Early Childhood

Teacher quality changes among low profile education ideas advocates are pushing

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

An idea pitched this week would aim to solve one of Indiana’s biggest education challenges — raising the quality of teaching across the state — by prodding more teachers to seek National Board Certification.

Haven’t heard about it?

A flood of proposals from powerful interests — Gov. Mike Pence and Republican legislative leaders, who control the legislative process with large majorities in both houses, in particular —  have focused much attention on issues everyone expects to be the central battleground on education during the legislation session that runs from January to April. Topics such as school funding, school choice and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s powers are expected to dominate the education debates.

But Democrats, and lobbying groups of all stripes, have their own agendas. Some of them are offering up what they think are creative solutions to other widely-recognized education problems.

On teacher quality, the Indiana State Teachers Association announced its legislative agenda this week, including a proposal for Indiana to offer an incentive of 10 years of extra pay to teachers who earn a certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a challenging credential awarded to applicants who demonstrate high quality teaching through a variety of tasks.

Indiana is way behind its neighbors when it comes to National Board certification, and ranks just 43rd among the states with only 168 teachers who have earned the credential. One of them is Ritz, who also served on the NBPTS board for a time.

Next door in Illinois, more than 6,000 teachers have National Board certification. Ohio and Kentucky each have more than 3,000 National Board certified teachers and Kentucky has set a goal of at least one in every one of its schools. ISTA wants to match that goal here by 2025. Those other states offer incentives for teachers to undertaking the difficult certification process. ISTA proposed a 10-year, $2,000 salary annual stipend for teachers who complete the credential.

“Improving student learning is intricately linked to improving the practice of teaching,” said ISTA President Teresa Meredith. “(National Board Certification) forces an individual to reflect not only on what is being taught and how, but why it is being taught.”

Hoosiers for Quality Education, the lobbying arm of the Institute for Quality Education, an education reform-minded organization that advocates for school choice and raising teacher quality, has different ideas about how to improve teaching: less regulation that it views as simply red tape.

Tosha Salyers, communications director at the institute, pointed to the battle over Project Restore in Indianapolis Public Schools as an example. When the district proposed to expand the innovative program, which raised test scores at School 99, to a second school, union leaders initially balked. They said the two teachers who designed it could not be paid higher salaries and remain classified as teachers. Contract rules meant they had to be reassigned as administrators. Ultimately, a compromise was worked out.

The institute is advocating for an idea similar to one of Pence’s proposals called “Freedom to Teach,” which would empower the Indiana State Board of Education to disperse $2 million in grants from a special innovation fund for schools that want to try out creative ideas. But the plan would also allow the schools to be released from state regulations, including laws that require teachers to be paid on a union-negotiated wage scale.

Teachers should have more freedom to negotiate individually, said institute president, Betsy Wiley.

“If I’m in a school corporation and not in the union, they are still negotiating my contract and I get whatever I get,” she said. “Maybe a young teacher is less concerned about health care benefits or retirement and more interested in the front side and salary … allowing them to have that flexibility we also think is important.”

Unions, and their Democratic allies, have strongly opposed Pence’s idea, describing it as just a new effort to limit teacher collective bargaining.

Another lower profile issue is busing cuts at schools with financial trouble.

That problem is connected to broader school funding issues, which prompted a lawsuit in Franklin Township that the Indiana Supreme Court recently said it would rule on.

Franklin is among a handful of school districts that have felt an intense budget squeeze from caps of property tax rates instituted in 2009, which have left a few schools short of funds meant to cover the cost of school bus service. In response, schools have considered eliminating busing altogether or charging parents for the service.

Lower courts have now said school districts are not required to offer busing, but if they do, they cannot charge for it.

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, said this problem needs to be fixed and it will be a priority for Democrats.

“All the money in the world we spend on education doesn’t do any good,” she said, “if we can’t get our children to school.”

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.

School Finance

Teacher raises would survive $211 million cut from Indianapolis Public Schools funding request

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indianapolis’ largest school district cut about $211 million Tuesday from its request for extra funding, in a bid to win public support for the proposal.

That lower price tag comes with tradeoffs, district officials said. Even if voters approve the new plan, the district would dip into its cash reserves, put off building maintenance, and ditch expanded transportation plans, such as additional busing for students who move partway through the school year.

The new request also reduces how much the district would raise to pay for services for students with disabilities, though it was initially unclear by how much and how that could affect students.

But district officials said they still expected to be able to give raises to teachers if the referendums pass.

The scaled-back request would raise about $725 million over eight years, significantly less than the initial proposal of nearly $1 billion.

The board voted 6-0 in favor of reducing the amount of money the district is seeking, backing off the number members approved two months ago.

Board member Kelly Bentley said many school districts around the state have asked taxpayers for more money.

“We all own property in IPS. None of us want to see our taxes go up,” she said. But, she added, “I am confident that it’s money that’s going to be well spent, and it’s money that is necessary.”

Instead of pulling back spending on teachers and school staff, the district is making the new plan work by adjusting revenue expectations, said Chief Financial Manager Weston Young. The proposal is built on the assumption that state revenue will increase 1 percent each year, and the district will no longer hold as much money in reserves, he said.

“We are still committed to our students through our compensation for teachers and the wraparound services that serve those kids,” Young said.

Reducing the request could help build enthusiasm for the tax increase, which has not gotten much vocal community support. Instead, the referendums have been met with some concern over the size of the ask. But even though they have pared down their plan, district leaders will still need to persuade voters in May to raise their own taxes.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the new plan is a balancing act between what taxpayers can bear and the cost of providing the level of service that families need. Ultimately, he said, the tax increase would pay dividends by helping the district prepare students for college and careers.

“This is one of those situations where you pay now or you pay later,” he said.

The move cut the potential tax increase for homeowners in IPS to $0.58 per $100 of assessed value, down from the initial proposal of $0.73. For taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500 — the new plan would increase property taxes by $17.70 per month for operating expenses and $5.54 per month for building improvements, according to the district.

The referendum the board reduced would pay for operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, and under the new request, it would raise about $66 million per year for eight years. That’s down from the initial request of about $92 million per year.

Under the new plan, about $49 million of the money raised each year would go to staff pay, while the remaining $17 million would help pay for services and supplies, regular maintenance, and transportation.

A second measure, which was not changed, would pay for about $200 million in improvements to buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security. Both measures are expected to go before voters in May.