School grade oversight moved to legislative agency

The battle for control of Indiana's education policy escalated Friday when top Republican lawmakers shifted calculation of school accountability grades for the 2012-2013 school year from the Department of Education to the Legislature's bill-drafting shop.

House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long signed off on a request from Republican appointees to the State Board of Education.

The board members crafted a letter Wednesday questioning why Superintendent Glenda Ritz has yet to release the A-F grades or teacher effectiveness ratings. The letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press, also requested that responsibility for compiling the rankings be shifted from the Department of Education to the Legislature's nonpartisan analysis and bill-drafting arm.

The move comes amid an overhaul of the grading formula following a grade-changing scandal involving former state schools chief Tony Bennett. Bennett resigned as Florida's schools chief in August after The Associated Press reported he had overhauled Indiana's grading formula to ensure a charter school founded by a top Republican donor received an A.

It's also the latest scuffle in what's becoming a power struggle between Republicans and Ritz, the lone Democrat holding a statewide office. Since Ritz defeated Bennett last November, lawmakers have considered diluting her power on the board, a Bennett ally on the board has taken control of long-term planning for the group and Gov. Mike Pence created a second education agency charged with shaping education policy along with job-training initiatives.

The A-F grades have become increasingly important in recent years. They help determine teacher pay and school funding and whether schools that receive failing grades are turned over to private operators. They also play a role in home sales as families weigh education rankings before deciding where to buy a house.

The letter sent Wednesday expresses concern that the grades haven't been released yet this year.

"As members of the Board, we send this letter out of concern for ensuring that school accountability information is provided to Indiana schools, educators, and families in as timely a manner as possible. We are now mid-way through October, and the Department has yet to report 2012-2013 A-F grades or release teacher effectiveness ratings as required under Indiana law," the group wrote.

Ten members of the 11-member board, all appointed by either former Gov. Mitch Daniels or Pence, signed the letter.

Ritz is on an education trip to China. Though the letter was emailed to Ritz and other board members Thursday night, DOE spokesman David Galvin said her staff did not see the letter until Friday.

"The Pence-appointed state board of education and its staff is insistent on perpetuating a rushed, inaccurate, and untested labeling system for our schools," Galvin said.

Friday's move effectively places the running of data through Bennett's school-grading formula with the LSA, but leaves the final say on issuing grades with the state board.

Two factors have consistently popped up in the debate over grading: speed and transparency.

A pair of investigators hired by the state's legislative leaders determined Bennett and his team had rushed out school grades last year and operated outside the public eye. As part of their monthlong investigation, Republican analyst Bill Sheldrake and Democratic analyst John Grew were given access to the raw data the Department of Education uses to calculate school grades.

The board members reasoned in their letter Wednesday that Grew and Sheldrake proved legislative analysts can issue the letter grades faster than Ritz's office. They noted in the letter that the process could drag out even longer because schools can appeal their grades.

Galvin noted that school rankings are based largely on ISTEP+ scores, which were delayed after computer issues knocked thousands of students offline while taking the test this spring. Galvin said that delay and fallout from the Bennett grade-change scandal pushed the education department's timeline for releasing school grades to November.

Galvin said the department had told the board it would finalize ISTEP scores at the start of next month and could have preliminary grades out by the end of the month.

But that lengthy timeline is having a real impact on the state's educators, said Lou Ann Baker, a spokeswoman Pence's new Center for Education and Career Innovation, which staffs the state board of education.

"The Department of Education continues to drag their feet, despite public statements, on topics that they are required by law, but that they philosophically oppose," she wrote in an email. "And their refusal to do their job jeopardizes teacher raises, performance grants for schools, and compliance with state and federal law. If they feel rushed, it is only because they have chosen to put themselves in that position by not doing their job."

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