Future of Schools

Ritz, state board at odds over what went wrong on NCLB

State board member Dan Elsener (left) had several sharp exchanges with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz (right) at today's meeting. (Scott Elliott)

State Board of Education members sparred with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and her staff today over why Indiana is in hot water with federal education officials.

In a tense meeting reminiscent of last fall’s battles between Ritz and the rest of the board over who controlled state education policy, board members peppered the superintendent and her team with questions and challenged the veracity of their answers.

Why, they asked, did the U.S. Department of Education give Indiana 60 days to answer a series of concerns or potentially face sanctions? And why didn’t board members know sooner that this could happen?

“It looks like 100 percent of it is implementation,” board member David Freitas said. “I believe the responsibility rests squarely on the superintendent as our leader of the Department of Education.”

But Ritz insisted her team had not dropped the ball and would meet the requirements of the letter from Deb Delisle, assistant U.S. secretary of education, which said Indiana could lose a waiver that freed it from some potentially costly and cumbersome rules of the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

“We all know the urgency and serious nature of exiting this waiver,” Ritz said. “The department has done its due diligence and takes full responsibility for making Indiana compliant with the waiver requirements.”

Delisle’s letter said indiana had “significant issues” complying with its waiver agreement that needed to be corrected before the waiver could be renewed for another year after it expires on June 30. The 2012 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education included a promise that the state would have “college and career ready” standards and tests, an approved school accountability system and an acceptable plan for monitoring and supporting low scoring schools.

Indiana’s original plan to meet those requirements, crafted under Ritz’s predecessor Tony Bennett, pledged to put into place Common Core standards, Common Core-based tests, a new A to F school grading system and a new statewide teacher evaluation system.

But the state soon changed direction in ways Ritz said everyone knew would require changes to its waiver agreement. The Indiana legislature in 2013 paused and then later voided Common Core; the state withdrew from the testing consortium; Ritz radically changed the department’s school monitoring operation; and she altered the state model system that most districts used to evaluate teachers.

Indiana dropped the Common Core after complaints from critics that following the standards, which 45 state agreed to follow, ceded to much control over what students learn to those outside of the state. Newly created standards were approved last month and state officials are working on a plan to make changes to state tests to match those standards.

Given all that, Ritz argued, it should have been no surprise to board members that the waiver agreement would need to be revised.

But board members focused on Delisle’s complaints that the state was not adequately monitoring and supporting D and F schools as it had promised, demanding that Ritz and the state education department answer for the problems cited.

“Clearly there are issues within the department that need to be addressed,” board member Gordon Hendry said. “This isn’t a blame game but we need to resolve these issues and get the department back on track.”

Ritz and her lieutenants, however, said a simple explanation exonerated them: the monitoring complaints were outdated.

One of Ritz’s first initiatives as state superintendent was to replace the department’s five-person Office of School Improvement and Turnaround with 20 outreach coordinators to serve more than 300 low-rated schools around the state. But that team was just being assembled when federal officials visited last August.

The work of the outreach coordinators was not captured last year’s review but will meet the U.S. Department of Education’s monitoring requirements, Ritz said. State and federal officials have been in regular communication about monitoring schools since at least December, she said, even though her office did not receive formal notice until April 27 that conditions would need to be met before the waiver was renewed.

“Did the department know we had work to do?” Ritz said. “You betcha.”

State education officials said Ritz spoke by phone with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week and set a schedule to talk every three days about different complaints in Delisle’s letter until all nine have been addressed.

The letter constitutes a lower level of notice from the federal government than other states have received, meaning the state’s NCLB waiver is in no immediate danger if they address the concerns. Four states have been notified they are at “high risk” of losing their waivers, but Indiana was not added to that group. Last month, Washington became the first state to lose its NCLB waiver.

The  NCLB waiver allows Indiana to be judged on criteria other than the law’s escalating goals for student test performance. Without the waiver, NCLB would restrict how some federal dollars are spent, setting aside money for outside tutoring at schools rated as failing.

Throughout the board meeting, Ritz and board member Dan Elsener had sharp exchanges over whether education department officials, and Ritz herself, were meeting their responsibilities. Several board members shared Elsener’s skepticism.

“I hope they came away with that being unfounded,” Ritz said after the meeting. “Because we’ve been serious about this since my tenure. We know we have implementation to do with the waiver. We have implementation to do with all federal monies. Monitoring and technical assistance is what we do.”

Elsener was unmoved.

He suggested Ritz may have lost focus on the waiver in the fall as she battled with the board, a showdown that culminated in late November when she abruptly adjourned a meeting over the objections of others.

“I feel like we left accountability unattended,” he said. “I feel like our standards would have been done earlier if the superintendent hadn’t walked out of a meeting. That put us two months behind. I want leadership, discipline and a sense of mission.”

Ritz left today’s meeting saying she was just as frustrated with some of what she heard from the board.

“We kept asking some of the same questions over and over again that I felt we’d already worked with,” she said. “I’m very confident in the work of the department and of having the waiver extended.”

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.