Who Is In Charge

Supporting two charter school bills, IPS signals a new direction (updated)

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

After years of antagonism, Indianapolis Public Schools is trying out a new approach to charter schools: cooperation.

The district, led by new Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, is supporting two bills in the state legislature aimed at making it easier for school districts to partner with charter schools.

The first—House Bill 1063—would create new “compacts” between school districts across the state and charter schools. The compacts would give charter schools access to district services like busing and school buildings in exchange for letting districts count the charter schools’ test scores in their annual averages.

The bill passed the House with a unanimous 97-0 vote today, garnering support from Republicans, who have long favored charter schools, as well as Democrats, who have often been hostile to the independently run public schools.

Like Democrats, IPS officials have aggressively fought charter schools. But they also offered their support for the bill. And on Thursday, Ferebee himself will testify on behalf of a second bill that would steer the district into closer relationships with charter schools.

That bill—house Bill 1321, which only applies to Indianapolis Public Schools—would give the district some of the levers of control over charters that are now enjoyed by the schools’ sponsors, such as setting expectations for the schools’ academic performance levels. In exchange, the charter schools would be allowed to run existing IPS schools through contracts with the district or operate their own schools inside IPS buildings.

If House Bill 1321 is passed by the education committee Thursday, it could be up for a vote of the full House next week.

“We need every tool in the toolbox,” Ferebee said. “I’m looking to strengthen autonomy at the school level. I believe this is an opportunity to do so and to forge beneficial relationships.”

Both bills offer a similar covenant. The charter school gets services or resources from the district. In return, the district can count the test scores from those schools in its cumulative averages. The bills would also give IPS a degree of control over two factors that have vexed district officials: input into where some charter schools locate and whether they offer a quality program.

“I’d like to think IPS and any other district with high-achieving charter schools would want to work together,” said Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, who authored House Bill 1063. “In this case, if the charter school doesn’t perform well, the district loses its incentive to partner with that charter school.”

The cooperative stance represents a departure from the way IPS has viewed charter schools in the past. Ferebee’s predecessor, former Superintendent Eugene White, often complained that charter school proponents were seeking an unrealistic “silver bullet” solution in promoting the schools as a way to improve education across the city.

In response to charter school growth, White embraced competition. He created charter-like magnet school options within IPS to attract students who might otherwise have left for charter schools and even sent IPS recruiters door-to-door to try to bring students who left the district back to IPS schools. As superintendent, when White went to the statehouse, it was often to testify against charter schools or efforts to expand them.

Ferebee said he holds a different view of school competition.

“I don’t think we have to operate in an environment of animosity with charter schools,” he said. “We can learn from, and with, each other. We vie for the same resources and serve the same students.”

The majority of IPS board members, four who were elected in 2012, campaigned on a promise that district schools would have more freedom from the central office and would be held more accountable for results in return. They picked Ferebee to replace White in part with an eye toward fresh thinking about competition with charter schools and other school choice options.

“This is the direction we intended to take,” said board member Gayle Cosby, one of the new board members from 2012, of the district’s support for the charter school bills. “I think it’s a step in the right direction. We just need to make sure these relationships are mutually beneficial.”

One challenge the bills aim to tackle is facilities. Under current law, charter schools receive no public dollars for facilities or transportation. They sometimes spend millions to build a school or thousands each month to rent one, taking away money that could otherwise be used for instruction.

At the same time, Ferebee argues that IPS suffers when charter schools locate close to the district’s own buildings. The charter school lures away students and the state dollars that go with them, creating empty space in the local neighborhood school.

“I definitely view it as an efficiency,” Ferebee said. “Look at facilities utilization. You have millions of dollars being poured into old warehouses and Toys R Us stores to turn them into schools. Is that best for our students?”

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the House Education Committee and authored House Bill 1321, said sometimes it might make more sense for two nearby schools to share a building, or for the charter school to instead manage a persistently failing school.

“In some cases we have a charter right across from a neighborhood school,” he said. “Hopefully they can work collaboratively to make sure we have programs that meet the needs of students.”

One potential hangup in the second bill, House Bill 1321, is a provision that would give hiring freedom to schools operated in partnership.

Gail Zaheralis, who lobbies at the statehouse for the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the statewide union supports House Bill 1063 but opposes House Bill 1321 and will testify against it in the House Education Committee.

House Bill 1321 can be used to bring in outside management for schools rated a D or F for three years, according to ISTA’s analysis. Contracts with the outside management organization could not be less than five years,  the analysis showed. District employees would have to switch to working for the outside group to stay at the school, giving up their union-protected jobs with IPS.

She likened it to the state’s take over of four IPS schools in 2012. She painted the bill as allowing what amounted to an IPS-led takeover of one of its own schools.

“Frankly, it appears to be another way to accelerate takeover by private, for-profit management companies–even when the data so far fails to demonstrate that this works,” Zeheralis said.

Democratic state Superintendent Glenda Ritz has yet to take a position on House Bill 1321.

IPS’s teachers union leaders are perturbed that they have not been invited to the table to discuss the bills.

“Nobody’s talked to us about that at all,” union President Rhondalyn Cornett said. “We need more information.”

Her predecessor, past President Ann Wilkins, interjected with a caution for Ferebee.

“Until they do discuss it with us, the answer is a no,” she said.

Despite their unanimous support for House Bill 1063, Democrats weren’t completely at ease with the move toward school district cooperation with charter schools.

“I’m lukewarm to it,” said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said. “I have not fully embraced it.”

Even so, Porter voted for House Bill 1063 and said he could be open to supporting House Bill 1321 if it will help Ferebee and IPS.

“It’s a new superintendent and he’s interested in looking at charters to see how to improve education,” Porter said. “The whole concept is that charters are public schools. Maybe he has a new direction. We have to trust him to do what he thinks is right.”

(NOTE: An earlier version of this story cited Rep. Robert Behning as saying union bargaining would be optional for schools operated in partnership under House Bill 1321. Bargaining for such schools is actually prohibited in the bill. Behning said he intended to reference current law regarding charter schools, not the bill.)

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.