Muncie schools exempted from state grading, accountability laws

Republicans in the Indiana legislature have been hard-core supporters of school accountability for about as long as I can remember, so it seems odd that they would toss it out the window as part of a deal that hands control of Muncie Community Schools to Ball State University.

But they did. The state law that calls for schools to receive A-to-F grades on the basis of student test scores and other measures? Muncie schools will be exempt. The law requiring state intervention and potential takeover for schools that consistently get low grades? Exempt from that too.

Those provisions of House Bill 1315 got almost no attention in public debate or the news media before the legislation was approved on a near party-line vote in a special session Monday. One wonders how many lawmakers knew they were in the bill before they arrived to get their marching orders.

In general, the legislation doubles down on the state’s year-old takeover of financially troubled Muncie and Gary Community Schools. In addition to inviting Ball State to take charge of Muncie schools, it weakens the elected Gary school board and strengthens the emergency manager who runs the district.

Ball State’s trustees will meet today to approve a resolution to take over Muncie Community Schools. The trustees and Ball State president will appoint a school board to replace the elected Muncie board.

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Tony Bennett’s sad fall

Tony Bennett went down defiant and dissembling, insisting he did nothing wrong when he boosted the grade of a charter school run by a political supporter. That’s too bad. Everyone would give him a lot more credit if he owned up to making a mistake.

Bennett resigned Thursday as Florida commissioner of education, saying he didn’t want the state to be distracted by the grade-changing scandal from 2012, when he was Indiana superintendent of public instruction. He blamed “malicious and unfounded reports” and insisted he was only trying to make sure the grading system was fair for all.

“What we did in Indiana was very simple,” Bennett said. “We found a statistical anomaly that did not allow 13 schools to have their grade truly reflect their performance because they were unfairly penalized for kids they didn’t have in their school. That wasn’t rigging anything. I believe we did the right thing for Indiana schools and Indiana children.”

But the intra-departmental emails that Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco unearthed tell a very different story. Bennett was focused on making sure Christel House Academy, an Indianapolis charter school founded by philanthropist and GOP mega-donor Christel DeHaan, got an A. Christel House initially got a C because its high-school-age students bombed the state algebra exam. But Bennett knew Christel House was an A school – so the scoring system had to be changed.

As Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation writes, “It’s clear from the emails obtained by the AP that he was working backward from a pre-determined outcome in applying the state’s accountability rules to charter schools he favored … That’s the opposite of equal justice under the law.” Carey adds that Bennett crossed a line when he mischaracterized the grading change in a Q&A this week with supporter Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. Continue reading

State gets ready for take-over of low-performing schools

Twenty-three Indiana schools could be facing take-over by private management companies or other school turnaround agents under a rule that the State Board of Education is set to adopt Dec. 1.

That sounds like strong medicine, and it has stirred up some controversy in Indiana education circles. But Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett says it’s one of the prescriptions that the state legislature included in Indiana’s school accountability law, known as Public Law 221.

The law, passed in 1999, says an option for persistently low-achieving schools is “assigning a special management team to operate all or part of the school.” Other options include closing the schools and merging them with other schools, a DOE memo explains.

Schools can be considered for take-over if they have been in the lowest category of achievement and improvement – until recently called called academic probation – for six consecutive years.

“The state can no longer afford to turn a blind eye,” Bennett said in a message to school employees. “Instead, the state owes it to the students to try to turn around these schools. Continue reading