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Gov. Pence Eliminates CECI, Pushes For Appointed Board Of Education Chair

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The long running dispute between Indiana Governor Mike Pence and State Superintendent of Education Glenda Ritz seems to have switched battlegrounds.

Both won their respective offices on fundamentally opposing education policy platforms. Pence adheres to the nation-wide Republican promotion of what has been labelled “school choice”, which means the use of public funds to finance vouchers for private schools and turning under-performing public schools into privately controlled charter schools.

Ritz, a former school librarian, teacher’s union leader, and public education activist, ran on a platform of strengthening public schools and against the increasing emphasis on high stakes state-wide tests, the state-run school grading system, the shift to performance based teacher pay, and what she and her allies saw as the general devaluation of the teaching profession.

This ideological opposition was aggravated when e-mails were discovered showing that Ritz’s predecessor – Tony Bennett, a former gym teacher and the GOP candidate who Ritz defeated – had tried to manipulate the school grading system for the benefit of a favored charter school while he was in office. Republicans blamed Ritz for the e-mail release. Tensions mounted when, soon after Ritz took office, Pence created the Center for Education and Career Innovation, C.E.C.I., to reside within his office and staffed with his personal appointees. Ritz viewed Pence’s creation of a parallel education department as an attempt to usurp her policy making power.

Ritz sued Pence, charging a violation of her constitutional powers. The suit was dismissed on a technicality last fall. However, this issue became moot when Pence announced last week that he was dissolving his education center effective February 20th. He coupled this move with an announcement that he would be requesting the state assembly pass legislation allowing the state board of education to elect its chair. The superintendent is by law automatically chair of the board. However, the Governor appoints the other ten members of the board.

Mark Stoops, member of the state senate for district 40, which includes all of Bloomington and most of Monroe and Brown Counties, is a member of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

“I’d like to think Pence saw the writing on the wall and I think what this means is they’ve decided to go after Ritz and make her elected position an appointed position,” Stoops says. “That’s a real problem.”

Since the mid-19th century Indiana’s constitution has recognized the office of education superintendent as separate from all other branches of state government and it is unique under state law in being the only elected government department head. Consequently, Ritz and others have seen Pence’s efforts to usurp Ritz’s power as being in violation of the state constitution and the state code.

However, Senator Stoops does not hold to this view.

“I believe that the legislature votes and approves a measure to remove Superintendent of Public Instruction as automatic chair of the Board of Education, that would probably be legal,” Stoops says.

Since her election, Ritz has found support in the state assembly for many of her policies, in particular the senate supported maintaining federal Common Core standards.

However, Senator Stoops thinks that the majority of the members of the General Assembly will go along with Pence’s campaign against the current superintendent of education.

“Unfortunately I think the message from the past election is that the public doesn’t really care what they do and they’ll use that as an opportunity to push more privatized public education,” Stoops says.

Senator Stoops noted that several candidates running as democrats during the last election, some of them teachers and principals, and strong advocates of public schooling, were leading in the polls up to the election. However, they were defeated after a last minute mailing from the Republicans claiming support for public education, and promising to increase funding for the public system.

“I think we have to be wary because some schools are seriously close to being in a position of being taken over, and people need to understand that this is imminent,” Stoops says. “This is something we could see in Monroe County pretty soon.”

Indiana already leads the nation in the creation of charter schools. Governor Pence has promised to increase the pace of this process.

Monroe County Schools Start This Week

Local public schools opened to new and returning students Monday. Bev Smith, a spokesperson for the Monroe County Community School Corporation says that August 4 was the earliest the schools had opened for many years. This increasingly early start coincides with an early finish to the school year in year, in mid-May.

No final numbers have been tabulated as to student enrollment for the this school year. The 2013-2014 year ended with over 10,000 students. For the last few years, the district has averaged between 10 and 11 thousand children.

Smith says that the district will be working on incorporating the new state mandated and generated common core curricular standards into the school lessons. The district is also working on what it calls cultural competency, which  entails increasing diversity among faculty and classroom content, so as to improve the academic performance of minorities. These programs could help schools such as Fairview Elementary which has been given a F grade by state for the last few years.

“Looking at Fairview and really fine-tuning what’s going on there, again we have a new principal there in place which brings a great deal of experience so we look forward to what his experience will yield and mean for Fairview and its quest to improve not only a grade that it receives from the state but really showing and showcasing what children learn and know,” Smith says.

At the other end of the performance spectrum are the schools at which the district hopes to introduce international baccaleureate programs.

 

 

 

 

MCCSC Board of Trustees open meeting to discuss local ‘F’ grade schools

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Members of the public will get to hear and comment on proposals to address the “F” grades given by the state to Fairview and Highland Park schools.

The opportunity will come this evening, when the Board of Trustees of the Monroe County Community School Corporation opens its regular meeting.

The principals of the two elementary schools will present their proposals for improvement, and then the public will be able to respond and offer suggestions to the Board.

Fairview School has been in the news over the last couple months, following initial changes proposed by interim principal Tammy Miller that resulted in an uproar from some pupils and their parents.

Parental pressure and the accompanying publicity prompted the board and the principal to hold several Focus Group meetings with parents, teachers, and administrators.

Amanda Nickey is a parent of a Fairview student, was involved in the initial protests, and attended one of these focus group meetings.

“The meetings are structured and led by a staff member,” Nickey says, “They led us through big picture questions with Fairview and the community and then getting more specific about programs important to us parents. We were able to share our perspectives and opinions.”

There were two other focus group sessions, and no more of these or other parent-staff meetings have been scheduled by the school or the board. Nickey says she is taking a wait-and-see position on Fairview’s response to the public’s concern.

“It’s not over yet, and I don’t know if I’m satisfied,” Nickey says.

She says she is waiting to see if parental input gathered at the focus groups sessions will be incorporated in any plans addressing Fairview’s academic performance problems. Nickey also says there was another private meeting, called by the school board, in which a State Department of Education official was in attendance.

However, she has not seen nor heard what was addressed or proposed. Some leaders of the Fairview Parent-Teacher Organization also organized a more open meeting at Crestmont. One of the main topics was the lack of official communication with parents. This shortcoming, and a perceived lack of consultation with parents, provided the initial impetus for the protests back in January.

Nevertheless, Nickey doesn’t think that school and board communication with parents has significantly improved.

“I just got an email and phone call today about the meeting today,” Nickey says, “For a lot of parents, that’s just not enough time to know about something like that.”

The open portion of tonight’s board meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m.

Aside from academic performance issues at Fairview and Highland Park elementary schools, the agenda also includes proposals for next year’s class pupil-to-teacher ratios, and a board resolution opposing the Indiana government’s proposal to eliminate Indiana Business Personal Property Tax. The class ratio proposal will offer a range of sizes from kindergarten through to grade 12 for the various schools.

The resolution on the business tax arises from the potential negative impact on the MCCSC budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, if the tax is eliminated.

Critical discussion on ISTEP and standardized testing this Sunday at YMCA

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The Indiana Coalition for Public Education is holding a discussion about ISTEP and other standardized testing this Sunday at the YMCA.

Parents, teachers, and members of the community are invited to attend the discussion. The event is free for everyone. Phil and Joan Harris, authors of The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do, will lead the discussion.

Phil Harris was once a member of the faculty at Indiana University. The two do not agree with how standardized testing is used in Indiana, and believe it distorts education systems. Jennifer Livesay, a board member for the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, talks about the event.

“We want to look at the role ISTEP is playing on the eve of ISTEP testing at local schools,” Livesay says, “The writers of the book are very critical of the role of standardized testing, so they’ll share their perspective.”

This discussion will be held the day before ISTEP testing starts in Indiana, on March 2nd, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the new YMCA on the northwest side of town. Livesay says she hopes the event will serve as a platform for future discussions on the topic.

 

Fairview Elementary Labeled ‘Priority School’ By State, Students Not Reading at Grade Level

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The principal at Fairview Elementary says most of its students are not reading at grade level. That literacy issue was the centerpiece of a presentation about Fairview issues that Principal Tammy Miller gave to the Monroe County Community School Corporation’s Board of Trustees on February 11.

The presentation came about a month after parents protested sudden changes at the school, including classroom reassignments based on standardized test scores. Miller said those changes were triggered partly by test scores received in December that showed only about a third of the students in grades 2 through 6 were reading at grade level.

About that same time, she said the state also made an announcement about the school saying that in December, Fairview had been designated as a “priority school.”

Miller said there are only 24 schools with that designation in the state of Indiana. She said priority schools get increased monitoring by the State Department of Education.

“If in the monitoring process the plan does not meet the criteria of improving the student achievement, the next steps might include shifting resources, changing personnel, or have an outside team develop a new plan for the school.” Miller says.

Miller went on to say that only about 40 percent of students who attend Fairview for sixth grade go on to graduate high school in four years. She said the school is working on what she called a Turn Around plan, which is required by the state.

But Board member Sue Wanzer said the problem extends beyond Fairview. She said there are things outside their control, and that they need help from other people outside the school.

Miller said parents would be involved as changes are made to Fairview.

One of the main complaints from parents who protested the changes last month was that they were not consulted.

Fairvew Elementary School To Reorganize Classes Due To Parents’ Protests

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The proposed restructuring of classes at Fairview School that brought angry parents to school board offices has been stopped, according to Beverly Smith, Director of School and Community Services at the Monroe County Community School Corporation.

“Our Director of Elementary Education Tammy Miller is serving as the interim principal at Fairview School through the end of this year,” Smith said, “She, in her wisdom as the director and a former principal, projected, suggested, and put in place some changes that would have taken place on Monday. Through some further input from staff and parents, Mrs. Miller made the suggestion to the superintendent that we not go forward with those changes. She is going to work with parents in the future to craft plans that will allow folks to work together and come up with what is best for Fairview.”

Smith confirmed reports that the proposed changes were to create smaller classes of students with below standard literacy skills.

This determination was based on a variety of performance evaluations of students including, in particular, those from the Northwest Literacy Evaluation reports.

Beyond the now suspended restructuring of classes, there was also concern expressed by parents that these changes might impact Fairview’s adoption and development of the Artful Learning program, and associated changes in teaching, curriculum and enrollment.

“At this point what we are most focused on is that, as of today, students will be returning to their original classroom assignments that they enjoyed during the first semester. School will go on as normal and Mrs. Miller will work with teachers and parents to return students to the classrooms and work together for the advancement of Fairview.”

The original and strongest complaint voiced by Fairview parents was the lack of consultation with parents by the school or district administration, or even of direct notice beforehand of the proposals prior to their adoption.

However, the parental protests brought about an immediate meeting with school board officials, including District Superintendent Judith Demuth, yesterday morning.

This was followed up with the announcement of the scheduling of Fairview Family Meetings Monday, January 13, and next Monday, January 21 at 6:30 p.m, at Fairview School.

Smith acknowledged that the parents’ protests, as well as comments from teaching staff, helped prompt the reversal of the class restructuring plans.

“It’s always wise to have as much input from all of your stakeholders as possible,” Smith said, “I believe that this situation just underscored that this practice is something we enjoy and continue.”

Smith says that consultation with Fairview parents and teachers will continue, to decide how best to address the immediate issue of students literacy, the evaluation of students’ performance, and the best means to address any perceived deficiencies.

Health and Education With Glenda Ritz

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 On Saturday November 23rd The Brown County Democratic Party invited the public to join a brown bag lunch session with Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the Director and Founder of Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan Rob Stone, M.D. The event was free to the public, and included a question and answer period. Part 1 focuses on Education and Part 2 on Health here in the Hoosier State. This event was recorded on location at The Seasons Lodge Conference Center in Brown County by Community Access Television services for Standing Room Only, on WFHB.

Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennet Under Scrutiny For Questionable Tactics While In Office

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State Democrats are keeping the pressure on Indiana’s Inspector General as an investigation continues into former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s actions while in office.

Yesterday, Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press reported that Bennett’s office had kept Republican party campaign contributor databases on Education Department computer servers.

The AP report also alleged that Bennett directed Education Department staffers to parse a campaign speech by Glenda Ritz, his opponent in last November’s election. If true, the actions would violate state election and ethics laws.

Indiana Democratic Party Chair John Zody wants answers.

“I think it’s important that Hoosiers have trust in their government and their elected officials,” Zody says, “There are all kinds of things going on in state government that raises questions. There have been a number of articles about Mr Bennet and how he operated in office. There was a definite lack of transparency when he was in office and now we’re seeing these details come out.”

Zody calls for a quicker and more thorough investigation into the charges against Bennett. He also asks that Indiana Inspector General David Thomas reveal more details about the investigation.

Bennett told the Associated Press that the databases were for his personal use, and that he hadn’t directed his staff to do political work while on the job.

Cindy Carrasco of the Inspector General’s office confirmed that Thomas is looking into Bennett’s actions, but added that the investigation is confidential.

These latest charges follow questions about Bennett’s actions in grading a charter school run by a prominent Republican campaign contributor.

In July, the Associated Press reported that Bennett allegedly alerted his staff that the performance grade of the Christel House Academy in Indianapolis was unacceptable. Christel House, owned by Republican donor Christel DeHaan, had earned a “C” grade for its performance during the 2011 – 2012 school year. After a series of e-mails had been sent by Bennett to various staffers referring to the problem of Christel House’s rating, its grade was raised to an “A”.

DeHaan had contributed $2.8 million to Republican campaigns from 1998 through last year’s elections, including $130,000 for Bennett’s campaigns.

Bennett left Indiana after he lost to Glenda Ritz in November.

He served as the Florida education commissioner after leaving office in January, but resigned last month after the emails were published.

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