Nearly 80 schools, districts could face takeover under bill

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A bill in the Legislature would allow the State Board of Education to take over as many as 79 struggling schools around the state and even to seize control of the districts that oversee them.

House Bill 1638 would give significant new powers to the state board to turn around “failing schools”—those earning a D or F grade from the Indiana Department of Education for at least four straight years.

That’s a much lower bar than exists now. A school is not eligible for state takeover until it receives an F grade for six straight years. In 2011, the state board took control of five schools and hired charter school operators to manage them.

But members of the state board—who are appointed by the governor—say those turnaround efforts have been hampered by a lack of flexibility, both for the state board and for district administrators trying to improve performance of struggling schools.

“The previous approach of putting out an RFP and selecting a lead partner [as an outside manager], I think that was introducing some challenges. Because if you’ve got a school that’s struggling, it’s still part of a district,” said Brad Oliver, a member of the state board appointed by Gov. Mike Pence. “I’m hopeful that the reaction actually will be that school districts like this more holistic approach.”

Rep. Bob Behning, the sponsor of HB 1638, said he hopes the legislation provides new tools to help districts improve their worst schools—potentially without the state board having to hire outside managers to step in.

“The reality is, we don’t want to be in the school takeover business, at least not for the long term,” Behning said, while sitting in an office in the Statehouse. But, he added, waiting six years to try to improve a school is not fair to the kids.

Behning, who chairs the House education committee, said his tentative plan is to hold a hearing on HB 1638 on Feb. 5.

The bill, requested by the state board in December, would require schools that receive a D or F grade from state authorities to start a dialogue with the board of education right away. After four years of D or F grades, the district or the state board could hire an outside manager to take over the struggling school and work to improve it.

The bill also would allow the state board or the district to create a “school transformation zone” inside the district. Such zones would include the failing school or schools, but also schools feeding into them, such as elementary and middle schools that typically send their students to a struggling high school.

A transformation zone could be managed by the district. Or, if the state board did not like the district's plans, the board could hire an outside manager to oversee schools in the zone.

The zones could encompass an entire district, but Behning said that likely would happen only in smaller districts with only one high school.

The bill would also allow a district or the state board to create new feeder schools—run by private management teams, as is the case now with charter schools. The new schools would compete for students with the existing schools, possibly reducing the district’s overall revenue, the Indiana Legislative Services Agency noted in its fiscal analysis of the bill.

The agency said 49 schools have received a D or F for four straight years, and another 30 would join that list if they receive a D or F this year.

The concept of a transformation zone has been employed successfully in Nashville, Tennessee, and at the Evansville schools, Behning noted. He also said Indianapolis Public Schools, via legislation passed last year, is trying something similar with its most challenged schools.

Even so, giving the state board authority to take over entire districts is something new. The idea was floated by former state schools chief Tony Bennett before he was defeated by Glenda Ritz, who has rejected the idea. A message left for a Ritz spokesman was not returned.

J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Superintendents, said he would have to talk to his members before commenting.

But even Behning acknowledged there would be pushback from school leaders.

“I would not say this is an easy bill to get through the General Assembly,” he said.

There will also be some opposition from teachers unions. That’s because the bill would allow schools that are part of a zone to use non-unionized teachers—as Indiana’s charter schools do—or to alter some of the provisions of the district’s union contract for the teachers at zone schools.

“I don’t know that that has anything to do with improving schools. I just think it’s about quieting the voice of the educators,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

She added that the zone created by Evansville was done in cooperation with the teachers union there, rather than as a way to work around the union.

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