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.”

Chalkbeat

Coming soon (and hiring now): Chalkbeat in Chicago and Newark

Top: Chicago skyline via Flickr/Carroll. Bottom: Newark via Wikimedia Commons/Jamaalcobbs

Dear readers,

We have some exciting news: After hearing from community leaders across the country, we’ve selected the next two places where we’ll launch Chalkbeat coverage.

By early 2018 — just a year after launching in Detroit, our fifth city — we’ll have Chalkbeat coverage in Chicago and Newark, New Jersey.

The timing couldn’t be better. Both Chicago and Newark are in the midst of sweeping changes with far-reaching consequences for students and families, educators, and communities.

Chicago is living an education paradox: Poverty, violence, and deep segregation present steep challenges for students, their families, and their schools. After a last-minute budget deal, the city school district remains on the brink of financial disaster. At the same time, Chicago boasts one of the fastest-improving big city school systems in the nation, a conclusion so unexpected that a Stanford researcher double-checked his work before confirming it.

Amid these highs and lows, Chicago’s public schools face a slew of changes at every level of the school system. In the K-12 system, school closures and bureaucratic overhauls have made a complicated system more confusing for many families. City officials also want to lead the country by dramatically growing the number of children enrolled in public prekindergarten, and, controversially, by not allowing students to graduate unless they have a plan for what to do next.

In Newark, meanwhile, an effort to overhaul the local schools with performance pay for teachers and more charter schools — driven in part by Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation in 2010 — initially led to a three-year test score decline that has recently bounced back and turned positive in English, according to a new study.

Today, one third of Newark students are enrolled in charter schools, one of the highest percentages in the country. The school district, meanwhile, is returning to the control of a locally elected school board after years of being run by state-appointed managers. As we’re seeing in Detroit, where a similar transition is underway, the shift to local control comes with great optimism — and high stakes.

Both cities have important stories that the whole country can learn from. But while there are talented journalists producing great stories about education in both Chicago and Newark, both cities lack the depth of coverage they will need to navigate so much change.

Chicago recently lost a longtime news source dedicated to covering schools, Catalyst. And the two major Chicago newspapers have seen their reporting teams diminish significantly, in keeping with trends in newsrooms across the country. The local public radio station, WBEZ, has admirably stepped up to fill gaps, creating a dedicated education reporting team. But there is much more in-depth daily reporting to be done.

In Newark, the local newspaper, the Star-Ledger, has also seen its reporting resources diminish in recent years. And while a laudable nonprofit news organization, NJ Spotlight, has offered thoughtful and high-impact coverage of education across New Jersey, dedicated education coverage by and for Newark has been unsettlingly scarce, especially for a city that is so often in the national headlines.

Community leaders in Chicago and Newark asked us to launch Chalkbeat coverage in their cities because they want to change that. So do we. As we expand our coverage, our goal is to scrutinize and explain what’s changing, what’s working, and what’s at stake as the cities’ schools transform. Readers in Chicago and Newark also deserve to hear — and share — firsthand accounts of the parents, students, and teachers who are living through the changes.

For Chalkbeat’s readers in our five existing locations and across the country, the expansion means that we’ll be connecting even more local dots through our national coverage. Our new national newsletter — sign up now!— will be a great place to read the highlights from Chicago and Newark and learn how how they fit into the unfolding national story of efforts to improve education for poor children.

The growth also means that we’re hiring. We’re already looking to fill two new positions, story editor and Detroit reporter, and have some other roles open, too. Now, we’re opening searches for someone to lead our team in Chicago and a senior reporter in Newark, where we’re launching a one-year pilot as we explore more permanent coverage. If you or someone you know is a fit for any of these positions, let us know now. We are lucky to work with some of the most talented journalists in the country, and we can’t wait to expand our team.

And for our future readers in Chicago and Newark — we won’t be able to do this without you. If you have ideas for us, feel free to reach out now. You can also sign up here to to get updates about our launches in Chicago, Newark, or both.

This post has been updated to more accurately describe the findings of a recent study of Newark school reforms.

Student count

Aurora school enrollment continues sharp decline, but budget woes not expected

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The number of students enrolled in Aurora schools this fall dropped by almost twice as much as last year, part of a trend district officials have blamed in part on gentrification as housing prices in Aurora climb.

This year, as of Oct. 2, the district has enrolled 41,294 students from preschool through 12th grade. That’s 867 fewer students than last year — and almost twice the number of students lost between 2015 and 2016.

Last October, staff told the board that district enrollment had dropped by a historic amount. At the time, enrollment was 41,926, down 643 from 2015. By the end of the 2016-17 school year, the district had enrolled almost 200 more students.

But in Colorado, school districts are given money on a per-student count that’s based on the number of students enrolled on count day, which this year was Oct. 2.

The district expects to see a similar decline in students again next school year, but expects that new developments start bringing more children to the district in the future.

The good news, provided in the update given to the Aurora school board Tuesday night, is that district officials saw it coming this time.

“The magnitude of the impact is not the same as last year,” said Superintendent Rico Munn. “This kind of decline is now something we will predict and budget to.”

Because enrollment numbers are higher than what officials predicted, the budget that the board approved over the summer should not need adjustments for the current year.

Last year, Aurora Public Schools had to cut more than $3 million in the middle of the year. District officials also worked on gathering input and finding ways to shrink the 2017-18 budget by up to $31 million, but better than expected funding from the state meant the district didn’t end up cutting the full $31 million.

The district may look for ways to trim the budget again next year in anticipation of another anticipated enrollment decline.

Board members asked about other factors that may be contributing to enrollment declines, such as school reputations, and asked about how staff predict future enrollment.

Superintendent Munn told the board that the enrollment decreases are changing several conversations in the district.

“APS was not in the business of marketing our schools,” Munn said. But this year, the district launched an interactive map with school information on the district website to help feature all schools, their programs and their performance measures, and has been doing outreach to the approximately 4,000 Aurora students who leave to attend neighboring districts.

Three schools also received district-level help in creating targeted marketing.

One of those three schools was South Middle School, a low-performing school in the northwest part of the district where enrollment declines are especially drastic.

This year, after receiving some marketing assistance, South was one of few schools in the district that saw enrollment increased. The school’s Oct. 2 enrollment was 825, up from 734 last year.