Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

ISTEP Panel Finishes Broad Plan To Submit To Legislature

The ISTEP panel will finalize its recommendation for re-writing the state assessment at a Nov. 29 meeting. (Photo Credit: James Martin/Flickr)

The ISTEP panel will finalize its recommendation for re-writing the state assessment at a Nov. 29 meeting. (Photo Credit: James Martin/Flickr)

The state’s ISTEP panel concluded its meetings Tuesday with a broad set of recommendations. Chair Nicole Fama will compile what was said for a recommendation to the legislature. The panel will vote on that recommendation at its final meeting, Nov. 29.

The 2016 General Assembly voted to stop using the current ISTEP+ format at the end of this school year. It also created this panel of educators, lawmakers and state agency employees to draft a more desirable test. The legislation gave the panel a Dec. 1 deadline to make its recommendation.

So what ideas is Fama working with as she compiles the final recommendation?

Tuesday’s meeting was one of the first where the 23 members laid out specific ideas for overhauling the assessment. Superintendent Glenda Ritz recapped a plan she released a few weeks ago. A group of eight panel members submitted their own assessment plan, which they drafted outside of meetings. Other members submitted individual comments.

Discussion covered a full range of ideas including: whether the test should be given multiple times a year, to if it should be administered online, to different ideas about reading and writing  assessments.

With so much variety, the only things everyone agreed on was they want a shorter test, quicker results, and no IREAD. Those sentiments were present the first day the panel met.

Most other meetings were filled with testing experts from around the country speaking to the panel on best practices – which many panel members say was necessary – but it didn’t allow much time for them to discuss the specifics of what they wanted to see in the plan.

But Nov. 15 was different.

“I think today’s discussion was one of the most meaningful we’ve had throughout the process,” says Callie Marksbary, an elementary school teacher in Lafayette. “As educators sitting in the room we felt like that was the sort of conversation we should have every time.”

Because it took this long to get to meaningful discussion, Indianapolis elementary school teacher Ayana Wilson-Coles says the short timeline prevented them from both getting adequate background knowledge and having meaningful discussions on what to present the legislature.

“So you have all this background knowledge on testing and then we only have one or two meetings where we’re really getting to the meat and talking about plans that people proposed,” Wilson-Coles says. “If that’s what you needed to do to make sure everyone was on the same page, that’s fine, but maybe the timeline should have been expanded so we don’t feel rushed to make a determination in our last meeting.”

One thing the group decided was to give the legislature a two-fold recommendation: one part would include broad ideas for writing a new assessment system, and the second part would have more details on how to achieve those ideas.

This suggestions came after Senate Education Committee Chair Dennis Kruse told the panel that legislators deal with hundreds of bills each session and they shouldn’t get “too in the weeds” with their recommendation.

When the panel convened, they group had not collectively decided which elements of all the proposed plans they wanted to include in the final recommendation. Instead, Fama will do that work outside of the meetings and is expected to bring it to the Nov. 29 meeting for the panel to approve.

Going forward, Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, says he hopes the work of the panel serves as a first step and that the legislature turns to the members as resources.

“I don’t think our work should be done on Nov. 29,” Baker says. “Keep a part of this panel together for consultants and let’s keep going forward.”

Trump Rumored To Consider Tony Bennett, Luke Messer For Education Secretary


Indiana’s former school’s chief Tony Bennett and U.S. Rep. Luke Messer are two names swirling around Washington, D.C. as possible picks by President-elect Donald Trump to be the Secretary of Education, according to journalists and policy advisors at a forum Monday.

These two are part of a handful of conservative education leaders mentioned inside the Beltway as possibilities for the post, said Vic Klatt, a principal of Penn Hill Group and former GOP staff director for the U.S. House Committee on Education.

Bennett is a “bright guy and has ties to Vice President (Mike) Pence, who I believe will be one of the key movers and shakers on education policy within the administration,” Klatt said.

Those who know Bennett’s deep support in getting Indiana to adopt the Common Core State Standards may question why Trump, who has pledged to “get rid” of Common Core, would even consider him.

But Bennett has been a staunch supporter of vouchers and charter schools — areas that Trump has pledged massive expansions, such as $20 billion to create school choice block grants for poor students.

Messer, who represents Indiana’s 6th congressional district, was called a “sleeper” candidate for the job, by Klatt, who went on to describe the congressman as: a “really good guy, really bright guy who has a pretty significant background in education policy and is an expert in school choice issues.” Continue Reading

Gary Schools Turn To Legislature Amid Financial Trouble


Gary Community Schools have struggled financially the last few years as enrollment dropped. They are now working with a state hired financial consultant and legislators to help the district financially succeed. (photo credit: Rachel Morello/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

Gary Community Schools is asking the state legislature for help as it struggles with ongoing financial problems. This comes after a school referendum failed last week.

The school referendum was posed after years of financial struggle and failed by only 300 votes. The NWI Times reports the district sent a letter to staff Friday, saying it wouldn’t make payroll on time:

Gary schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said payroll is delayed until Tuesday when the district gets its monthly allocation from the state. The school’s biweekly payroll is about $1.6 million.

Gary’s state-hired financial consultant Jack Martin said the district is nearly $100 million in debt. However, he said the most critical is $25 million in the operating budget. The district is current with debt-service payments, including utility payments to NIPSCO and to the IRS.

This is the district’s second failed referenda to counter decreasing enrollment in recent years. When students leave a district, state money goes with them, and Gary schools struggle to maintain staff and buildings.

The district is now talking with legislators about how to keep itself financially stable. Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee Luke Kenley said he’s been talking with Gary representatives and the superintendent. He doesn’t want to give them more money. He says he wants to help them solve a bigger problem.

“I don’t think that’s the source of their problem, just to throw more money at them,” Kenley says. “I think they need to have a whole different management structure there.”

Kenley says he wants to involve the mayor of Gary, who has worked to financially stabilize other parts of the city, such as the airport. The state hired a financial consultant whose been working in the district for months, and participates in these discussions.

Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt says the district is considering closing buildings, laying off staff and contracting out services like custodial and grounds maintenance to save money. She says this is scary for many in the community as they worry about the future of their school district.

“Many people are pretty sad that they don’t know what to expect now. They don’t want to see a close in the school district,” Pruitt says. “It’s a little bit of uneasiness and uncertainty.”

Students Face Racially-Charged Taunts In VP-Elect Pence’s Hometown

The day after Vice President-elect Mike Pence returned to Indiana, reports of students facing election-related racial taunts have emerged from his hometown.

In a memo to members of the Bartholomew Consolidated School District in Columbus, Superintendent Jim Roberts called students to respect each another.

“Our school system will not tolerate actions that demonstrate a lack of understanding and respect for our differences,” Roberts said.

The memo, titled “Respect, Fairness and Trust for ALL,” was posted to the district’s website on Friday. Officials declined any further comment.

“Regardless of our political leanings, it is imperative that we address each other in a civil manner, openly communicate, and actively demonstrate respect and appreciation,” Roberts said.

The memo follows and incident in which Felipe Martinez says his teenage sons, who are Latino, felt threatened when their peers began chanting “Build that wall.” He says one incident specifically targeted one of his sons and one happened on Election Day.

“It was meant to intimidate,” Martinez says. “We have experienced, as a family, some instances of harassment against our children.”

Martinez says the situations have now been resolved, with students and their parents. He’s happy with the schools’ immediate actions following the incidents and isn’t calling for any further action.

“This particular moment is something that I think can be a learning opportunity for us as a community,” Martinez says.

In a speech to supporters Thursday, Pence called on Americans to heal their divisions. Critics point to the rhetoric of his running mate and President-elect Donald Trump as legitimizing hate-fueled behavior.

“Pray that we may find our way forward as a nation, that we may renew the American dream,” Pence said. “Heal the divisions in our country and move forward to a more prosperous future.”

The reports from Columbus follow an incident in which police are investigating after an unknown person painted swastikas and the letters KKK in Bloomington on Thursday.

With A New Superintendent, Which Policies Hang In The Balance?

On Nov. 8, 2016 Republican Jennifer McCormick beat Democrat incumbent Glenda Ritz for the position of state superintendent of public instruction. (Eric Weddle/WFYI)

On Nov. 8, 2016 Republican Jennifer McCormick beat Democrat incumbent Glenda Ritz for the position of state superintendent of public instruction. (photo credit: Eric Weddle/WFYI)

With Jennifer McCormick’s defeat of current State Superintendent Glenda Ritz on Tuesday, the Ritz administration now has two more months in office. McCormick will be sworn in in January.

The unexpected election result came in the middle of huge education policy transitions in the state.  Responsibility for that will transfer from Ritz’s administration to a new, unknown administration under McCormick.

The creation of a new state assessment

Last legislative session, the General Assembly passed a law scrapping the ISTEP in its current form. The law also created a panel of educators and stakeholders to create recommendations for a new statewide test. This panel has met for the last six months, hearing from experts across the country about best practices for creating an assessment.

While the panel will submit its final recommendations to the General Assembly by Dec. 1, the Legislature will ultimately decide how to move forward. Superintendent-elect McCormick says she hopes they look to her and her department for guidance for this huge education legislation.

As she transitions from her current job as superintendent of Yorktown Schools, she will have a surrogate attend the second to last ISTEP panel meeting. She plans to be at the very last one, where the final plan is submitted.

School funding

The 2017 General Assembly is a budget session, which happens every other year. Over 50 percent of the Indiana’s budget funds education. McCormick campaigned on similar policies to current state superintendent Ritz. She says more state funding should go to public schools, especially schools educating students with more needs.

In 2015, the Legislature updated the school funding formula to make the funding more equal across the board. But schools with high numbers of students living in poverty received around the same state funding as schools with more well-off students.

This year, the Legislature has the opportunity to tweak that formula. No legislators have said they plan to overhaul it, though.

Because McCormick’s belief on funding don’t exactly match other Republicans in the General Assembly, she’s interested to see how she and the Legislature will work together.

“I’m realistic that we are not always going to agree on items and that will take communication and being willing to listen,” McCormick says. “I plan to be a voice in making sure my agenda is brought forward. Mine will represent a lot of concern from the field, because I think that’s one area that’s obviously not been heard for a while.”

Compliance to the new federal education law

Last year, President Obama signed into las a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces No Child Left Behind. It’s an education law that gives states much more freedom with how they test students and rate schools and teachers.

The Ritz administration has worked all year on a plan for how Indiana will comply with ESSA and use its new freedoms. Up until Tuesday, they planned to submit this to the federal government by March.

McCormick and Ritz are meeting next week to discuss the transition, including how to move forward with the ESSA plan. She says she will ask Ritz for an update on on the plan thus far, but also has other questions in mind.

“Now that we have a new president-elect, what happens with ESSA?” McCormick says. “What happens to those timelines for submission for the state, so I’m watching that carefully as well.”

Transition plans

During the meeting next week with Ritz, McCormick also plans to talk to Ritz about staffing the Department of Education. She says she does not plan to completely overhaul the department, but will conduct an internal audit and decide how to go forward with retaining or hiring staff.

During the campaign, Ritz supporters criticized McCormick saying if elected she would be a return to the Tony Bennett era. But McCormick says the fact that she is a career educator rather than a career politician makes her different.

“I understand educators being nervous about change,” McCormick says. “I’m hoping that teachers and educators … will give us a chance. I think within six months to a year people will begin to relax and feel comfortable.”

Bosma, Behning Expect Non-Partisan Relationship With Superintendent McCormick

Jennifer McCormick speaks with the press on Nov. 8, 2016. (Eric Weddle/WFYI)

Jennifer McCormick speaks with the press on Nov. 8, 2016. (Eric Weddle/WFYI)” credit=”

It’s no secret that Jennifer McCormick’s win over incumbent Superintendent Glenda Ritz was a major surprise.

Republican lawmakers, operatives and staff on other campaigns told me they did not expect the Yorktown Superintendent to beat Ritz.

McCormick ran a quiet campaign with low name recognition that was also hamstrung by a lack of funding compared to Democrat Ritz who had $500,000 more in cash on hand.

Last week, a WTHR/HPI Indiana Poll had Ritz taking 44 percent of the vote with McCormick at 38 percent. The poll also found that 18 percent were undecided.

But on Tuesday, Jennifer McCormick won with 53.4 percent or 1,420,697 votes. Ritz got 46.6 percent or 1,237,447 votes, according to 99 percent of votes counted in the unofficial results from the secretary of state.

Shortly after the AP called the race for McCormick, I spoke with House Speaker Brian Bosma and House Education Chairman Robert Behning at the GOP’s election watch party at the JW Marriott. Continue Reading

Republican McCormick Ousts Ritz To Win State Superintendent Race

On Nov. 8, 2016 Republican Jennifer McCormick beat Democrat incumbent Glenda Ritz for the position of state superintendent of public instruction. (Eric Weddle/WFYI)

On Nov. 8, 2016 Republican Jennifer McCormick beat Democrat incumbent Glenda Ritz for the position of state superintendent of public instruction. (Eric Weddle/WFYI)

Republican Jennifer McCormick has ousted Democrat Glenda Ritz to become the state’s leading education official.

With 54 percent of the vote, the Associated Press reports McCormick has won the race for state superintendent of public instruction.

“We have a lot of work to do,” McCormick says. “But we’re ready to get to work.”

At an election night watch party with other leading GOP politician, McCormick says her top priorities include repairing relationships between the Department of Education and the Republican-controlled Legislature and developing a replacement for Indiana’s standardized test, known as ISTEP. That test must be given to students in spring 2017.

“We have to make it fair, we have to make it transparent, and we’re under a timeline,” McCormick says.

Like Ritz, McCormick enters the office with years of experience in public education. McCormick has served as as a teacher, elementary school principal, assistant superintendent and current Yorktown Community Schools superintendent.

McCormick’s education agenda includes expanding the state’s preschool pilot program, expanding schools’ broadband and internet access, and revamping the state’s school ranking system.

A Republican education leader paves the way for changes with the political skirmishes that have come to define Indiana education policy.

For the past four years, Ritz has served in the superintendent position as the only Democrat in a statewide elected position, often leading to political clashes with an otherwise Republican leadership.

State superintendent Glenda Ritz gives a concession speech on Nov. 8, 2016. (Annie Ropeik/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

State superintendent Glenda Ritz gives a concession speech on Nov. 8, 2016. (Annie Ropeik/Indiana Public Broadcasting)” credit=”

In her concession speech, Ritz called upon educators and parents to hold legislators accountable.

“You must be part of the conversation, to be strong advocates for our children and public education,” Ritz says. “Be a loud voice at the statehouse.

Although McCormick’s policies are a departure from past Republican superintendents who were vocal advocates for school choice through charter schools and private school vouchers, her party affiliation alone could pave the way for less friction over education policy from a Republican-controlled Legislature.

“Things will certainly go more smoothly now,” says RaeAnn Wintin, who teaches high school special education in Seymour. “But whether they will be in the best interest of students and teachers in Indiana remains to be seen.

McCormick’s victory was unexpected by a number of measures. She had little of the name recognition Ritz carries and campaigned with far less money. According to campaign finance reports, McCormick campaigned with $380,401.85 and Ritz campaigned with over twice that amount, $873,360.22.

McCormick’s victory came as a pleasant surprise, says Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis and House Education Committee Chair.

“I don’t think many people thought it was possible,” Behning says.

Over the next year, a primary responsibility of the superintendent will be to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal education law that replaces the No Child Left Behind Act signed into law by Pres. George W. Bush in 2002.

As that law takes effect, McCormick will have a say in creating a new standardized test to replace the ISTEP, changing how the state focuses on the education of English language learners and how the state should rate and support schools.

READ MORE: For more election results, go to

All But One School Referenda Questions Pass

Voters passed 9 of 10 school referenda posed on ballots around the state Tuesday, raising property taxes to help fund local schools.

The Gary Community Schools referendum is the only one that failed, with the ballot measure falling 321 votes short of passing.

The overwhelming passage of these referenda is a surprise to Larry DeBeour, an economist based at Purdue who studies local taxes.

“Until now, the referenda in May always did better than the referenda in November,” DeBeour says.

DeBeour says the biggest advantage that nine of the ten districts had was they posed these questions before and knew what it would take to get voters to raise taxes.

“Those who know they can’t win don’t even try,” DeBeour says.

Eight school districts posed 10 different referenda questions on ballots around the state, asking voters to increase property taxes to help fund local schools.

There are two types of referenda questions: construction and tax levees. Construction referenda seek money to fund a specific project like a school renovation. Tax levees contribute to the district’s general fund, which pays for teachers, utilities and other expenses.

[Here’s a list of all referenda posed on ballots and what the districts are asking.]

Why Is Voting Important? We Asked Some Future Voters

As Hoosiers headed to the polls Nov. 8, many voters brought along their kids. In Monroe County, public schools gave kids the day off, meaning many elementary school students came with their parents to watch them vote. We talked to some of these future voters about the importance of casting your ballot.

Keegan Donovan, 6 and three quarters

Keegan Donovan went to Binford Elementary School in Bloomington where his dad voted.

Keegan Donovan went to Binford Elementary School in Bloomington where his dad voted. He voted in a school election that day before. (photo credit: Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting)

“I think [voting] is really important,” Donovan says. “You will want the person that you want to be president. It would be unfair if it came to the president you didn’t want and there wasn’t an election.”

Lorelei Jaffe, 6-years-old

Lorelei Jaffe went to vote with her mom. She brought along the book "White House Dog", and when asked if a dog would make a good president? "I guess so."

Lorelei Jaffe voted with her mom Tuesday, and brought along the book “White House Dog.” When asked if a dog would make a good president? “I guess so. But a dog would make a crazy president.” (photo credit: Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting.)

“The president has to rule the world after you vote,” Jaffe says. “And they live all the way in America. That’s far away, you could take four planes to get there, I don’t know.”

Graham Mackaywhite, 9-years-old

Graham and Allister LAST NAME voted with their parents Tuesday morning.

Graham and Alistair Mackaywhite voted with their parents Tuesday morning. (photo credit: Claire McInerny/Indiana Public Broadcasting).

“You want to get as much voters on your side as you can,” Mackaywhite says. “Or else you lose the election and your rival becomes president. And that’s not something you want.”

Ballot Referenda Are Becoming More Important For Schools

Monroe County Schools is one of nine school referenda questions asking voters to raise property taxes to fund schools.

Monroe County Schools is one of nine school referenda questions asking voters to raise property taxes to fund schools. (photo credit: JD Gray/WTIU News).

Voters around the state will see questions at the bottom of their ballot asking for an increase to property taxes to fund local schools. Ballot referenda have become more and more popular in the last decade as funding streams for schools changed.

School referendum questions became a common ballot measure in Indiana back in 2008, after the legislature voted to enact property tax caps. The caps were written into the state constitution, and the amendment says the government may not collect taxes equaling more than one percent of an owner occupied residence, two percent for other residential properties and three percent for all other properties.

But school districts used to depend on property tax money. Without it, many turned to referenda to supplement. After years of posing referenda questions, many school districts have come to depend on this revenue stream.

Monroe County School Corporation is posing a referendum, and as WFIU reports it would continue to fund the district, which was receiving property taxes after a 2010 referendum.

MCCSC school board member David Sabbagh says the new rate is less than what was asked for in 2010.

“The rate we’re asking is a little less than we did last time. We have referendum money coming on now. We are not asking for an increase. It’s just a continuation. Actually, a little less,” Sabbagh says.

In previous years, referenda have a better chance of passing during May primaries, because it can often be one of the more notable parts of a ballot. So during an election like this, with huge races at the local, state and federal level, it could end up that more people will be voting but not be aware of what the school referenda are asking, and then vote no to raising taxes.

Read our full list of school referenda around the state, including what the money will be used for. You can also calculate how much your tax rate would go up if passed. 


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