moving on

‘We are going to follow through.’ In interview, Ferebee says he is leaving Indianapolis in a good place

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi
Superintendent Lewis Ferebee reads to children on the first day of school in 2017. Ferebee said Monday he'd be leaving IPS for D.C. at the end of January.

During Lewis Ferebee’s five years as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, the district has faced some steep challenges — and still has obstacles ahead.

But Ferebee, who announced Monday he would be leaving to take the top education job in Washington, D.C., told Chalkbeat he felt the district was turning a corner and was able to move ahead without him.

“Timing is never really ideal,” Ferebee said. “Regardless of when a leader transitions, people immediately think about, there’s more work to do, and I think you never reach a point where there’s no more work to do. That’s just the challenge of being in a leadership public service position.”

Ferebee will start full-time in D.C. on Jan. 31. Below are excerpts from his interview with Chalkbeat, edited for brevity and clarity.

On why he felt ready to leave IPS

I think the course of events most recently in Indianapolis is a vote of confidence, I think, to have over 70 percent of the voters support the referendums. It’s a vote of confidence that a district is moving in the right direction, so I actually am very comfortable, very confident, the district is poised well to continue on the path of progress.

For me, the opportunity to work with a strong leader that we have in Mayor (Muriel) Bowser in Washington, D.C., obviously, was very attractive to me.

But I do think we’ve turned a corner (in IPS), and I think with the referendum specifically, I would be worried if we didn’t have a plan to execute on teacher compensation and the facility upgrades to safety and security, but we have a clear plan that is in process, most of which I anticipate will be executed upon before my departure, specifically around teacher compensation.

To anyone that has that worry, I want to give them that confidence that we are going to follow through on that particular promise.

On what he’s most proud of in his work with IPS

So much. I think for me there’s many accomplishments I can get into. The transparency of our finances and driving efficiencies in an effort to push dollars to the classroom and ensure we could push dollars to teacher compensation in a time where we were receiving significantly less funding.

I’m also really proud of the way that we emerged with teacher leadership. We’ve created a number of teacher leadership roles and also career ladders for teachers that I believe has elevated teacher expertise and maximized talent in the district.

When I first came here, we were relying on a lot of external consultants to help us better improve performance. Today, proudly, we rely primarily on internal expertise to do that work.

Prior to my arrival we had not had a salary increase for teachers for half a decade. I’m proud that we were able to not only provide teachers salary increases but we’ve done that in multiple years.

Most importantly, I believe that we progressed in delivering on the mission of better prepared students to succeed in college and career.

On why his push to partner with charter schools in Indianapolis isn’t a sure thing for D.C.

The strategy in Durham (N.C., where Ferebee worked previously) was not the strategy in Indianapolis. As I started in Indianapolis, I began with a listening tour, and beginning to understand our needs and our assets, our strengths. And from those conversations we began to build strategy and a strategic plan that represented solutions that were Indianapolis-specific.

That same process will occur in my transition to Washington, D.C., and I think that’s the way you should always operate. There’s no silver bullets; there’s no (piece) that you can just transport from one community to the next.

At the time, Indianapolis had faced school takeover and the threat of further school takeover. It’s just a different landscape.

On what he’ll miss about Indianapolis

The people. Indianapolis is a community where we come together around a big issue, and we get it done like no other urban community. There’s been a number of challenges that collectively, collaboratively, we’ve done great things for children.

It’s just been phenomenal to have great people, great supporters, and so many people that have rallied behind IPS, and that will be missed.

Personally, I’m a foodie. I think Indianapolis has some amazing restaurants. I also really began to enjoy biking. I think we’re one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation, and Saturdays and Sundays on the Monon will be missed.

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-page report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

While the report lauded states and schools using techniques such as positive behavioral interventions and supports to tackle student misbehavior, the commission stopped short of calling for more federal funding for such initiatives.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is a particularly notable move. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unchecked, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says. It cites a survey from the AASA, The School Superintendents Association, with comments like, “There is a feeling that by keeping some students in school, we are risking the safety of students.”

(AASA’s advocacy director, who praised some aspects of the report, says those comments represented a minority view.)

There’s limited research evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe, though teachers in multiple districts have reported that they have been hamstrung by new restrictions. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

The report also argues that guidance rests on shaky legal ground by relying on the concept of “disparate impact” — meaning policies that are neutral on their face but have varying effects on different races can be considered discriminatory.

Meanwhile, the report says, disparities in discipline rates may not have to do with discrimination at all, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

“When there is evidence beyond a mere statistical disparity that educational programs and policies may violate the federal prohibition on racial discrimination, this Administration will act swiftly and decisively to investigate and remedy any discrimination,” it says.

The Obama-era guidance didn’t require schools to adopt specific policies, and rescinding it won’t require districts to make changes, either. But a change could influence school districts’ decisionmaking.

That’s likely to harm students of color and students with disabilities, former Obama education secretaries Arne Duncan and John King said in a statement.

“Today’s recommendation to roll back guidance that would protect students from unfair, systemic school discipline practices is beyond disheartening,” they said.

Read the entire report here:

Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

funding battle

Defiant, Cuomo invites ire resisting more New York State funding for schools

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again laid the responsibility of equitable school funding on local districts Monday, earning the nickname “Ebenezer Scrooge” from an advocacy group and kicking off what could be a contentious fight over education spending.

In a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Cuomo released his legislative priorities for the first 100 days of his new term as governor. He devoted a small portion of his comments to education, immediately sparking anger from his critics.

Cuomo directly placed responsibility for funding schools on local districts, saying the money is “not fairly distributed by them.” He pointed to a law he pushed to pass last year that required school districts to compile a report on how state funding is distributed among schools.

“The truth is the poorest schools do not receive any more funding than the richer schools from their local districts,” Cuomo said. “And that, my friend, is a critical injustice because the poorer schools have a great need that needs to be funded.

Then, Cuomo called the foundation aid program — designed to send extra dollars to high-needs school districts — and the 1993 lawsuit filed by New York City parents that laid the groundwork for foundation aid as “ghosts of the past” and part of “a political game.”

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy. It’s a question of math and theory, not philosophy and political posturing.”

Advocates say the state still owes the education department about $4 billion in foundation aid funding. The state halted funding under the formula during the recession. In 2017, Cuomo proposed changing it to a level that advocates described as a “repeal.” But Cuomo’s proposal could not overcome these advocates’ opposition and failed to pass.

“Cuomo is the Ebenezer Scrooge of public schools, starving children of much needed resources and state funding,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the union-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement after Cuomo’s speech.

The problem, Gripper said, is that under Cuomo, the “state doesn’t provide enough funding to meet the growing needs that result from growing poverty and increased numbers of English language learners.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of New York City’s school funding data found there are funding disparities, which can amount to thousands of dollars per pupil, between schools, largely because of the Fair Student Funding Formula that sends more dollars to schools with hard-to-serve students, like those with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Some educators, including school principals, argue this formula does not go far enough to address school inequities — holes often filled by rich PTAs.

In the past, some scholars have questioned whether spending more money on schools necessarily results in sufficiently better outcomes for students. But a new review of the research suggests that additional money can play a role in student academic performance. But how that money is spent also likely matters.

The state Department of Education recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in school funding, most of it tied to boosting foundation aid dollars. The state teachers union and Alliance for Quality Education lauded the Board of Regents’ proposal.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, said it’s “time to take the politics out of state resources for education,” adding that low-income students have been “shortchanged for years” by the state formula.

As they have in the past, state education policymakers also endorsed a $4.9 billion, three-year phase-in of the money many argue is still owed under foundation aid.

“As we said when we released our proposal last week, all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of their race, where they live or where they go to school,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We look forward to working with the legislature and the executive to achieve this for all New York’s children.”

With more progressive Democrats in the Senate who campaigned on boosting education spending, Cuomo’s comments could signal a contentious budget fight ahead. Lawmakers must hash out a budget pan by April 1, and Cuomo’s budget proposal is expected in January.

Lawmakers don’t typically grant the full funding request from state policymakers. Last year, for example, legislators approved $1 billion in more funding for education, which was still more than half a billion dollars less than what the Board of Regents asked for.