McCormick’s wishlist for the Indiana legislature: diploma fixes and mandatory kindergarten

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

Indiana schools chief Jennifer McCormick laid out her wishlist for the upcoming year on Tuesday, listing some priorities ahead of the next legislative session that will require the support of the governor and lawmakers.

While a few of McCormick’s 18 goals overlap with ones set by Gov. Eric Holcomb and other advocates, many of them focus on education policy issues that have received far less attention from the state as it gears up for the January legislative session.

Holcomb’s legislative agenda centered around workforce training and helping Hoosiers deal with the current opioid crisis. McCormick focused on three main areas: student learning, improving schools and supporting districts.

“Bottom line for students and for teachers,” McCormick said at a press conference, is that these priorities “show commitment to doing what’s best for students. It also gives opportunities for students. It also sends a message that says that we are here to support the field.”

The list, she said, portrays  “a clear picture of who we are as a department.”

Her plans take up issues that have long been debated in the General Assembly, such as when children should begin school. They also address newer sources of frustration for schools, such as transitioning to yet another state test and trying to manage the effects of new federal rules that could cause graduation rates to plummet for many schools.

It’s not clear how much legislative or state board of education support exists for her plans. During her campaign, McCormick touted her ability to cooperate and work with other state officials, striking a stark contrast to her challenger, Glenda Ritz, who frequently clashed with the state’s Republican majority.

But while McCormick, also a Republican, has avoided some of the public flare-ups that vexed Ritz, her policies have often deviated from those of her party, particularly concerning state-funded vouchers for private school and charter schools. Those differences could affect her ability to have the legislature take up her agenda next year.

McCormick’s plan includes efforts to:

  • Require students to attend school by age 5.  The current compulsory schooling age in Indiana is 7.
  • Unify the state’s four diplomas into one.
  • Appeal to the federal government on the issue of graduation requirements to head off plummeting graduation rates.
  • Carry out Indiana’s new system for struggling schools.
  • Seek more flexibility in teacher licensing to allow current teachers to teach more subjects and prospective teachers to skirt red tape.
  • Provide more training for teachers on the new ILEARN test and potential graduation pathways plans.
  • Develop options for teacher leadership.
  • Find more ways to support schools and districts that are struggling financially.

Details on potential costs and timelines for many of her goals were not provided.

Some priorities cannot move forward without the legislature’s support. For example, lowering  the required school age to 5 would require legislation. Such a bill is regularly introduced in the Indiana General Assembly. While it has repeatedly stalled, McCormick said there is legislative support for it.

“We can still say — one of 26 states that can say — you don’t have to come to us until you’re 7,” she said. “That has created problems for some of our at-risk students … there is too much on the line academically.”

Lawmakers would also likely have to sign off on changes to Indiana’s diplomas, which are being scrutinized by a state committee that is considering overhauling graduation requirements to ensure students are prepared for life after high school.

McCormick has not supported the committee’s enthusiasm for multiple graduation pathways, telling the members that she believes having a single diploma could still meet the needs of students of different ability levels. She thinks a diploma is much better suited to addressing students’ postsecondary plans than the complicated “graduation pathways” proposal being considered.

“We love the idea of pathways, we embrace many of the ideas that are found within those plans, but we think a better vehicle for that would be diplomas,” McCormick said. “We think that is a natural pathway vs. what is coming out of the graduation pathways panel.”

McCormick acknowledged that the governor and the legislature are more focused on producing a better prepared workforce in Indiana. They also must address a recent school funding shortfall by adjusting the state budget.

“I think educators have become a little fatigued in the area of legislative mandates,” McCormick said. “We have plenty to do, but it is almost a relief to see a little bit of calm upstairs in the General Assembly.”

Read more about McCormick’s 2018 priorities here.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Parents feel left out of the Gary takeover debate. This mom pushed to be included.

PHOTO: Photo by Samuel L. Love via Flickr
Gary's Roosevelt High School. Johnson's eldest daughters graduated from the school before it was taken over by the state in 2012.

Kendra S. Johnson braved an ice storm and sold candy to cover a $60 bus fare so she could testify against a bill that would strip local control from the Gary and Muncie school districts.

After the bad weather thwarted the Gary mom’s attempt to travel more than two hours to Indianapolis for an earlier hearing on House Bill 1315, Johnson raised the money to make it for Thursday’s next step in the process.

She delivered an impassioned speech to Senate Appropriations committee members urging them to make sure parents get a chance to weigh in on a bill that will massively change how their children are educated. The committee did not vote on the bill Thursday.

Parents, community members, education advocates and others have criticized lawmakers and other policymakers for failing to include more people in coming up with solutions for the troubled Gary and Muncie districts. The lengths that Johnson went underscores how difficult it can be for community members to make their voices heard.

“A lot of times, parents feel like they don’t have people or organizations who listen to them so they can have the strength and courage to speak up,” Johnson, a mother of six, told Chalkbeat. “If you don’t go take advantage of being included, it will be taken from you.”

The bill would expand on the responsibilities of Gary’s emergency manager, allow Ball State University to take control of Muncie Schools and put in place a new system to help the state identify schools that could be on the way toward serious financial problems.

The legislation builds on last year’s Senate Bill 567, which established that the state could take over districts. This year’s bill has seen ferocious, sometimes somber, debate in the legislature. Democrats representing Gary and Muncie implored members of the Republican majority to scale the bill back to allow more time for the community to be involved.

Republicans, such as the bill’s author and House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown, have said the financial and academic problems in the two districts warrant decisive action sooner, not later. On Thursday, Appropriations Chairman Ryan Mishler said he’d hold the bill for a vote for at least another week to allow time for discussion. The bill already passed the House, so it just needs to make it through the Senate to be on its way to becoming law.

State takeover of schools has seen mixed results. WFYI Public Media’s Eric Weddle explored that issue in a new story, while also detailing Gary Schools’ decades-long struggle to stay afloat.

Weddle spoke with Sharmayne McKinley, principal at Daniel Hale Williams Elementary Schools about what she remembers from when the state first announced the district would be taken over last year. One of emergency manager Peggy Hinckley’s first moves was to buy new books. Their previous ones were 10 years old.

“You’d have thought we were little kids in the candy store getting supplies for our kids,” McKinley says. “That was a milestone.”

Johnson, 53, who lives in the Dorie Miller Public Housing complex, represents Indiana in the National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents and has been a parent advocate for several years now.

Because district takeover is uncharted territory in Indiana, there are many unknowns. Provisions in the bill that would make Muncie’s school board appointed and turn Gary’s into an advisory committee have elicited strong reactions from residents like Johnson who feel they’re losing their voices in their own schools.

“A lot of us don’t have the money to make the trip from Gary down here,” Johnson said. “The biggest reason I fight is so it can be said a voice was fighting for the parents, whether it was heard or not.”

Read the rest of WFYI’s story here, and find more of Chalkbeat’s legislative coverage here.

Indiana online schools

Indiana lawmakers aren’t cracking down on virtual charter schools despite calls for change

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A Hoosier Academy Virtual teacher keeps track of answers during a math review game.

Indiana lawmakers have killed three attempts to tighten the state’s charter school authorizing laws, even after Gov. Eric Holcomb called for improved accountability of troubled online charter schools.

A Chalkbeat investigation of Indiana Virtual School last year revealed how state law doesn’t go far enough to hold operators and authorizers of online charter schools accountable. The probe found that Indiana Virtual posted dismal academic results, hired few teachers, and had spending and business practices that raised ethical questions.

Special report: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

But with proposals to tighten regulations facing pushback from influential education advocates, Republican lawmakers — many of whom benefit from online schools’ lobbying and campaign contributions — say there’s little interest in making changes.

“I’m surprised myself,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican Senate Education Committee chairman who authored one of the charter school bills. “People from all different walks of life had concerns about different parts of the bill. Nobody came to me and said, ‘This is a great bill, go ahead and proceed with the bill.’”

Still, Holcomb is taking other steps to strengthen virtual charter school policy. With the Indiana State Board of Education, Holcomb’s team has been collecting information on best practices in virtual schools across the country.

PJ McGrew, the governor’s education policy director, said he hopes to have a plan to revise virtual school policies for the state board to consider in the spring. It could take about a year for the board to change that policy if they decide to move forward.

Lawmakers’ hesitation isn’t really surprising: Indiana has made sweeping changes to expand school choice, and Republican leaders have seldom supported laws that would restrict choice — even when issues are raised.

Rep. Bob Behning, the chairman of the influential House Education Committee who has long advocated for charter schools and new school models, said he doesn’t want to “jump into something, making a judgment, without knowing what the answers are.”

He also pointed out that it isn’t always clear how the state should hold schools accountable in practice because education law can be difficult to enforce: “There is no education police.”

“I definitely see there are some alarms that we need to be focused on and alerted to,” Behning said. “But there are similar alarms in traditional public schools going off all over the place as well. That’s the place I think we do struggle with. At what point in time is it appropriate for us to intervene?”

None of the bills proposed by lawmakers this year dealt directly with virtual schools, applying instead to charter schools as a whole. And none of them received any hearings.

Kruse’s proposal, Senate Bill 350, would have effectively prevented struggling online charter schools — or any charter school — from easily replicating. It would have stopped an authorizer from offering a new charter to an existing organizer unless its current students are achieving academically.

Three of Indiana’s largest online charter schools, including Indiana Virtual School, have recently opened second schools, which could help them stay in business if their first schools get shut down after years of poor performance

Two other proposals from Democrats, Senate Bills 315 and 406, went much further in dictating the results charter schools must show to enroll new students and open new schools.

Sen. Mark Stoops, a Bloomington Democrat who proposed Senate Bill 315, said for his caucus, examining whether charter schools need more regulation and oversight has been a recurring priority.

“It isn’t a difficult question,” he said. “It just needs to be done.”

But lawmakers would be up against the charter school movement’s money and influence.

Indiana lawmakers, including Behning and Kruse, have seen campaign contributions from online education companies. K12 Inc., one of the largest online education providers in the country, has given more than $90,000 to Indiana Republican races since 2006, according to the state campaign contribution database. Connections, another large national provider, has given more than $20,000.

Those online providers, who operate five online charter schools in Indiana, also have spent tens of thousands of dollars each year for the last decade lobbying lawmakers.

Indiana Virtual School has also recently started lobbying lawmakers in Indiana. Tom Stoughton, the founder of Indiana Virtual School, was listed as a registered lobbyist for the school in January, even as school officials say he has distanced himself from the school. Stoughton’s involvement with the school’s for-profit management company has raised ethical questions.

In the first filing period for 2017, Indiana Virtual School spent almost $12,000 on lobbying, according to data from the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. In 2016, IVS spent a little more than $13,300.

Prominent charter school advocates can wield influence outside of lobbying, too. They have said they fear more prescriptive laws could hem in successful schools and authorizers, even though they have agreed that virtual schools, specifically, need more attention and oversight.

“Specific rules written to restrict the decisions of authorizers will not transform bad authorizers into high-quality authorizers,” David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, told Chalkbeat in January.

The National Association for Charter School Authorizers recommends that states consider virtual-specific policies, such as completion-based funding, making enrollment more selective, or even making them a different kind of non-charter school so enrollment and governance can be more controlled.

Indiana falls short when it comes to virtual school regulation, according to the association’s most recent report, even as the state is praised for having the strongest charter school laws in the nation. For the third year in a row, the group ranked Indiana No. 1.

Mike Petrilli, executive director of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports access to charter schools, has spoken in favor of making virtual schools a separate school type.

“We’ve got to turn this on its head,” Petrilli said. “It would be hard to do it within the general charter school rules which say you’ve got to take everybody … What we have learned is the charter school model and online learning are not a good fit for each other.”