Future of Schools

Pence calls for plan to strip Ritz of board leadership, kills CECI

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Glenda Ritz could be removed from a lead role on the Indiana State Board of Education if a sweeping overhaul of the Indiana’s education policy structure proposed by Gov. Mike Pence today is enacted by the state legislature.

Speaking today at the annual legislative conference at the Indiana Convention Center about a month before the 2015 lawmaking session is due to begin, Pence stunned the audience by saying he had signed an executive order to dissolve his controversial Center for Education and Career Innovation, a policy-making rival to the Indiana Department of Education that Ritz has persistently complained about. It will cease to exist early next year, he said.

Ritz has repeatedly argued CECI has sought to undermine her authority and is at the center of the state board’s frequent clashes.

“I am aware of the controversy that has surrounded this center since its creation,” Pence said. “Somebody has to take the first step to restore harmony and trust.”

But even as Pence pitched that move as an olive branch, he paired it with a proposal that would likely remove Ritz from a lead role in state board policymaking. He asked lawmakers to elect a replacement for Ritz as the state board’s chairwoman, potentially allowing the board to more directly manage the education department.

Ritz’s role as head of the department is spelled out in the state constitution, but her place as board chairwoman can be changed by the legislature. If adopted, Pence’s plan would allow the 10 gubernatorial appointees who serve with her to choose one of their own to lead the board.

In a statement, Ritz thanked Pence for dissolving CECI but did not directly address how his proposals might affect her standing.

“While dissolving CECI is certainly welcome news, there are other aspects of the governor’s legislative agenda that are concerning for public education in our state,” she said. “I look forward to working with the legislature and the governor on the Department of Education’s legislative agenda and other critical issues during the upcoming session.”

Democrats and labor leaders, however, were quick to describe Pence’s actions as self-serving.

Democratic House leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, called the Republicans paranoid and insecure, unable to work with Ritz — the lone Democrat in the statehouse who holds a statewide office — without changing the rules.

“Let (Ritz) do her job,” he said. “Let her talk. And then the people can decide in the next election. They have plenty of arrows in their quiver to accomplish what it is that they want to accomplish and they then are just going to stomp on voters’ expectations when they sent Glenda Ritz to Indianapolis. At best, it raises eyebrows, and at worst, causes you to charge that they simply don’t want any sort of dissension or alternative points of view.”

That could ultimately harm the state’s efforts to provide the best possible education system, said Rick Muir, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of Indiana’s two statewide teachers unions.

“It’s detrimental to public education,” he said. “The people elected Glenda Ritz and we have never had a state superintendent, nor a Department of Education, treated in the manner we’re seeing them treated. It’s nothing but foul play. They couldn’t win the election so they’re taking everything away.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the larger statewide union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she hopes the dissolving of CECI will make it easier for the State Board of Education and the Department of Education to communicate.

“I think it takes away one of the initial barriers between a clear path between the state board and the superintendent,” she said. “We need to continue to allow the person who was elected to that job to do her job.”

Ritz and Pence both were elected in 2012, but it was Democrat Ritz’s stunning upset win over her predecessor, Tony Bennett, that disrupted what had been a consistent vision for education shared by Bennett and the all-Republican leaders of the state’s executive and legislative branch.

Soon after, Ritz was butting heads with Pence and the 10 Republican appointees who serve with her on the state board. Ritz wanted to push a very different vision for overseeing education in Indiana. As a candidate, she advocated for a reconsideration of some of the testing and accountability-based reforms that had been favored by Republicans.

The increasing tension boiled over late last year when Ritz abruptly adjourned a state board meeting rather than allow a vote on a motion she opposed regarding the process for setting academic standards.

The ongoing disagreements over when Ritz can make unilateral decisions and when she must follow the board’s guidance is revisited at nearly every board meeting, including a long debate on Wednesday that ended with the the board approving a measure to ask the legislature to alter the responsibilities of the board and the state superintendent over her objections.

“Something had to be done,” said state board member Brad Oliver, who attended Pence’s speech. “We could not stay on the course we were on. Nobody’s happy. It’s always been a shared governance system. When any one entity starts saying ‘I am the sole authority’ we’re in trouble.”

Pence’s speech was billed as a preview of his entire legislative agenda, but he pivoted quickly to education as a focus of nearly all the proposals he announced today.

“I think the coming legislative session should be (an) education session and we should focus on our kids and teachers and what’s happening in our classrooms in Indiana,” he said.

Among other major proposals he said would be coming would be an overhaul of the state school funding system to emphasize “performance,” expanding on a smaller effort by the legislature to provide extra aid for districts with good academic results. He will also ask to expand a program that provides bonuses to highly rated teachers, he said.

For a program he called “freedom to teach,” Pence said he would ask the legislature to give the state board authority to grant waivers from some state regulations to school districts that want to try innovative ways to “focus resources on student learning.” More information on that proposal would come later, he said.

Pence also called for a further expansion of choice by allowing more money to flow to private schools that accept vouchers and bringing public charter schools to more cities.

Although Republicans hold huge majorities in both houses of the state legislature, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Sen. Tim Lanane of Anderson, was hopeful there would be room for compromise on Pence’s proposals.

“The governor doesn’t always get what he has asks for with the supermajority Republican legislature,” he said. “Maybe there will be some thought that we have to study that a little bit more before we actually enact it this coming session.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.