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School Intervention Overhaul Faces Increased Scrutiny

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Turf war, moral imperative and a wolf in sheep’s clothing are all descriptions used to explain proposed legislation to overhaul the state intervention laws for failing schools. A bill that began as an initiative of Gov. Mike Pence has faced pushback and considerable changes from opponents --- and supporters alike.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are moving cautiously towards approving legislation that rewrites how the state intervenes in failing schools.

House Bill 1638 gives troubled schools more freedom to improve on their own before the state takes action. The bill would also change the timeline for schools to face state intervention from six years of consecutive failure to four years of F’s starting in 2016.

Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill's’ author, said the legislation allows schools to create a “transformation zone” during their first year of a failing grade on the state’s A-F accountability system. The transformation zone allows a school district to have more say in creating an improvement plant.

This is a sharp change from the current law that mandates the board to contract with an external consultant or company to help run or fully-operate a failing school.

“The goal is not to be in the takeover business -- that is really what the purpose of this bill is,” Behning said. “To get out of the takeover business and let’s give schools the ability to transform themselves.”

'Not prepared to vote'

But some lawmakers, like Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, are still unsure. Rogers successfully fought to have some provisions in the bill dialed back through an amendment this week. A major change was the removal of a provision that would have let the State Board of Education takeover a school district for academic failure.

Previously Rogers has said the bill had “crosshairs” on Gary Community Schools -- a district with five consecutive Fs.

“I am not OK with this bill, OK? I am still not prepared to vote for it,” Rogers said this week. “But I thought if incrementally along the way, it was going to pass then I had an opportunity to make a bad bill better. And that is what I was trying to do.”

Pressure against the bill -- by Rogers and others -- intensified after the State Board voted 6-to-4 earlier this month to shutter the Dunbar-Pulaski school in Gary.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who chairs the senate education committee, says lawmakers were troubled by the process that allowed the State Board to close a school with no transition plan or a second chance. 

Kruse remains bewildered over the uncertainty facing students.

“Like right now in Gary, no one knows where the kids are going to go. Who knows? I don't. I guess Gary Public Schools... I don't know if they are the ones who decide or if the (state) board decides,” he said. “It is tough.”

Kruse said the Dunbar-Pulaski decision led to additional changes in the bill, such as requiring  a supermajority of board members to close a school and letting districts present a last ditch plan to keep the school open.

Outreach vs. Turnaround

Lawmakers have bristled at the slow pace of improvement at schools taken over by the State Board of Education since 2012.

Of the five schools in takeover, four remain failing and all have seen massive enrollment decreases.

Debate over House Bill 1638 also emphasized division between the State Board and Glenda Ritz’s Department of Education over school turnaround.

When Ritz ousted Tony Bennett as superintendent in the 2012 election, she closed his School Turnaround Division and later opened the Outreach Division of School Improvement. The new office is based on federal requirements contained in the state’s waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

Under Ritz’s new program, the department reports that 103 schools previously rated D or F are now graded an A, B or C.

But board member Dan Elsener, during a March 18 hearing about the bill, said he knew of no DOE program that had improved failing schools. He then downplayed the ability of DOE's outreach division.

“Research will tell you that you need a specific turnaround office,” he said. “This is different than running a school normally.”

Yet lawmakers appear to like the department’s outreach results. Others are warming up to the bill’s balance of giving local schools, the education department and state board their own roles in helping schools before a takeover happens.

But Rogers says she will continue pushing for more changes in the bill when it heads to appropriations committee where she is a member. She is worried the bill will allow the State Board to duplicate some of the services ongoing at DOE’s outreach office.

“I’ve described it as putting lipstick on pig, but I think we might needs some more mascara as we move along,” she said.

The Senate education committee will vote on the bill in April.

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