Inside Chalkbeat

Without a champion, strong support for Common Core waned in Indiana

(NOTE: This story, identified by Chalkbeat’s editors as one of our best of 2014, was first published last March. Indiana went on to quickly devise its own academic standards, creating a challenge for teachers to adapt fast so their students can be ready for new, tougher ISTEP tests with “technology-enahnced” questions coming in 2015.)

Across the country, skepticism about Common Core has grown, mostly led by conservatives worried about what they view as increasing outside influence over local education issues.

But until now, no states had officially changed their minds about following the standards.

So how did Indiana become the first?

“I think it occurred here through a pretty unique chain of events,” said Derek Redelman, vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

In 2010 Indiana was one of earliest of the 45 states that ultimately agreed to make Common Core their state standards with the goal of assuring high school graduates are ready for college or careers. The effort was led by the state’s popular governor at the time, Mitch Daniels, and Tony Bennett, his hard-charging state superintendent, both Republicans.

But in 2012, Daniels left office and was replaced by Pence, a small government conservative with a dimmer view external influences on education in the state. As a U.S. congressman, Pence voted against the bill that created the federal No Child Left Behind law, calling it intrusive, although it was a major initiative of President George W. Bush’s administration.

Also in 2012, Bennett was upset in a re-election bid by Glenda Ritz, who was ambivalent about Common Core. Although Bennett’s defeat is sometimes blamed on anti-Common Core backlash, the standards were never a major issue in the election campaign.

But without Daniels and Bennett, criticism of Common Core, some of which proponents reject as flat out untrue, gained traction.

“Those of us who had been supportive were really not engaged,” Redelman said of Common Core. “After Tony’s loss we got focused on things we thought were at much higher risk, like the voucher program and the testing program, things Glenda Ritz campaigned against. We didn’t even focus on Common Core to begin with.”

But Common Core opponents, led by the group Hoosiers Against Common Core, already were laying the groundwork to make it a major legislative issue. The group was founded by Erin Tuttle and Heather Crossin, a pair of Indianapolis mothers who objected to changes in their children’s schoolwork that the schools said were driven by Common Core.

In 2013, the legislature approved a bill to “pause” implementation of Common Core to allow time for a new review of the standards and a new vote of the Indiana State Board of Education by July 1, 2014. The review process over the last few months evolved into an effort to set new, Indiana-specific academic standards to replace Common Core.

Opponents of the standards were able to connect with the natural sympathy of several key Republican players, who share with Common Core critics’ grave concerns about the influence of the federal government. Besides Pence, opponents ultimately convinced key players like Senate President David Long, R- Fort Wayne; Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn; and the Senate’s chief budget maker, Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, that Indiana had something to lose by sticking with Common Core.

“I don’t think the Common Core discussion is a step backward,” Long said last week. “I think it’s an issue of sovereignty. We’re talking about trying to have the highest standards in the country, but making sure Indiana controls those standards and it isn’t dictated by the federal government. It’s a state’s rights issue. Indiana is going to stay in control of its standards and what’s being taught in its classrooms.”

Proponents of Common Core say it is simply false that the federal government wants to use the standards to control education in Indiana.  They note that the standards were created independently and promoted by state governors. While it’s true that the U.S. Department of Education required states to create “college and career ready” standards to receive federal grants or release from some federal rules, Indiana was never specifically required to adopt Common Core. In fact, an agreement between the state and the U.S. Department of Education releasing Indiana from some of the sanctions of NCLB and required college and career ready standards came more than a year after the state had adopted Common Core, not before.

Even so, Kenley, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and serves on the education committee, said the state has learned from the implementation of NCLB that the federal government can wield strong influence over education in the states. In that case, he said, federal officials used the power to deny federal aid to steer states toward its favored policies even when it was clear the law needed changes.

“The point was we had this No Child Left Behind, which was a federal government effort to try to help in education, and it turned out to be a mess,” Kenley said.

States are better off running their own education policy, he said.

“The main issue here is to assert indiana’s ability to be nimble, to be flexible, to move where we want to go on standards and not be tied down to the federal government or some national coalition,” Kenley said. “The assertion that Indiana set its own standards is the assertion of state’s rights.”

Still, Common Core supporters are not entirely disheartened. Indiana’s process of re-evaluating the standards is not terribly different from what other states have done, Redelman said. Many Common Core principles are likely to remain in state standards. The legislature’s move was mostly symbolic, he said.

When Senate Bill 91’s author, Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, removed himself from the bill and voted against it, that demonstrated Common Core opponents didn’t really get what they wanted, Redelman said.

“If this bill truly withdrew us from Common Core entirely, that wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

Still, Republican leaders argued Indiana is better off debating standards now, when the public is engaged, than in 2010, when few lawmakers, much less the general public, even knew what Common Core was.

“We didn’t have any say in this at all,” Long said. “It was implemented by the Daniels administration and with Tony Bennett without any say front the legislature.”

For Pence, the process being led by Democrat Ritz and the Republican-appointed state board of education will result in better standards than Common Core, he said.

“We are deep into a completely transparent and public process to do that,” Pence said. “We are undergoing maybe an unprecedented effort for any state in the country for developing our standards with broad public input.”

the starting line

Chalkbeat’s launching a newsletter all about early childhood. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post

Our newest newsletter is called The Starting Line, and it’s all about early childhood — those brain-building years from birth to 8 years old.

As the Chalkbeat team has grown over the last five years, so has our coverage of early childhood education. Now, we’re making an even bigger investment in the topic with a monthly newsletter that will feature key early childhood stories from Chalkbeat as well as other news outlets.

In recent months, we’ve written stories about new child care rules that could threaten funding for hundreds of Illinois providers, Teach For America’s efforts to mint preschool teachers in Colorado, and discussions among Indiana leaders about where to find the money for new preschool seats.

Our goal is to keep you informed about broad policy issues in the early childhood world while also sharing on-the-ground stories that provide a window into how it all plays out in the lives of real people.

Expect to see the first issue of The Starting Line in early November. And remember to let us know what you think as it takes shape. If there’s a compelling early childhood topic, trend or study you’d like us to dig into, or an early childhood leader we should profile, let us know.

If you’re interested in receiving The Starting Line, sign up below. Then, send this link to a friend or colleague who cares about early childhood issues, too.

Finally, for those of you who want even more Chalkbeat, we have a ton of other newsletters as well: local dispatches from each of our bureaus — Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter, one designed especially for teachers, and a Spanish-language roundup out of Colorado. Sign up for all our newsletters here.

Inside Chalkbeat

‘If they know we regularly care’: Our New York bureau and its newest reporter are listening up

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza high-fives students at P.S. 78 on Staten Island as they leave after the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

A new name has been popping up at Chalkbeat as our organization continues to grow, and the byline belongs to Reema Amin.

This latest addition to the New York reporting team, which I began overseeing as bureau chief in September, was off to attend her first press conference — held by the mayor, schools chancellor, and teachers union chief — before her first day on the job had ended.

She was instrumental to our reporting on the teachers contract, announced last week, and has already visited Albany, where she will be reporting occasionally on state education policy. Like all members of the New York bureau, she contributed this week to our joint reporting project with ProPublica, exploring whether counselors in New York City schools can really meet students’ needs, especially as student homelessness has reached an all-time high.

Chalkbeat reporter Reema Amin

And most recently, she looked at how a proposed rule change by the Department of Homeland Security could, if adopted, discourage immigrant families from applying for benefits, such as Medicaid, which in turn could threaten the financial viability of the city’s school-based health clinics.  

Reema grew up in Hoffman Estates, a suburb of Chicago, and has worked as a breaking-news reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. She most recently covered the Virginia statehouse for the Daily Press, a newspaper serving communities in the southeastern corner of the state, and co-hosted a politics podcast for the paper.

In Virginia, Reema had just begun covering a rural county when she happened to attend a school board meeting and noticed a distraught mother, whom no one was listening to. Reema did listen. Jessica Leitch had been struggling to get her autistic son the special education services he needed — and qualified for.

Parents like Leitch, Reema said, “keep meticulous records” — they must to advocate for their children. Using this paper trail to start her own investigation, Reema sought out other parents and made public records requests and soon was combing through hundreds of pages of documents to uncover how the district led the region in special education complaints.

One of Reema’s key strategies as a reporter, she says, is to keep in touch with as many different people — parents, teachers, students, education officials and policymakers — as possible on a daily basis. “If they know we regularly care,” she says, “they’re more likely to share” their own experiences and concerns, a philosophy Chalkbeat also embraces.

Reema is joining a veteran Chalkbeat news team in New York.

Reporter Christina Veiga, who joined the bureau in 2016 from the Miami Herald, where she worked for more than a half-dozen years covering city government and later the Miami-Dade Schools, has kept Chalkbeat readers apprised of the latest news about the schools chancellor, the debate over the admissions process to the city’s specialized high schools, and the unfolding push for greater integration in districts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and in Brooklyn.

Alex Zimmerman, who has written for the Village Voice, the Pittsburgh City Paper, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette among other publications, also joined Chalkbeat in 2016. He has reported on the specialized high school debate, on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal and community schools program, the largest of its kind in the country, and whether heavy investments in wraparound social services in schools can really move the needle on students’ academic achievement. He has also provided occasional dispatches from the city’s charter-school sector and explored the challenges faced by students with disabilities.

Our story editor, Carrie Melago, works with me editing stories and helping guide coverage (as well as serving as story editor for our Indiana bureau). Carrie previously honed her sharp news instincts as a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.

My own interest in education began in New York and later Newark, cities where I taught taught for seven years. (I’m also the story editor for Chalkbeat’s Newark bureau.)  Inequities I witnessed as a teacher inspired me to write about these experiences, which in time led to my reporting on education for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic.

Over these same years, the city’s schools — and education nationally — have experienced seismic shifts. In my first classroom in the 1990s, teachers still wrote with chalk, there was no school email or classroom computers. Now teachers can plan lessons — or marches — on Facebook; parents can vent about busing woes on Twitter, and students are regularly part of the online discussion. And some things we really wish had changed haven’t: rates of childhood poverty, homelessness and segregation.

In the New York bureau, we will be tackling some of these subjects anew or as part of our ongoing reporting. We will be making deliberate efforts to engage more with the communities we cover and to amplify their voices. Christina will be looking deeper into one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature education initiatives — his push to rapidly expand early-childhood education. And building on Reema’s and Alex’s past reporting on students with disabilities, we will be taking a harder look at special education in the city. And as classrooms remain the heart of any school, we will be spending more time there. We want to hear from you –whether you are a teacher, a parent, a student, or those responsible for imagining and implementing education policy. Stay tuned for news of our first listening tour, where we come to you to hear your concerns and questions, so we can then go out and address them through our reporting.  

We welcome feedback — about the stories we’ve done, the stories we’re doing and those we’ve missed and should now pursue. You can always reach out to ny.tips@chalkbeat.org. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to one or all of our newsletters. We look forward to the continuing conversation.