Two strikes against Bennett reforms

It’s been a rough week for the Tony Bennett education reform agenda in Indiana.

Monday, the state House of Representatives voted unanimously to drop a requirement that teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores. And Wednesday, the State Board of Education voted to return the operation of four “turnaround academies” to public school districts in Gary and Indianapolis.

Both votes represented reversals of education initiatives that then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett championed in 2011.

State law, adopted that year, requires annual evaluation of teachers that are “significantly informed” by objective measures, such as student scores on standardized tests. Adopted in 2011, it was part of the vogue for using so-called value-added measures to hold teachers accountable for student performance.

Research raised questions about the reliability of that approach, but Indiana policymakers stuck with it – until now. House Bill 1002, which the House approved and sent to the Senate, repeals the requirement that teacher evaluations be informed by objective measures. What’s remarkable is that all 67 Republicans and all 33 Democrats in the House voted for the bill.

Bennett, as superintendent, also engineered a State Board of Education takeover of three chronically failing schools from Indianapolis Public Schools and one from Gary Community Schools. The schools were turned over to for-profit charter school companies to operate.

But the state board voted Wednesday to return those schools to the control of their local public school districts. The votes were 10-0 for Roosevelt College & Career Academy in Gary and 6-2 for Howe and Manual high schools and Emma Donnan Middle School in Indianapolis.

The decision on the Indianapolis schools was contentious, with staff and students from Howe, Manual and Donnan making emotional appeals to keep the schools with their current operator, a nonprofit affiliate of Florida-based Charter Schools USA.

It’s not clear what will happen with Roosevelt, because the state has taken over Gary Community Schools for financial problems, and the district is being managed by a Florida company – oddly enough, a company with ties to Bennett.

In Indy, Indianapolis Public Schools will partner with Christel House Academy, a charter school group, to operate Manual, and it will choose a charter operator for Donnan. IPS will spend the 2020-21 school year planning what programs to offer at Howe, but it will probably not return to being a high school.

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