Future of Schools

Seven big reasons to pay attention to Indiana education news in 2018

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Betsy DeVos during a visit to Indiana.

The election of former Gov. Mike Pence as President Donald Trump’s vice president made Indiana a showcase for school choice advocates nationally. Indianapolis Public Schools, short on both cash and students, moved to close nearly half of its high schools and will ask taxpayers for nearly a billion dollars in extra funding. A spotlight was thrown on underperforming virtual schools.

Those are just a few of the educational challenges and opportunities that Indiana weathered in 2017 — many of which are also sure to capture headlines in the year ahead.

Here is a recap of some of the biggest issues Chalkbeat has covered over the past 12 months, and a hint of what’s likely to come.

  1. A virtual mess

Indiana Virtual School had 1 teacher for every 222 students in 2016-17 and a 5.7 percent graduation rate in 2016, yet has grown by thousands of students since it opened in 2011 — and received millions of dollars in state funding that was paid out, in part, to an affiliated for-profit company. The findings of a Chalkbeat investigation into the school prompted Gov. Eric Holcomb to call for “immediate attention and action” for virtual schools by the state board of education and to pledge to have his staff work with the board to make sure the schools and groups that oversee them are held accountable.

Even charter advocates agree that virtual schools’ authorizers could be more assertive in their oversight of virtual schools with poor performance, suggesting that an area of school choice that has remained largely under the radar could face a new level of scrutiny.

  1. A changing high school landscape

As enrollment in Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk, the high schools have seen student population drop from about 26,000 at a peak in the late 1960s to about 5,600 this year. The school board voted to close three of the district’s seven high schools and use the opportunity to offer students a variety of programs in the remaining schools in areas such as information technology, construction and the arts.

Students will get to choose which school, and which program, they want to attend next fall. But while that overhaul has addressed the question of underutilized buildings, it has the potential to throw the enrollment system out of balance should more students choose some schools over others.

  1. The path to graduation

To ensure that Indiana’s high school graduates have the skills to fill workforce needs or succeed in college, state lawmakers called for an overhaul of graduation requirements earlier this year. The “graduation pathways” that were ultimately developed and approved by the state board impose new requirements on students, such as taking exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

But they drew widespread opposition from parents and educators, who say the new requirements are complex and overlap with existing Indiana diploma expectations. The new rules could prove particularly burdensome for students with disabilities or those who struggle academically.

The rules are not the only new stumbling block for future graduates. Indiana was told by federal education officials earlier this year that students who graduate with the general diploma, rather than more rigorous Core 40 or honors diplomas, would not be counted in the state’s graduation rate. Lawmakers and education officials are under pressure to find a solution.

  1. Money matters

Come spring, some Indianapolis taxpayers have a big decision to make: Will they vote to increase property taxes and add $936 million in new funding over eight years to make improvements and cover the costs of operating the city’s largest district? Two referendums will be on the ballot in May, after the Indianapolis school board voted to put the matter to taxpayers.

About $200 million would go to pay for campus safety updates, such as improvements in lighting and new entrances. But the bulk of the money — $92 million a year — would be used for operating expenses, such as to cover the costs of special education and teacher raises.

The district is also hoping to change the way schools are funded with a new approach meant to send more money to schools with more poor students. At the same time, a special $6.5 million pool of money is going to programs that attract middle-class families. District leaders say the system will become more equitable over time, but it’s unclear how long it will take.

  1. Au revoir ISTEP

The end is nigh for the beleaguered state test known as ISTEP. In April, state lawmakers finally settled on a replacement. The new test, called ILEARN, will be used for the first time in 2019.

In choosing the new test, the Indiana Department of Education reached back to an earlier round of educational expectations, the Common Core. Although Indiana abruptly withdrew from the Common Core standards three years ago, the company charged with creating ILEARN will use questions developed for a Common Core test.

The state is still working to create the ILEARN exam system, and high school tests will be particularly tricky. Initially, the state planned to stick with year-end subject tests, as it did in the past, but the state board is now recommending a college entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT. It’s not yet clear how these new suggestions will work into the state’s plans with the ILEARN vendor, American Institutes for Research.

  1. State dollars, private schools

Indiana has found itself at the center of a national debate over whether to give families state-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition. A Chalkbeat investigation into the voucher program found that 306 of the 313 schools receiving vouchers last year were religious. The reporting shed light on why secular schools seldom participate and why voucher-funded schools in Indiana have stricter testing requirements than any other state. It also revealed how state policy had quietly prevented an explosion of new voucher-funded schools, and how lawmakers were changing the rules to make it easier for new private schools to get state money.

  1. Center stage

Indiana is in the spotlight as President Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, pursues an agenda that heavily promotes school choice. Since her confirmation, she has given the Hoosier state a great deal of attention, praising the state’s charter and voucher programs and touting several Indianapolis schools as models for the country. Among them were a struggling neighborhood school that was taken over by a community partnership, a Christian school dedicated to integration, and a charter school for students recovering from drug addiction.

She also made three visits. In May, she stopped by the annual conference of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group she had led, in Indianapolis to promise an “ambitious expansion of school choice.” She returned again to highlight career and technical education at the national convention of FFA, which used to be known as Future Farmers of America. And she traversed the state as part of a national school tour. But it’s an open question whether the Indiana policies that DeVos has praised will be embraced nationally.

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”