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Board takes control of state takeover from Ritz

December 3, 2014

The Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday wrested more control over the process for taking over failing schools from state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, and board members will ask the state legislature to give it broader powers to take over more troubled schools, and even school districts.

Far-reaching new rules the board approved include calls for a shorter road to possible takeover — four years instead of six — and shift oversight of the takeover process from Ritz and the Indiana Department of Education to the state board and its staff at Gov. Mike Pence’s Center for Education and Career innovation.

Ritz, who has complained that Pence uses CECI to diminish her authority, characterized the move as the board’s most blatant power grab yet.

“We’re really talking about the State Board of Education really taking on being the state education agency in place of the Department of Education,” Ritz said. “And that’s not how this works.”

Board member Brad Oliver responded that state takeover needs to be done differently.

“The board is well within its right to say, ‘We can do this better,’” he said.

Board member Dan Elsener said it’s up to the state board, not Ritz, to assure children in low-scoring schools get better opportunities to succeed.

“We want every authority to move to the advantage of these children,” he said.

The board’s moves address some of the most contentious divides that have emerged among the state, school districts with failing schools that become eligible for state takeover and outside organizations the state hires to manage those schools independently.

Indiana today has six schools in state takeover: four in Indianapolis, one in Gary and one in Evansville. In most of those cases, the schools were severed from district control and turned over to be managed by companies or not-for-profit groups with experience running charter schools.

Since the first takeovers in 2012, the districts and the takeover groups have had intense disagreements in Indianapolis and Gary. For example, the operator of Indianapolis’ Manual and Howe high schools and Donnan Middle School, Charter Schools USA, complained that Indianapolis Public Schools delayed sharing student academic records. In Gary, Roosevelt HIgh School’s operator, Edison Learning, asked the state for help after it said the district wasn’t doing enough to resolve heating problems in the building.

Critics of the state takeover process also argue that it has failed to improve the schools. Several have seen enrollment drop dramatically since they were taken over and all of the schools have remained poor performers on state tests. Only Manual has seen its grade rise above an F, to a D last year.

Lower enrollment meant less state aid than expected for some schools, leading to a budget shortfall that led Tindley Accelerated Schools to withdraw early from its contract to manage Indianapolis’ Arlington High School. The state board today is expected to separately approve IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s plan to take back control of Arlington, merging it with John Marshall High School.

Shocked by Tindley’s decision to pull out, the state board in August named a committee to recommend changes to try to make the intervention process run more smoothly. Public Impact, a North Carolina-based national education consulting firm, was paid $48,000 to help the committee develop the changes.

Among the recommendations the board approved:

Make more schools eligible for takeover sooner. Currently, takeover can only occur under state law when a school has been rated an F by the state for low test scores for six straight years. The state board will ask the legislature to drop that threshold to four years of D or F grades that could trigger state takeover.

Allow takeover of school districts. The state board will ask the legislature to establish a process for the state to take over school districts rated as failing academically or in financial distress. In that case, the state board would manage the district in place of the local school board.

Move oversight of takeover schools to the state board. Currently Ritz and the education department manage the takeover process. Now the state board will create a new “turnaround unit” that reports to community councils in each district with schools in intervention to provide input. The turnaround unit will have access to education department funding and its data. Future contracts for takeover groups will include the state and the school district with clearer dividing lines for the responsibilities of each.

Add more state funding. The state board will ask the legislature for two new funding streams to help the takeover process. One would provide state grants to supplement federal school improvement grants. The state’s grants would last five years and oversight of the federal grant process would be moved from the education department to the state board. A separate proposal calls for the state to create a special loan fund for building repairs for schools in state takeover.

Give the state control over school buildings. The state board will ask the legislature to also take over authority and funding for building maintenance and busing for each school when it takes control. In future takeovers, the state will require school districts to conduct a districtwide evaluation and master plan for their school building use and could use that information to determine if the takeover school should be closed.

Allow takeover schools to be operated like charter schools. The state board will ask the legislature to extend to every district in the state with more than one school in intervention the powers awarded to IPS in a bill passed in March. That new law allows IPS to hire charter schools or other independent teams of educators to run low-rated schools with more autonomy. That law was controversial, as teachers unions raised concerns that teaching jobs could be reassigned to outside organizations, forcing teachers out of the union and out from under the job protections and pay minimums of the district’s union contract.

Dump lead partners. The state board no longer plans to use a milder form of intervention it calls “lead partners.” A small number of schools were not taken over but were assigned outside organizations to assist with specific needs while the district retained control over them. In its place, districts can adopt a model used in Evansville. That district created a “transformation zone,” or a special division, to oversee one of its failing schools and four schools that feed into it to try to improve test scores. IPS has also created a special oversight process for 11 of its most troubled schools and has proposed serving as its own lead partner in a similar way

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