Indiana dean’s book recounts clash with state superintendent

Gerardo Gonzalez’s “A Cuban Refugee’s Journey to the American Dream” is an inspiring account of the transformative power of education and hard work. It tells the deeply personal story of how Gonzalez grew from a shy, bullied child to a successful scholar and university administrator.

Gonzalez, dean emeritus of the Indiana University School of Education, left Cuba with his family at age 11 and struggled as a Spanish-speaking immigrant in a strange land. An uninspired student, he enrolled in community college on a lark, fell in love with learning and went on to a stellar career.

In the book, he is generous with praise for the family, friends and mentors. Only two figures appear as adversaries: Fidel Castro and Tony Bennett.

Bennett, the Indiana superintendent of public instruction from 2009 to 2013, clashed with Gonzalez over a proposal called REPA, Rules for Educator Preparation and Accountability. The superintendent and his allies wanted to rewrite teacher certification requirements to require more college credits in subject areas like math and let some teachers become licensed without studying education.

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Indiana election a model for pro-public school candidates

There’s a lot of buzz this year about the idea that education could be a winning issue for Democrats in the 2018 election. Candidates who are thinking about highlighting their support for public schools could look for inspiration to the 2012 Indiana election for superintendent of public instruction.

Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, won with a campaign that focused on her support for teachers and her opposition to vouchers and test-based school and educator accountability. In the solidly red state of Indiana, Ritz upset the Republican incumbent Tony Bennett, a hero of the national “education reform” crowd. Her grassroots campaign succeeded even though she was outspent more than 5-to-1.

Glenda Ritz

Glenda Ritz

Yes, Ritz was running to be Indiana’s chief school official, so it made sense that the race focused on education. But education should also be front-and-center in elections for governor and state legislature, offices that makes the laws governing how schools operate.

Ritz won by mobilizing teachers and their friends and supporters. Scott Elliott, then a reporter with the Indianapolis Star, analyzed the results and concluded she won via “a teacher-led movement, online and word-of-mouth, born of frustration with Bennett, his style and his policies.” If that kind of movement can elect a state superintendent, it could elect governors and legislators too.

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School turnaround five years later

It’s been five years since the Indiana State Board of Education took charge of five chronically underperforming urban public schools and handed them over to charter-school operators that were supposed to turn them around. How has that worked out?

Not very well, to judge by Indiana’s A-to-F grading system. Since the takeover, the schools have received two Ds and 18 Fs.

That’s a far cry from what Indiana education officials and the charter operators suggested would happen back in 2012. Scott Elliott, then with the Indianapolis Star, wrote at the time that he was “a bit surprised” the turnaround operators wanted four years to raise the schools’ grades to A or B.

In four years, they didn’t come close. Five years could still bring a different story — school grades for the 2016-17 school year won’t be calculated until this fall — but it doesn’t seem likely.

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Public records quest meets dead end

My obsessive quest to uncover the whole story behind the 2012 Christel House Academy grade-change saga has apparently come to an end. And not a happy one.

One year, one month and 22 days after I filed a public-records request, the Indiana Department of Education responded. “After review of your records request, it was determined the Department does not maintain the records you are requesting,” legal assistant Leslie-Ann James said via email.

Oh, well.

The request was for certain DOE staff emails concerning the A-to-F school grading system that was being rolled out in 2012. The goal was to figure out when and why the department got rid of a “ceiling” on the points schools could earn for English or math test scores or student growth. This has never been explained to my satisfaction.

Remember that Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco unearthed DOE emails last summer that showed then-Superintendent of Public Education freaking out because Christel House, a highly regarded Indianapolis charter school, was going to get a C under the new grading system. Department staff scrambled to make changes, and Christel House ended up with an A. Officials decided to ignore test scores for the school’s high-school students. But that only pushed its grade to a B.

How did it get to an A? Continue reading

Records request leads to wait

A year ago this week, I filed a public-records request with the Indiana Department of Education. I’m still waiting to see if I’ll get what I asked for.

Kelly Bauder, a state DOE staff attorney, admitted this week that the department has been running behind on responding to a trove of records requests. Two employees who were working on the task left the department, she said. A new legal assistant has been hired and is learning the ropes.

“We’re hoping to get caught back up in the next couple of weeks,” she told me.

My request was for copies of departmental emails from 2012 concerning changes in the state’s school grading system. The objective is to tie up a loose end to a story.

Last summer, Associated Press Reporter Tom LoBianco disclosed DOE emails showing how former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and his staff scrambled to tweak the system so Christel House Academy, an Indy charter school run by a Bennett political supporter, would get an A instead of a C.

Those emails showed the department decided not to count the performance of Christel House’s 9th and 10th-graders for accountability purposes. That boosted its grade from a C to a B. How did it get to an A? Thanks to Cynthia Roach, director of assessment for Indianapolis Public Schools, we learned the other change: getting rid of a “ceiling” on points awarded elementary schools for math or English test scores.

But it was never clear when, why and by whom that decision was made. Continue reading

Bennett wins in ethics settlement

Score one for Tony Bennett. The former Indiana superintendent of public instruction not only got off easy for violating state ethics rules, he also got out in front of the news coverage, almost making it seem he was exonerated.

Bennett agreed to pay a $5,000 fine for using state property for political purposes during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign. A report by Inspector General David Thomas said Bennett tracked political events on his state Outlook calendar and used state email for election-related communications, and his staff kept lists of donors on a state server.

The report said Bennett didn’t violate the ethics code by tweaking Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system so a charter school would get an A instead of a C. The school was founded and run by a prominent campaign donor to Bennett and other Republicans.

News of the ethics settlement broke Wednesday when someone leaked a copy to Stephanie Simon of Politico. That someone was almost certainly Bennett or a member of his camp. He’s the only character in this drama with a national profile and an interest in Politico’s influential readership.

And there’s a pretty good irony to that. Bennett’s supporters blame a leak from the staff of his successor, Glenda Ritz, for disclosing the departmental emails that led to the ethics investigation. A plausible interpretation for the political attacks being made against Ritz is that they’re payback for having derailed Bennett’s public-sector career.

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Bennett ethics case a fitting backdrop for Ritz-board spat

It’s an interesting coincidence that news broke of a settlement between Tony Bennett and the State Ethics Commission just as a another dispute between Glenda Ritz – Bennett’s successor as Indiana superintendent of public instruction – and the State Board of Education may be exploding.

The ethics commission opened an investigation of Bennett last year after Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco disclosed emails that show Bennett directed staff to do political work on state time. We won’t know details until Thursday, but Bennett’s high-powered lawyers announced the deal, so it’s likely he’ll face a wrist-slap or less.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s state board meeting could be the ugliest yet in a series marked by nearly open warfare between the elected Democratic state superintendent and the 10 board members appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. On the agenda:

  • A resolution that criticizes Ritz for her handling of Indiana’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law and seeks to elbow her aside for purposes of responding to a federal critique.
  • A proposal to change procedures so the state board and its staff, not just Ritz, will determine the time, place and agenda items for board meetings.
  • An item that says “initiate rulemaking on accountability.” This could mean almost anything, but one possibility is prescribing how schools evaluate teachers.

Ritz’s supporters, including the Indiana State Teachers Association, have been rallying the troops to attend the meeting and back the superintendent. Ritz issued a statement on the NCLB resolution, saying she’s asked Pence to pull it and warning it “will place our waiver in serious jeopardy.” Continue reading