IPS shows way on immigrant students

Between Betsy DeVos in Washington and tight-fisted legislators in Indianapolis, you’d think the education news is all bad. It’s not. And we can thank the Indianapolis Public Schools board for that.

The IPS Board of School Commissioners voted unanimously last week for a resolution expressing support for immigrant students, regardless of whether they and their parents are in the country with proper documents. It’s not just a feel-good statement. The resolution commits IPS to a policy of not asking about students’ immigration status. And it reminds IPS staff that they should not help with immigration enforcement “unless legally required and authorized to do so by the superintendent.”

This is an example that every school board in Indiana should follow. And boards in other states too.

It doesn’t matter whom you voted for in last year’s elections or what you think of immigration as a policy issue. Most children of immigrants are here through no choice of their own. A 1982 Supreme Court decision guarantees them a right to education. Schools have a moral obligation to welcome them. Continue reading

Dark money clouds IPS election

Stand for Children is at it again. The Oregon-based education advocacy group is spending big money to determine who gets elected to the Indianapolis Public Schools board.

That in itself could be cause for concern. But what’s really troubling is that the amount Stand for Children is spending and the source of its money are being kept secret.

If you or I give more than $100 to a candidate for school board or any other public office, the contribution is made public. And candidates have to report how they spend campaign money. But Stand for Children is carrying out a so-called independent campaign in support of the slate of IPS candidates endorsed by its Indianapolis branch. So under the law, it doesn’t have to tell us anything.

It is sending glossy mailers to residences in the IPS district, an expensive undertaking that you might expect in a race for mayor but not in a school board election. It did the same thing in the 2014 IPS election, and its favored candidates won by overwhelming margins.

Judging by the limited and vague information Stand for Children reports to the Internal Revenue Service on its Form 990, it’s a safe bet the organization spent $200,000 or more in Indy in 2014. The report says it paid an Indianapolis firm over $140,000 for printing and mailing services. It also reportedly paid individuals to stand at the polls and hand out fliers on Election Day.

That would be in line with what the group reported spending this year on school board elections in Nashville, Tenn., where it is now facing complaints that it violated campaign finance laws.

But Jim Scheurich, part of the local Our IPS group that is pushing back against Stand and endorsing a different slate, estimates the group is spending considerably more than that this year in Indianapolis. Continue reading

Why Indiana has charter schools and Kentucky doesn’t

Indiana has one of the most active charter school programs in the nation while Kentucky has no charter schools, not even a law that allows them. How did that come about?

Sociologist Joe Johnston attributes the divergence to perceptions of public schools in the state’s biggest cities: negative for Indianapolis and generally positive for Louisville. And he traces those perceptions back to district boundary decisions made 40 years ago.

“It’s become so common to think of urban schools as failing, as these places that can’t possibly succeed,” he told me. “It’s interesting that, when you change the boundaries and have a different sort of school district, people can rally around that.”

Johnston, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University, conducted research on the history of charter school debates in Indiana and Kentucky as a graduate student at Indiana University, where he received a doctorate in May. He presented his study Saturday in Chicago at the 110th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Indiana adopted a charter school law in 2001 and has seen a rapid spread of charter schools. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools ranks it as one of the most charter-friendly states in the country. But Kentucky, which is contiguous with and politically and demographically similar to Indiana, is one of a handful of states without charter schools.

To understand how that came about, Johnston conducted a detailed comparison of education policy development in the two states from 2002-12. He analyzed 2,200 newspaper articles, gubernatorial and mayoral speeches and school reform group documents.

In Indiana, he shows, the push for charter schools was intimately tied to the argument that Indianapolis Public Schools were failing. This squares with what I saw as a reporter covering the Statehouse during the charter debates. Just like elsewhere across the country, charter schools were sold as an alternative to failing urban schools – specifically IPS.

But in Kentucky, there wasn’t the same sentiment that public schools in Louisville were under-performing; there was nothing like the hand-wringing and finger-pointing directed at IPS. While Indiana and other states rushed to create charter school programs, Kentucky held out.

Continue reading

New ideas at Indianapolis Public Schools

Lewis Ferebee is doing so many things right in his new gig as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools. Let’s hope his support for legislation to let IPS partner with charter schools and try new methods to improve district schools is one of them.

He is making a persuasive case for the measure, House Bill 1321, by arguing that IPS needs every tool it can find to meet the needs of its mostly low-income clientele and to compete for students with charter schools and voucher-eligible private schools.

But he is walking a fine line in his efforts to promote the legislation without alienating supporters of public schools, especially teachers – a sign of how polarized Indiana’s education politics have become after years of union-bashing and IPS-bashing.

HB 1321 would give IPS authority to do two things:

  • Convert low-performing schools to “innovation network” schools, which would continue to serve IPS neighborhoods but would have charter school-like autonomy to hire staff, lengthen the school day or year, and change curriculum and instruction.
  • Lease empty or underutilized buildings to charter schools, whose students would count as part of IPS for purposes of funding and state accountability.

“IPS supports HB 1321 because it will provide the district with innovative tools to improve academic achievement, increase student enrollment and provide families with a greater range of choices to meet their child’s educational needs,” says an IPS flier.

Everyone knows IPS has been a school district under siege. Continue reading

Where did the students go?

Something is missing from the Indianapolis Star’s story on Sunday celebrating the “turnaround” success at the city’s Emma Donnan Middle School:

About 500 kids.

The story, headlined “The taming of a long-troubled school,” contrasts the relatively calm 2012-13 year with the reported chaos of previous years at the school. The state took over Emma Donnan from Indianapolis Public Schools in 2012 and turned its management over to Florida-based Charter Schools USA, designated a “turnaround school operator.”

“Over the past 10 months, CSUSA created an environment where once fearful students felt safe,” writes the Star’s Robert King. “And it brought back some of the things that define a school but had lone gone missing,” like a student council, yearbook and athletic teams.

King credits the new management, fewer students and “strong support for a group of young, idealistic teachers” as reasons for success. But you have to read deep into the story to learn we’re talking about a lot fewer students. Enrollment dropped from nearly 900 to fewer than 400 when CSUSA took over.

What happened to the other 500 students? How did the state-brokered turnaround help them? One student tells the Star: “The bad kids from last year, they weren’t here?” Where were they? Was their education being turned around?

Enrollment dropped at Emma Donnan, but funding didn’t. Continue reading

Could Hinckley’s instructional focus be what IPS needs?

Peggy Hinckley, the new interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, doesn’t much sound like she plans to be a caretaker. Could that present a dilemma for advocates of big-idea education reform in Indy?

Hinckley takes over from Eugene White, who accepted a buyout after he lost school board support. She retired last year after 11 years as superintendent of Warren Township schools.

The Indianapolis Star’s Scott Elliott recently pointed to reasons that Hinckley and IPS may not be a good match even for the short term. Her approach is “laser focused on standardizing instruction,” he writes. The dominant vision of reform in Indianapolis, by contrast, involves choices for parents and autonomy for schools. It’s modeled on the Mind Trust’s “opportunity schools” plan and the Center for the Reinvention of Public Education’s portfolio schools concept.

This approach seems to go hand-in-hand with a yearning for visionary, “cage-busting” leaders. Mind Trust founder and CEO David Harris argues in a recent Star op-ed that IPS should be free to hire non-educators as superintendents. Star opinion editor Tim Swarens adds that the district’s new leader should be a “reformer.”

But Hinckley suggests that meaningful reform involves what happens in the classroom. Continue reading

Mind Trust CEO: Mayoral control no longer part of IPS transformation plan

When the Mind Trust unveiled its plan to transform Indianapolis Public Schools late last year, a key component was turning control over to the Indianapolis mayor. That’s no longer part of the deal, Mind Trust CEO David Harris said Wednesday.

“It turns out, we were the only people who thought this was a good idea,” Harris said at a Bloomington symposium on urban education. “The reality is, it’s not going anywhere.”

One problem was the fundamental fact that IPS is just one of 11 school districts in Marion County, and its residents are a minority of Indianapolis voters. Another: Mayor Greg Ballard turned out not to be interesting in running the schools.

Harris shared a stage with IPS Superintendent Eugene White, and they found a few points of agreement. Both said Indiana should invest in pre-kindergarten education. And both said it’s crucial to hire and keep good teachers. But, not surprisingly, they expressed different visions for the future of IPS at the Bloomington forum sponsored by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Harris pushed the plan, which the Mind Trust unveiled almost a year ago, to remake IPS into a system of autonomous “opportunity schools,” with responsibility on the principals, not central administration. “We don’t think the people are the problem,” he said. “We think the structure itself needs to change.”

White said it’s naïve to think you can dramatically change results by changing structure. “You don’t go, in urban education, from where we are to utopia,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. It has to be a process.”

On early childhood education, White lamented that Indiana not only doesn’t fund pre-kindergarten programs, it doesn’t require school attendance until age 7. Harris said Indiana is “in the Dark Ages on that front;” it’s one of 11 states that don’t fund pre-K.

That puts the two in alignment with the 7,200 Indianapolis residents who responded to a survey Continue reading