Future of Schools

Pence's 2015 education plans on funding, flexibility raise questions

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Indiana Sen. Minority Leader Tim Lanane, Senate President David Long, House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath (left to right, back row) at a special legislative corrections session last year.

Gov. Mike Pence’s plan for an “education session” of the Indiana General Assembly in 2015 won’t just be about his ongoing battle with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Pence’s made waves with his bombshell announcement Thursday that he would dissolve the Center for Education and Career Innovation and ask lawmakers to reconsider Ritz’s leadership post on the Indiana State Board of Education.

But the rest of the education agenda that dominated his speech contained a half-dozen major new proposals to overhaul Indiana’s system of school finance, again expand access to charter schools, provide more money for private school tuition vouchers and add a new program he called “freedom to teach,” giving the state board authority to grant waivers from some state regulations to school districts that want to try innovative ways to “focus resources on student learning.”

Republican legislative leaders, who announced their own education priorities in October, said Pence’s ideas would be added to their discussions.

“We will review his proposals and many others fully in the legislative process, making sure that they are the right choices for Hoosier children,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. “I am especially appreciative of the governor’s executive order to dissolve the Center for Education and Career Innovation and hope that this decision will begin to address the discord we have experienced in education governance at the highest levels.”

Making up almost two-thirds of the state’s budget, education funding will be center stage in 2015, with questions about what constitutes “fairness” for urban, suburban and rural school districts being a focus for the state’s Republican lawmakers.

Speaking on a panel at the annual legislative conference, Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, said fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal funding amounts for every student in every school district. If Republicans push for more equal funding between wealthy and poor districts, he said, it will take money away from the schools need it most because poor districts in the state receive extra aid to educate children who come to school with more barriers to learning.

“To them, it’s money following the child,” Porter said of his Republican colleagues. “Well you know, if I’m a millionaire, I have money following me, but I don’t really need it.”

But Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, argued that parents in wealthier and suburban school districts pay taxes, too, and their kids’ schools deserve a more equal cut.

“All students are important,” Brown said. “And we want to raise the support substantially for all students in the state of Indiana to have an education opportunity.”

One change Pence proposed was an increase in “performance funding” — a way to reward schools with extra dollars for successes such as increased test scores, strong graduation rates, high ratings for teachers and A or B accountability grades. Brown said legislators are still discussing how the formula might change to include performance as a bigger factor.

“We had $30 million in the last budget in performance funding,” Brown said. “We’ll have to look at it if we want that amount, another amount or what the parameters will be so that you’ll be able to get performance funding. It’s a potential increase for schools who are doing a great job.”

Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, was skeptical about the need for performance to drive a larger portion of school funding, especially since he said he hears so often from teachers that they feel their hands are tied by so many standardized tests.

“We need to take a time out and just see how valid these measures are,” Lanane said. “At the end of the day, the question is what are the kids learning? Are they learning more than they did before we had all this comprehensive testing? I’m not sure that’s the case.”

Lanane also took issue with Pence’s “freedom to teach” program, saying the state should trust teachers and give them freedom from tests instead. He thinks the real goal might be to allow districts a way around union contract rules.

“I hope this isn’t just another fancy way of saying we want to limit the rights of teachers to collectively bargain,” Lanane said.

House Democratic leader Rep. Scott Pelath of Michigan City said Pence’s proposal has a nice name, but it would have ill effects on teachers.

“‘Freedom to teach’ — those are just words,” Pelath said. “Those are words that were dreamed up in some think tank with pollsters sitting by their sides. That’s not about freedom to teach, it’s about deconstructing and deregulating schools to the point where they don’t matter anymore, and that’s what the goal is.”

A performance-based funding formula could have broad implications for Indianapolis Public Schools, where more of its schools earn F’s rather than A’s from the state.

But Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who has already backed Pence’s plan for “transformation zone” turnaround efforts, complimented Pence’s agenda.

“Gov. Pence is pushing for bold strides in education,” Ferebee said. “We know all students are capable of excellence, and it’s time we all work together to ensure the greatest opportunities for success. As our governor introduces more initiatives to positively impact our public schools, IPS is now better positioned to lead our own transformation.”

Public school activists were decidedly less enthusiastic.

Phyllis Bush, a retired teacher and cofounder of the Northeast Friends of Public Education, said she is skeptical.

“This seems like an outright push to focus on merit pay, voucher expansion and charter school expansion,” she said. “Since Gov. Pence gave no specifics on costs, and since he cited no research on the effectiveness of these plans, this seems like one more blow to public schools in Indiana.”

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Leila Hadd
A KIPP school in the Bronx.

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Feinberg brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”