Are Children Learning

Lawmakers consider shifting Ritz's power to state board

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indiana State Board member Brad Oliver, shown at a board meeting in May, testified for a bill that would shift authority away from the Indiana Department of Education

The Indiana State Board of Education would get specific authority over testing, standards, student data, state takeover, teacher evaluation and other functions that today are primarily managed by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz under a bill Indiana lawmakers considered today.

That brought sharp words from Ritz’s fellow Democrats on the House Education Committee.

“What you are doing is making the superintendent a clerical assistant,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “You make her do the work and the decision are made by the state board.”

But state board member Brad Oliver, who spoke in favor of House Bill 1486, said the bill was needed to clarify the roles of the state board, the education department and the superintendent.

“I often hear there is a power grab,” he said. “If you look closely, there is nothing here to expand beyond the scope of what the state board of education does.”

The bill, authored by Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, covers a long list of state education policy functions. Among the changes it would make:

  • Records of the state board would be kept by the board, not the education department.
  • Oversight of failing schools being managed by contractors after state takeover shift from the department to the state board.
  • The board can appoint an executive director and staff separate from the department.
  • The board, not the department, would be named the state’s education agency, a shift with implications for who manages interactions with the U.S. Department of Education, such as Indiana’s No Child Left Behind waiver.
  • A requirement that the department share any data the board requests to evaluate or audit state education programs.
  • Any model teacher evaluation system devised by the department must receive board approval.
  • Gives the board, not the department, the power to choose what academic standards are set in what subjects and when.
  • Confers authority on the state board to consult with the Legislative Service Agency to validate A-to-F grades.
  • Puts the state board in charge of the process of designing state tests and requires schools give the third grade reading exam, IREAD.

Committee chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said the recommendations came from the “bipartisan” state board.

“People on both sides of the political spectrum asked the General Assembly to look at this,”  he said.

While the state board includes Democrats and Republicans, all were appointed by Republican governors, and only Ritz is strongly aligned with traditional Democratic views on education.

Ritz’s supporters blasted the plan as an attack on her.

“I don’t know how anyone could read this bill as anything other than a transfer of authority,” said John O’Neal, a lobbyist for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Ritz’s own lobbyist, John Barnes, echoed that theme and urged the committee to instead put questions of authority over education policy to a committee to study and allow for wider public input.

“”We see this as an irresponsible power grab,” Barnes said. “The Department of Education is the state education agency. This is going to muddy the waters.”

House Bill 1486 is something of a companion bill to House Bill 1609, which is more direct in stripping Ritz of her legal guarantee that the superintendent will chair the state board, instead putting the leadership of the board up for a vote by its members. That will be heard in the House Education Committee on Thursday.

Both bills have connections to a surprising announcement last month from Gov. Mike Pence, who pitched himself as extending an olive branch to Ritz by promising to close down the Center for Education and Career Innovation. Since Pence launched the center in 2013, Ritz has repeatedly criticized it for usurping her authority.

In announcing his legislative agenda, Pence said he was shutting CECI down but asked Ritz to also give something up: her chairwomanship of the state board.

But at today’s hearing, Sally Sloan of the Indiana Federation of Teachers argued Pence was having it both ways. While House Bill 1609 would remove Ritz as chair, she said House Bill 1486 allowed the state board to restore much of the CECI staff under a new executive director.

Sloan said she believes many CECI staff members will not only stay on, but they might even continue to occupy the same offices across the street from the Statehouse.

“It’s a charade,” she said of Pence’s pledge to shut CECI down.

Discussion of House Bill 1486 is expected to continue at Thursday’s committee meeting.

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

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: