legislative look-back

Holcomb pulls off a near-perfect education record in his first session as Indiana governor, and with far less drama than in years past

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb managed a rare feat in his first year on the job — to check nearly every box on his education agenda for 2017.

At the beginning of the year, Holcomb set four specific goals for K-12 education: making the state superintendent appointed by 2021; doubling state funding for preschool; adding funding  for school internet access; and better coordinating science, technology, engineering and math initiatives across the state.

It wasn’t always clear whether those proposals would pass. But Holcomb was ultimately able to get what he wanted with fairly little drama — unlike his predecessor, Vice President Mike Pence.

“The legislature over-delivered,” Holcomb said Tuesday. “Now it’s time for us to take these tools and new resources and put them to work.”

Holcomb’s success likely hinged both on his collaborative approach to working with lawmakers — in contrast to the more ideological and aggressive approaches, respectively, of former Gov. Pence and his predecessor, Gov. Mitch Daniels — and the less controversial makeup of his education priorities.

Pence failed to make much progress when he tried to break new ground in some way — like with plans to re-imagine teachers’ roles in schools — or when he faced vehement opposition, like his attempts to further reduce union negotiating power. Holcomb’s priorities, for the most part, were harder to argue with: a need for more preschool for poor children, better school internet access or more opportunities to prepare kids for the workforce and science- and math-related fields.

Although Pence was ultimately able to push through many of his education priorities, such as establishing a preschool program, driving up career and technical education funding, and increasing support for charter schools and vouchers, his efforts brought more opposition from lawmakers, even those in his own party.

Take preschool.

When Pence put out the call for a state-funded pilot program after years of debate, senators were extremely skeptical. In the waning days of the 2014 session, they stripped any meaningful investment from the bill, turning it instead into a suggestion to study the issue over the summer. At the last minute, after Pence himself testified before lawmakers, the funding was restored, and the program became a reality.

This year, the same last-ditch attempts to kill the proposal were absent. After the Senate proposed only increasing preschool spending by $4 million, lawmakers came back with a $20 million-per-year plan in line with Holcomb’s initial ask.

Holcomb also had the benefit of not having to go head-to-head with the state schools chief.

Pence’s frequent battles with then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz were a notable part of his administration. Current Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, on the other hand, was fairly aligned with Holcomb’s goals from the beginning — even signing on to support his call to make her position appointed, rather than elected, in the future.

That’s the one area in his education policy agenda where Holcomb didn’t eke out a full win — but it was arguably also the most controversial part of his agenda, with many educators and some lawmakers asserting that the move takes away an independent education voice at the Statehouse. The proposal has been debated in some way for more than 30 years.

Holcomb originally supported a 2021 start date for the appointment, which would allow him to make the appointment if elected to a second term. Instead, this year’s legislation would have it begin in 2025, meaning McCormick could seek a second term and Holcomb wouldn’t be the executive empowered to make the first secretary of education pick.

Holcomb said Tuesday that he has no desire to revisit that legislation in order to change the effective date.

He reiterated his goal of collaboration Tuesday when addressing reporters during a press conference, pointing to his relationship with McCormick.

“We’ll continue to meet and collaborate and work on issues that we both know are of the utmost importance,” Holcomb said. “And we’ll get there together. I look forward to it.”

As far as bills that weren’t on his agenda, Holcomb today said he plans to sign into law Senate Bill 567, which would appoint emergency financial managers in the Gary and Muncie school districts. He also indicated support for House Bill 1003, which would replace the state’s ISTEP test with a new program to be called “ILEARN” in 2019.

You can find other education bills that moved ahead this session here in our legislative wrap-up.

End of an era

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg is stepping down after nearly 10 years

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Denver Public School's Superintendent Tom Boasberg eats lunch with students at Cowell Elementary's Summer SLAM Program in 2016. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Tom Boasberg, who has earned a national profile as Denver schools superintendent, is stepping down.

Boasberg announced Tuesday he’s leaving his post at after an unusually long tenure – nearly 10 years at the helm of Denver Public Schools, a 92,600-student urban district nationally known for its innovative approaches to school improvement.

Boasberg will continue to serve for 90 days, as his contract with the district requires. The Denver school board will be tasked with choosing his successor. Boasberg, who is earning $242,125 as superintendent this year, said he does not have another job lined up.

“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult decision because I love this place, I am extraordinarily committed to our work and our mission, and I believe in it with all of my heart and soul,” Boasberg said in an interview Monday, a day before the public announcement. “I am going to miss it terribly, and I also know this is the right time for me and my family.”

Boasberg, 52, and his wife have three children, ages 17, 15, and 14. He said his decision was personal and not driven by the politics of the district. His oldest daughter, Nola, graduated from high school this year – a milestone he said made him stop and think about his commitments to his family, as well as his commitments to the district and to Denver students.

“I think we have lots of momentum and we’re in a strong place,” Boasberg said. Ultimately, he said his choice was born of a “deep desire to spend more family time with my kids before they’re all gone, and a very strong confidence in our board of education, our leaders in the Denver Public Schools, and our ability to have a successful transition.”

He did not offer an opinion on who should succeed him. When he took a six-month sabbatical in 2016 to live abroad with his family, the board appointed longtime district administrator Susana Cordova as acting superintendent. Cordova has since been named deputy superintendent.

The makeup of the seven-member Denver school board has shifted several times during Boasberg’s tenure, but he has always enjoyed the backing of a majority of members – a factor that has been key in advancing his vision. In the most recent election last year, however, two candidates critical of the district’s aggressive improvement strategies and its growing number of charter schools won seats on the board, breaking up what had been unanimous support.

But Boasberg said the latest political shift didn’t play a role in his decision. He called the board “strong” and “committed,” and he said he’s confident its members will continue the district’s momentum when he’s gone. Over the past 10 years, Denver Public Schools has seen its enrollment grow, its test scores improve, and its graduation rate increase.

Boasberg said he’s proudest of the fact that the numbers of black and Latino students graduating high school and going to college has nearly doubled in that time. In 2006, 1,706 black and Latino students graduated high school, according to the district. In 2017, 3,148 did.

However, the graduation rates and test scores of students of color and those from low-income families continue to lag behind the scores of white and affluent students. That has fueled sharp criticism in a district where 76 percent of the population is made up of students of color, and 67 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

Closing those gaps continues to be the district’s biggest challenge, Boasberg said.

“We’ve been absolutely focused on that – and our data says we haven’t done enough, and we need to do more, and we need to do better,” he said. “For my successor, and likely my successor’s successor, that will be the No. 1 challenge.”

Boasberg joined Denver Public Schools in 2007 when he left a job as a senior telecommunications executive at Level 3 Communications in Broomfield to become the district’s chief operating officer under then-superintendent Michael Bennet, a childhood friend of his.

At that time, Bennet was two years into a plan to radically transform the district’s low-performing schools. When Bennet was tapped in January 2009 to fill an empty U.S. Senate seat, the Denver school board quickly decided that Boasberg should replace him as superintendent and continue the reforms underway, which included closing or replacing struggling schools.

Boasberg has refined those strategies and added plenty of his own. He has made Denver Public Schools into a national model whose tactics are revered by some and criticized by others. The latter group includes some local parent organizations and often the Denver teachers union.

The strategies the district has deployed include:

• A policy that lays out strict criteria for when low-performing schools should be closed or replaced. The rollout of this policy was rocky, and the school board recently announced it’s suspending the policy for a year while it conducts a community-wide “listening tour.”

• Creating a common enrollment system that allows families to use a single form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in Denver. The district also shares tax revenue with its independently run charter schools and allows charters to compete for space in district buildings. That has led to many charters sharing campuses with district-run schools, an arrangement that has at times sparked backlash from students and parents.

• Giving schools more freedom from district rules. This has taken several forms, including embracing a state law that allows district-run schools to be designated as “innovation schools” and freed from certain rules and regulations. The district also recently expanded its experiment with “innovation zones,” which are groups of schools with even more financial and organizational freedom. In addition, every district-run school may choose its own curriculum, teacher training programs, and school-based testing regimens.

• Allowing teachers to take on leadership roles. The district’s biggest initiative is its “teacher leadership and collaboration” program, which designates teachers in nearly every district-run school who spend part of their day teaching students and another part observing other teachers, providing feedback, and helping them plan lessons.

“That investment in people is by far the most important factor in our success,” Boasberg said.

Reflecting on his tenure, he said Denver Public Schools “is in a fundamentally different and better place” today than it was when he became chief of Colorado’s largest school district.

Asked about his best day on the job, Boasberg recalled a pair of championship basketball games in which the district’s two biggest high schools, East and South, were competing for the top place in their respective divisions.

The South team’s game was first. Boasberg, who as a young man played semi-pro basketball overseas, was there in the stands. In the waning seconds of the game, South lost in what Boasberg described as “an absolute heartbreaker.” But it was what happened next that still makes him smile when he thinks of it.

“Both the South and the East cheering sections starting chanting, ‘D-P-S,’” Boasberg said. “Not South. Not East. But DPS. And seeing our kids, this extraordinary diversity of both the schools and their sense of pride and joy. … It was an amazing moment.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.