gathering

Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos to rally education reformers this week at Nashville summit

PHOTO: ExcelinEd
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during the 2016 National Summit on Education Reform in Washington D.C. Bush opens this year's two-day summit on Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee.

When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hosted his first education reform summit in Orlando in 2008, he compared the U.S. school system to an 8-track tape in an iPod world.

“The irony is that we’re still a 8-track education system, but the iPod is gone,” Bush said as he prepared to host his foundation’s 10th annual summit this week in Nashville. “The world is moving far faster than people can imagine, and our education system is really mired in the old way of thinking.”

Since leaving the governor’s office in 2007, Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education have encouraged other states to adopt the policies he pushed to disrupt the status quo in Florida, including a “school choice” agenda that’s friendly to charter and virtual schools and to using public money to pay for tuition at private and church-run schools through programs like vouchers and tax credits.

On Thursday, Bush will introduce a keynote address by the nation’s most prominent “school choice” advocate, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. A long-time friend and former member of the foundation’s board, DeVos was championed by Bush to lead the education department under President Donald Trump.

“I’m a big Betsy DeVos fan,” Bush told Chalkbeat in a recent interview. “I think she’s been the best advocate for school choice of moving to a parent-centered system of any secretary ever.”

The Nashville gathering of some 1,100 reform-minded players comes as efforts to reengineer education as a consumer choice have buoyed under the Trump administration, even as new data has called the movement’s primary vehicles into question.

Recent studies in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C., show that student achievement drops, at least initially, when students use vouchers to attend private school.

Charter schools have fallen substantially in popularity among both Democrats and Republicans, according to a 2017 poll by choice-friendly Education Next.

And some virtual schools in Indiana, Colorado and Pennsylvania have been called out recently for low rates of student log-in and graduation, in addition to poor scores. (The nation’s largest operator of virtual charters, K12, is among the summit’s sponsors.)

Bush cites the “highly charged political environment” for the slump in charter cheering, and he questions the validity of the voucher research.

“I’m not a psychometrician or a statistician, but I don’t think that the scale of the studies is enough to warrant great praise if they’re good for vouchers or great criticism if they’re not,” he said. “The next iteration of studies needs to go deeper.”

PHOTO: ExcelinEd
Jeb Bush talks education during the 2011 summit with Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

He’s promoting other reforms too, even as the effectiveness of his own Florida agenda is still being debated. His foundation, known as ExcelinEd for short, advocates for new teaching approaches like personalized learning, policy shifts such as emphasizing early literacy, and accountability programs like assigning A-F letter grades to schools based on test scores.

Ultimately, Bush said, student learning should be at the center of each decision, and “we need to significantly pick up the pace of reform.”

“I’m really worried,” he said of the clash between the schools of today and the jobs of tomorrow. He cites the growing number of students having to take remedial coursework in college, while advancements in technology, science and artificial intelligence are accelerating.

“I don’t think anybody can define what the world will look like eventually for a kindergartener who’s just starting out on their education journey,” Bush said. “But you’ve got to assume that, given the convergence of all these explosive technologies, the world of work is going to be radically different than it is now, and yet we’re not radically changing how we educate or train people for that future.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.