the 2016 General Assembly began, lawmakers signaled they were tired of it. Consider this, from a Democrat on the Senate Education Committee:

Sure enough, attempts to further chisel away at testing have fizzled this year.

On Tuesday, a bill that would have eliminated mandatory ninth grade PARCC tests died a swift death on the Senate floor. That the measure couldn’t even clear the Republican-controlled Senate — where it stood a far better chance of passage — tells you all you need to know.

There’s another reason for Colorado’s acceptance of the status quo this year: The long-in-the-making rewrite of the nation’s primary K-12 education law gives states greater flexibility to strike out on their own when it comes to what testing looks like and how it relates to accountability.

Crandall has not been shy about wanting to put Colorado at the front of the line in seeking this flexibility. Lawmakers have expressed interest in doing the same, when the time is right.

Colorado’s break from the testing wars may end up being a one-year cease fire.

There’s little evidence — so far — the opt-out movement is getting more diverse.

You might have seen the Twitter hashtag #optoutsowhite.

That the opt-out movement’s biggest numbers lie in wealthy white suburban enclaves such as south suburban Denver and Boulder County is indisputable.

Last year in Colorado, white students were disproportionately represented in the group that did not take PARCC tests, state data shows. Across all tested grades, about 78 percent of white students took the tests, while 85 percent of black students and 88 percent of Hispanic students did. Fewer than 9 percent of those who missed the exams last spring were eligible for free and reduced lunch status — an indicator of poverty.

It’s unclear how many students skipped the tests in protest or missed them for other reasons. (The figures above were calculated using the English tests; math participation was comparable).

An opt-out billboard near Abraham Lincoln High School in heavily Latino southwest Denver (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat).
An opt-out billboard near Abraham Lincoln High School in heavily Latino southwest Denver (Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat).

As Politico noted earlier this spring, the opt-out movement is working to diversify it ranks and persuade minority parents that state tests are bad for their kids.

In Colorado, a small-scale billboard campaign encouraging opt-out this spring is focused not on minority communities but rather high-population centers, said Engel, of United for Kids. Five billboard designs picturing children who are opting out — one of them an African-American girl — are on display along the Front Range.

Jennilynne Coley is a Cherry Creek School District parent who is refusing to allow her African-American son to take state tests this spring at Laredo Middle School in Aurora.

Coley said she doesn’t think the tests accurately measure his intelligence or chances of success. She believes the tests are used unfairly against teachers in evaluations and determining their pay. And she is convinced the focus on testing unduly influences classroom teaching.

I asked Coley why more parents of students of color haven’t embraced the opt-out movement.

“When you don’t understand or know how the system works, you don’t understand you do have power and you do have a voice and you can speak up,” said Coley, who is self-employed.

She went on to say that minority parents are more likely to listen to school leaders and other authority figures, and are “busy taking care of their families and trying to survive.”

At the same time, standardized testing supporters are working to shore up support in minority communities, arguing that mass opt-outs will once again obscure achievement gaps that No Child Left Behind-era testing finally brought to the surface.

The opt-out movement — and the motivations behind it — is diffuse.

If it feels hard to get your hands around the opt-out movement, you’re not imagining things.

There is no one dominant organization, no one-stop shop for information. The movement is comprised of a few volunteer-run groups with not a lot of money, and engaged parents and students who are relying primarily on word of mouth and social media to spread their message.

“It’s pretty diffuse,” said former Jefferson County school board member Paula Noonan, who has an ear to the ground on opt-out doings. “It’s generally grassroots and under the radar.”

In late February in Los Angeles, I moderated an Education Writers Association panel on the opt-out movement. To open the discussion, I posed this question to Robert Schaeffer, a longtime critic of standardized testing who is public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing:

“What is the ultimate goal of opt-out? Is it to eliminate accountability-based standardized testing altogether? To reduce the volume of testing? To uncouple tests from school accountability and teacher evaluations? All of the above?”

Schaeffer’s reply, roughly paraphrased: All of the above.

While the loose structure and a wide range of agendas can prove beneficial, it also makes growing a movement challenging.

Opt-outs rates are likely to rise in some places — in ninth grade, certain high schools and some rural districts — but not enough to offset these other factors.

Let’s be clear: The opt-out movement in Colorado is not just limping along, nor is it going anywhere. It’s hard to imagine parents who opposed testing all of a sudden last year having a change of heart.

Schools in high-performing, affluent suburban areas with high opt-out rates last year may very well top them this year.

Carla Farris speaks about opting her daughter out of standardized testing in Douglas County last year (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post).
Carla Farris speaks about opting her daughter out of standardized testing in Douglas County last year (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post).

Parents in rural districts that didn’t see much opt-out activity last year may look at what happened in other rural communities last year and join the cause.

One thing seems a safe bet: lower participation in ninth-grade PARCC exams — possibly much lower.

It’s easy to envision high school freshmen looking at their older classmates and saying, “If they don’t have to take these tests, why should I?” An underwhelming number of students taking ninth grade tests would provide more ammunition to backers of finding alternative tests for freshmen.

Reports also are trickling in of poor participation on high school science tests — these are Colorado-only tests, not part of PARCC — in some school and districts.

Noonan, the former Jeffco board member, said Colorado opt-out activists are focusing efforts on elementary schools, where testing participation is high. You can see the logic — start ’em young. But it might be prove a tough sell.

“For the most part, at the elementary level, there is still value in knowing how our students are doing,” said Norm Alerta, director of assessment and evaluation in the Cherry Creek district.

Proponents of Colorado’s academic standards and aligned tests, meanwhile, hold out hope that year one was the toughest, and that more people will buy into the tests once they get used to them and get a fuller picture of student performance.

“Going into the second year, we’re going to start to see growth data and more information because we can compare the results to previous years,” said Reilly Pharo Carter, executive director of Climb Higher Colorado, which champions the tests.

The state’s official testing window closes Friday, and a full picture of participation rates will not be available for a few months.

Absent the political rancor, tests in two critical high school grades or significant progress in growing and diversifying their ranks, anti-testing activists’ goal of building on the momentum of last year’s big opt-out numbers faces a tough test.

yes vote

Denver teachers vote to strike in push for higher pay

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association announce the results of their strike vote Tuesday.

Denver teachers voted overwhelmingly to go on strike for the first time in 25 years. Amid a national wave of teacher activism, they’re seeking higher pay and also a fundamental change in how the district compensates educators.

Because of state rules, Monday is the earliest a Denver strike could start.

Ninety-three percent of the teachers and other instructional staff members who voted in a union election Saturday and Tuesday were in favor of a strike, according to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. That surpassed the two-thirds majority needed for a strike to happen.

“They’re striking for better pay, they’re striking for our profession, and they’re striking for Denver students,” said teacher Rob Gould, a member of the union’s negotiation team who announced the strike vote results Tuesday night.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova called the strike vote “not entirely unexpected.”

“From the correspondence that I’ve had with teachers by email and folks that I’ve talked with, it’s really clear there is a lot of frustration on the part of our teachers,” Cordova said.

She has pledged to keep schools open if teachers walk out. In an automated message to parents Tuesday evening, she made it clear that classes will take place as normal Wednesday and “into the foreseeable future.” The district is actively recruiting substitute teachers to fill in during a strike. It is offering to pay them $200 a day, which is double the normal rate.

The strike potentially affects 71,000 students in district-run schools. Another 21,000 students attend charter schools, where teachers are not union members.

Cordova said district officials plan to meet with Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday and share a letter asking for state intervention, which could delay a strike. Denver Classroom Teachers Association officials also plan to meet with Polis Wednesday, according to union Deputy Executive Director Corey Kern.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment cannot impose an agreement between the district and the union, but it can provide mediation or hold hearings to try to bring about a resolution. In 1994, the last time Denver teachers went on strike, Gov. Roy Romer helped negotiate a settlement — after the court refused to order teachers back to work.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to continue to work on finding the common ground,” Cordova said.

The strike vote in Denver comes after a weeklong strike by teachers in Los Angeles. It also follows a wave of activism and agitation for higher teacher pay that began sweeping the country last year. Here in Colorado, teachers from all over the state staged several rallies at the state Capitol last spring, demanding that lawmakers boost funding for the state’s schools.

The issue at hand in Denver is more localized. The teachers union and the school district had been negotiating for more than a year over how to revamp the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, called ProComp.

Late Friday night, an hour and a half before the most recent agreement was set to expire, the union rejected the district’s latest offer. Although the district offered to invest an additional $20 million into teacher pay and revamp ProComp to look more like a traditional salary schedule — which is what the union wanted — union negotiators said the district’s offer didn’t go far enough.

That rejection ended negotiations and set the stage for a strike. The union represents more than 60 percent of Denver’s 5,700 teachers, counselors, nurses, and other instructional staff.

Union officials did not release the number of teachers who voted on the strike or how many members it currently has. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have any purview. Kern said the vote was conducted electronically by a third party.

Cordova is in her third week on the job as superintendent. She has reminded the public repeatedly that she started her career as a Denver teacher and counts several teachers among her best friends. But her pledge to be more responsive than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, has been tested in the bargaining process and now will be tested even further.

Denver teachers have long been frustrated by ProComp. In its most recent iteration, ProComp paid teachers a base salary and then allowed them to earn additional bonuses and incentives for things such as working in a high-poverty school or hard-to-fill position.

Denver voters passed a special tax increase in 2005 to fund the ProComp incentives. The tax is expected to generate $33 million this year.

But many teachers found ProComp confusing. Relying on bonuses and incentives caused their pay to fluctuate in ways that made financial planning difficult, they said.

Chris Landis, a fifth grade teacher at Colfax Elementary, said his salary has varied by as much as $5,000 from one year to the next in the four years he’s been teaching in Denver. He sees the union proposal as creating more stability over the long run, which makes the strike a risk worth taking.

“As someone who wants to be a teacher for the rest of my life, the union proposal has a lot going for it,” he said. “Education is worth fighting for. I’m willing to take a personal hit to guarantee the future for our kids.”

The union wants smaller bonuses and more money for base pay. The union also wants the district to spend roughly $28 million more than it currently does on teacher compensation.

The district’s proposal would have increased base salaries, too, but not by as much. And it would have kept the bonuses and incentives more robust. For example, the district’s offer includes a $2,500 incentive for teachers who teach at schools serving a high proportion of students from low-income families, while the union proposal calls for a $1,500 incentive.

District officials said that incentive is key to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers at high-poverty schools, where teacher turnover can be high, and Cordova does not want to compromise on that.

In the end, the union and the district proposals were separated by about $8 million. District officials said they couldn’t come up with any more money, and would already have to make deep cuts to invest the additional $20 million they proposed.

Teachers called their bluff, pointing to what they called a top-heavy administration and noting that $8 million is less than 1 percent of Denver Public Schools’ annual $1 billion budget.

The strike will put pressure on teachers, too, though. The union has a very modest strike fund. A Go Fund Me started on Jan. 16 had raised a little more than $7,000 when the vote results were announced.

“Everybody is stressed out” about going without pay, said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School, “but this is the sacrifice we’re willing to make.”

Challenge

Rocked by scandal, a weakened IPS teachers union faces an uncertain future

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Veteran educator Lora Elliott grew suspicious of the Indianapolis Education Association last year when just 3.9 percent of members voted in the annual election.

The anger was palpable when more than 50 teachers gathered for their monthly union meeting on the northeast side of Indianapolis. The crowd was about twice as large as usual, with many newcomers packed into the conference room.

Frustrated teachers raised a litany of issues, including potential layoffs, hundreds of high school teachers displaced, and a recent Indianapolis Education Association election in which just 3.9 percent of members voted. Then, veteran educator Lora Elliott stood clutching a statement that stretched more than four single-spaced pages. Among her complaints: that the union was failing to follow its own financial rules.

“I am asking for the immediate removal of the president, the first vice president, the second vice president, the secretary/treasurer, and all regional directors for dereliction of duty and failure to maintain fiscal responsibility,” Elliott’s statement read.

The allegations made that May afternoon would eventually trigger an investigation from the state union — and the resignation of Rhondalyn Cornett, who had led the teachers union in Indianapolis Public Schools for five years, amid accusations that she mishandled $100,000 in union funds. Detectives assigned to the Marion County Grand Jury Division are investigating the matter, according to a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office.

But in fact even before the resignation, the 900-member Indianapolis Education Association’s position was precarious. The union’s financial problems appear to have begun well before Cornett took over — IRS records show the union lost its federal tax-exempt status several years ago, and, according to the state teachers union, it has not filed returns in recent years.

State laws and district policies, meanwhile, have for years chipped away at the organization’s power and influence. The bargaining unit shrunk by 14 percent over three years as the district turned a growing share of schools over to outside operators whose teachers aren’t represented by the union — a sea change in Indianapolis education that some say the union could have fought more vigorously.

As a result, fewer than half of district teachers are members, and some teachers wonder if there is any point in paying dues to join a weakened union that seems to offer them very little. The turmoil leaves teachers in a district that is a hotbed of change vulnerable at a time when they perhaps need representation the most.

Cornett didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, and current union president Ronald Swann declined an interview for this story and did not respond to emailed questions. Supporters of the union’s current administration, though, believe it can be rebuilt and point to a recent victory: Indianapolis Public Schools granted teachers pay raises last month. In another sign of strength, two union-backed candidates defeated incumbents to win seats on the school board.

Still, other members argue that its problems run too deep for the union to be repaired — and teachers must start anew.

Now, Elliott and LaMeca Perkins-Knight, another frustrated union loyalist, are looking for other teachers to join them in a bid to replace the Indianapolis Education Association with a new organization. They began holding meetings this week to lay out their agenda. The crowds were small, and one on Tuesday attended by a current union leader grew contentious. Still, the pair plan to continue campaigning.

“Members have been disenfranchised,” Perkins-Knight said. “We plan to grassroot it, go out and talk to some teachers and see what they want to do.”

Losing power for years

Cornett taught for about two decades before leaving the classroom to run the union. The daughter of a union worker at Chrysler, she asked about joining the teachers union the day she started work in Indianapolis Public Schools, Cornett said in an August 2018 interview before she resigned.

When Cornett took over the Indianapolis Education Association in 2013, it was already contending with a barrage of state policies that constrained its power. Two years before, Democratic lawmakers fled the state in a showdown over restrictions on labor — but despite the protest, a host of controversial education bills prevailed.

In the end, the Republican-controlled legislature stripped teachers of the power to negotiate most work conditions, largely confining bargaining to wages and wage-related benefits. At the same time, lawmakers expanded non-union charter schools, created a new private school voucher program, and overhauled teacher evaluations.

The changes were just the latest blow to Indiana teachers unions. Twenty-three years before the recent Janus ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court took away the right of public sector unions to collect fees from non members, an Indiana law had already eliminated those fees for teachers.

“The law here has in some ways undermined union power,” said Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a professor of labor and employment law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. If membership shrinks, he said, “the union will have less resources, it will be less of a voice for teachers, and as a result, you worry that the state legislature and the school boards won’t pay enough attention to teachers’ needs.”

On top of the state restrictions, the teachers union is facing an entirely different threat in Indianapolis Public Schools. Two years after Cornett took over as president, the school district began a radical experiment where schools are handed over to outside managers who employ teachers not represented by the district union.

So-called “innovation” schools proliferated under the leadership of former Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who left Indianapolis this month after he was tapped to lead the Washington, D.C., school system. Over the past four years, a dozen schools have been removed from the teachers bargaining unit. And between 2014-15 and 2017-18, the number of teachers covered by the Indianapolis Education Association contract fell by 14 percent, or 330 fewer teachers, to about 2,000 teachers.

Cornett was well aware that the deck was stacked against the union. In August, Cornett said lawmakers had taken “so much of our power away.” But, she added, teachers were not weak: they could still influence policy if they spoke up — by writing letters, going to meetings, and making calls.

Still, despite her rhetoric, the union’s losses were swift and met with relative quiet. In 2017, for example, district leaders used a little-known provision of state law to expel the union from a troubled middle school. Cornett didn’t know until the summer when she learned from a teacher who applied for a job at the school.

Many observers agree that the union’s position was weak because of state laws. But some argue that it could have done more to resist the rapid expansion of innovation schools.

The former leader of the IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that’s skeptical of innovation schools, Dountonia Batts said that in other places around the country, teachers have gotten together to push back against charter schools in a way that didn’t happen in Indianapolis.

“I don’t think people really understood the impact that innovation schools were going to have on public education,” Batts said. “It’s heartbreaking because the power that the union traditionally stood for has for all intents and purposes been deflated.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
LaMeca Perkins-Knight is one of two Indianapolis Public Schools teachers leading a campaign to replace the local teachers union.

Perkins-Knight argues that the union should have anticipated the campuses that might become innovation schools and done more to resist. At schools with chronically low test scores, they could have trained teachers to try and improve results. At higher performing schools where principals were considering voluntarily converting to innovation status, the union could have done more to organize teachers who were opposed, she said.

At a time when the union was under siege, poor management made it even less effective, said longtime union member and social studies teacher Mark Thomas.

“We need to step our game up,” he added. “To do that, you’ve got to have a tightly run organization, and we didn’t.”

‘I’ve never been given a reason to be invested’

When Perkins-Knight got a job in Indianapolis Public Schools more than a decade ago, one of the first things she did was join the teachers union. She grew up in East Chicago, an industrial community just across the border from Illinois. And her father was a union leader for United Steelworkers. “I’m union bred,” she said.

Perkins-Knight is not alone. Many members of the Indianapolis Education Association share a personal connection to unions. They have fathers, mothers, and husbands who were in unions, and they see joining the association as a way they can support other teachers. But union membership in other industries is shrinking, too. In 1964, more than 40 percent of workers in Indiana were in unions — the third highest rate in the country. Fifty years later, that number fell to about 10 percent.

Most teachers in traditional public school districts in Indiana are union members. But teachers must affirmatively choose to join the union. As union membership declines around the state, teachers unions can no longer rely on ingrained loyalty to recruit new educators, who often start careers with student debt and may be reluctant to pay dues that exceed $800 per year. Besides, non-union teachers working at district schools continue to get many of the advantages a union membership brings with it. The organization negotiates their salary and benefits, and they have the same contract as teachers in the union.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, membership has swung up and down recently, but this year there are about 900 teachers in the local union, down about 80 teachers from four years ago, according to self-reported state data. Because only 49.7 percent of the district’s teachers are dues-paying members, the state sent letters to teachers in November notifying them of their right to challenge the union — a new requirement championed by Republican lawmakers two years ago.

Plus, many Indianapolis teachers now work in independently managed charter schools without teachers unions.

Teacher Shivani Goyal worked in Indianapolis Public Schools for three years without joining the teachers union. She didn’t have strong feelings about unions, and as a new teacher, she didn’t want to pay the dues, she said.

“I’ve never been given a reason to be invested in it,” said Goyal, who took a job teaching first grade at an innovation school without a union this year.

For Perkins-Knight, in contrast, the union was a way for her to have a voice in the future of the district. She catapulted into union leadership after she helped launch a campaign to end a pay freeze for teachers. She was vice president and second in command for three years.

But as she moved up in the union, Perkins-Knight became more and more concerned about its management.

A low-turnout election

On a Thursday in April, Elliott dashed off a quick email. “Question needed answer…” she wrote to a staffer with the state teachers association. Had they emailed members the ballot for the local chapter election in March?

A 25-year educator who would later confront union leadership at the May meeting, Elliott had become increasingly suspicious of Indianapolis Public Schools’ teachers union. She wanted more updates on what the union was doing, she wanted to know how leaders were spending her dues, and she wanted to vote in the election.

She received a reply later that day saying the state union had sent the ballot to her work email. Elliott replied politely — “I did not want to place blame if there was no blame to place,” she wrote — but she was frustrated. She had not received the email and hadn’t voted, and she feared many other teachers hadn’t, either.

In Cornett’s email announcing the election results, she acknowledged that she was contacted by two teachers who did not initially receive a ballot.

Ultimately, just 3.9 percent of the union members voted, according to Cornett’s email, which Elliott shared with Chalkbeat.

Since there was no competition for some of the offices, including the presidency held by Cornett, not many races were on the ballot. But whatever the reason, the low participation hinted at a problem, said Thomas, the union member who was frustrated by the association’s management. “This just tells you that nobody is really invested in even their organization.”

For Elliott, the election results added to her growing sense that union leaders were operating without much scrutiny. So she showed up at the May meeting determined to make sure everyone heard her concerns. She rallied other union members, urging them to join. And in a room full of people, she recited a litany of concerns. It was Elliott’s report, which she said she later emailed to the Indiana State Teachers Association, that led the group to investigate the local union’s finances.

“We have ourselves to blame because we became complacent,” Elliott said. “I had my head in the sand.”

Financial questions emerge

Perkins-Knight had been worried about the union’s finances for months. As far back as September 2017, she raised concerns that she had not been given a budget or “financial reporting” for the Indianapolis Education Association. Because of those problems, she said she would not sign checks for the union and asked for her name to be removed from the bank account, according to an email to Cornett and other leaders that Perkins-Knight shared with Chalkbeat.

Two months after the tumultuous May meeting, Perkins-Knight posted on Facebook that she had decided to quit the union and called on others to join her. In a long list of complaints, she wrote, “IEA has not been financially accountable to their members for almost a decade.”

In fact, the financial problems went much further than even Perkins-Knight imagined.

In a stunning email days after the November general election, the ISTA revealed the results of it’s months-long investigation into the Indianapolis union’s finances. The investigation concluded that Cornett had used her Indianapolis Education Association debit card to withdraw about $100,000 in cash for personal use, and the state union reported the allegations to the police, according to Kim Clements-Johnson, ISTA’s communications director.

The matter involving Indianapolis Education Association funds is being investigated by detectives assigned to the Marion County Grand Jury Division, according to Peg McLeish, the communications director for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. Cornett did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Chalkbeat for this story. It is unclear if she has retained an attorney.

In addition to Cornett’s alleged misuse of funds, the union failed to file financial paperwork for years, records show. In 2008, the organization was administratively dissolved by the state of Indiana because of failure to file regular paperwork or pay fees, according to a spokeswoman for the Indiana Secretary of State. Four years later — the year before Cornett took office — the IRS automatically revoked its tax-exempt status because it had been years since the union filed a return, according to the IRS website. Clements-Johnson confirmed that it’s tax-exempt status was revoked.

The state union is playing a role in righting the local’s finances. “The local president egregiously mismanaged the local’s finances and it will take some time to get the house in order,” wrote Clements-Johnson in an email.

The dissolution of the nonprofit could open union officers up to personal liability if the organization is sued, said Zachary Kester, executive director of the nonprofit law firm Charitable Allies. The tax problems could lead to penalties from the IRS, but the larger cost for nonprofits in similar situations is often the administrative and legal work it takes to reinstate the organization and regain tax-exempt status, he said. The process includes filing past due tax returns, and the cost of getting into good standing is sometimes high enough that his clients choose to abandon their old nonprofits and form new ones, Kester said.

Diane Swanson, a professor of management and ethics at Kansas State University, said the problem goes beyond the allegations against Cornett. It shows that the organization did not have good financial oversight practices.

“There have been enough warnings here,” she said. “This has been going on for a while, as indicated by the losing of the tax-exempt status. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

An uncertain future

The Indianapolis Education Association is trying to move on and rebuild. When the state union confronted Cornett with the allegations of financial mismanagement, she resigned, and the vice president took over. In recent months, the union has had some victories.

In November, days before Cornett resigned, two candidates supported by the union — who were critical of the current administration and the fast spread of innovation schools — won seats on the school board, a rare show of strength for the local union. Then in December, teachers in the district won substantial raises.

But the raise was championed by district leaders, who spent a year campaigning for a tax increase to fund the pay bump. When it came time to negotiate, it took the district and the union less than two days to reach a deal.

In a statement in response to written questions from Chalkbeat, Clements-Johnson wrote that the ISTA has taken control of the local’s finances for the next two years, and it is working with local leadership to put controls in place to prevent future issues.

“IEA has bargained a strong contract reflecting higher teacher compensation achieved through advocacy on the passage of two referenda,” Clements-Johnson wrote. “IEA remains a strong, valuable partner in serving educators and students in Indianapolis.”

Nathan Blevins, a middle school teacher who co-chairs the local union’s membership committee, said leaders are taking steps to ensure that its finances are transparent, and he has faith in the organization.

“This is really an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves,” he said. “We are just really looking at moving forward. We had a great win with the contract this year.”

Some members of the union still have concerns.

Kevin Sandorf, a high school English teacher, said he thinks that it will be harder to recruit new members because it “casts a bad light on the organization” that Cornett was able to allegedly misuse money without someone else in the union noticing. “How was this allowed to go on so long?”

At first, the stunning news of Cornett’s alleged mismanagement and resignation seemed like an opportunity to Perkins-Knight and Elliott, who both rejoined the union. But that optimism was fleeting.

Although Cornett is gone, other union leaders have remained, they said, and they do not have confidence in the union.

Now, Perkins-Knight and Elliott are poised to take a more drastic step: campaigning to replace the Indianapolis Education Association with a new union, a process that would begin with convincing 20 percent of teachers to support a petition. If they trigger a district-wide election, teachers could also vote not to have a union at all.

That’s a risk the two lifelong union supporters are willing to take.

“I would prefer for us to have that collective teacher voice, because teacher voice is important for us,” Perkins-Knight said. But the union is so powerless now, she said, losing a union altogether is not so scary. “Even without a union, I don’t think much is going to change for us.”