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An Exit Interview With John White, the Nation’s Longest-Serving State Schools Chief – Politics K-12


John White, the superintendent of schools in Louisiana, announced earlier this month that he would step down from his position in March. White, who’s been in his position since January 2012, is the longest-serving state K-12 education chief in the country. He was appointed by the state school board and served during the tenures of Bobby Jindal, a Republican, and current Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat. 

White, 44, a former English teacher in New Jersey, has a long and controversial record, and he’s made high-profile moves impacting the breadth of the state’s K-12 system, as well as its connections to early-childhood education and colleges and universities. The Teach For America alumnus, who ran the Louisiana Recovery School District before taking over as state chief, has touted the state’s improvement on the National Assessment of Education Progress, as well as the return of the New Orleans school district to local control and new support for students seeking financial aid for colleges and universities. Yet his critics have said he’s ignored many educators’ concerns in the name of imposing an inflexible and unforgiving agenda on schools. 

We spoke with him for roughly 30 minutes about his time leading the department, which oversees 720,000 public school students. You can see his thoughts on various topics below: 

On how he became a symbol of “education reform” and whether that helped or hurt him:

When we asked White about this, he immediately distanced himself from the education reform activity of the last 10 to 15 years at the national level. Instead, he said his work and his team’s work was rooted in the standards-based reform going back to the Reagan administration and the famous—or infamous, depending on one’s point of view—”A Nation at Risk” report. (Events such as the Charlottesville summit of governors in 1989 also come to mind.) That movement, he said, intentionally focused on policies concerning curriculum and teacher training and how to make sure schools could succeed in those areas at a large scale.

“I am a card-carrying member of that movement,” White said. 

But he said that during the last several years, the debate over education reform has increasingly and unhelpfully focused on what he called “niche” issues, such as private school choice, the Common Core State Standards, and charter schools, that are increasingly used to define political agenda but not drive improvement in schools. 

White, of course, has been a very public supporter of school choice, including vouchers and charters. He fought the Obama administration in court to maintain how Louisiana has funded vouchers, for example.It’s pretty clear where he stands on that issue in general. He’s backed the common core and aligned tests despite big political pushback (more on that in a bit). And he has an extensive record supportin charter schools to help turn around first the New Orleans and now Baton Rouge school districts. But he argued to us that he doesn’t define his tenure largely by such priorities and political tussles. 

“These are very narrow slices of what should be a much larger and comprehensive and long-term orientation among policymakers. But they have become expedient terms for politicians to use to rile up their bases,” White said. 

On what’s changed the most for state education chiefs during his tenure in Louisiana:

It’s hardly new that state chiefs have pursued agendas that match larger political aims in their states, White said. But what’s shifted, he said, is that there’s less of a discussion about how to drive improvement and growth in the existing system, and more of a discussion about how to divide up the existing pie and make it more equitable. That shift has some merits, he said, but it runs of the risk of ignoring how to help students in schools where they are now, and not realizing that politicians often don’t approach issues with both those concepts in mind. 

He used early-childhood policies as an example. White said the nation needs better maternity and paternity policies, and a more-robust child-care system, if it wants better outcomes for young people over the long term. But focusing on those issues can and do distract leaders from what happens to students when they transition into elementary schools and begin more formalized academic instruction. That’s why his team has focused on both instruction-driven improvement in schools and an expanded early-education system. 

“You don’t become a great reader just because you went to a Head Start program,” he said.

In the same vein, White said that while he appreciated more attention to the issue of segregation and racial isolation in American schools, “There are legions of kids who are going to single-race schools right now that need a better education than they’re getting.” The fact that they’re attending such schools, he said, is unlikely to change during their school careers.

“It is a different time” from when he started as Louisiana state chief, White added. “And in many ways it’s a little bit more of a cynical time. And in many ways it’s less of an idealistic time.” 

On how his relationships with the Obama and Trump administratons have differed:

White was quick to say that he “always had a good relationship” with the three education secretaries he’s worked with, even though he had different criticisms of both administrations. 

“The ambition of the Obama administration was welcome, even though much of their implementation could be sometimes abrupt,” White said of President Barack Obama’s K-12 team, which was led for the majority of Obama’s time in office by Arne Duncah. As for the Trump administration, he said that while he thinks Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department have been helpful in some respects, he wished “that they would do more to drive the discussion towards improvement on a state-by-state, district-by-district basis.”

He did single out the Trump administration’s public stance and comments on immigration for sharp criticism. For example, he said schools in his state and others are “morally and legally obligated to serve children irrespective of their parents’ legal status.” The rhetoric and other actions around people of color not born in the U.S., he said, have been very unhelpful. 

“I have serious concerns about much of the rhetoric of the administration and it’s affect on children that has nothing to do with Secretary DeVos,” White said.

On his takeaway from his very big split from former governor Bobby Jindal over the common core: 

Former Gov. Bobby Jindal backed White to be the school superintendent, but the two had a big-time falling out over the common-core standards and aligned tests, which Jindal ended up opposing and White continued to support. Louisiana ended up making changes to the common core and the test that—in the view of many observers—didn’t substanatively depart from what White originally sought. 

“There were just some things that were nonnegotiable,” White said, when we asked him what his main takeaway was from that experience. “We weren’t going to back off of it. … You have to respect the fact that we never changed our position. I think that is sadly rare in the political world.”

Why did he refuse to change his stance when Jindal wanted him too? White said he was thinking of teachers. 

“The last thing that teachers wanted to see happen was another change. It was important that what we said was credible to teachers. And you can’t be credible to teachers if they see you as part of this constant flip-flopping,” he said. 

On driving big changes without supercharging the bureaucracy:

Speaking of teachers: One of White’s signature rhetorical strategies in public has been to criticize how education bureaucracy can put too much of a burden on educators, and ignore complex on-the-ground realities. Yet his tenure has been characterized by sweeping and systemic change—Louisiana’s goal of tying the state’s model curriculum to a pilot assessment, for example, requires a lot of input and work by the state education department.

So how does he think he’s accomplished the second objective without undermining his concern about overreach?

His response was that while other countries have managed to make it clear how different pieces of the educational system fit ogether and support teachers, that’s simply not the case in many instances here. The goal, he said, is not putting teachers in a box, but helping them understand what’s expected of them and why it all ties together. That’s related to what White points to as among his most important accomplishments in the state: the fact that aspiring teachers must now undergo a year of “residency” at a school before they become a fully fledged teacher, to better prepare them for the work. 

“It’s not that any guidance from the top is inherently a bad thing. The fragmentation of the American system is a bad thing for teachers. We have been unyielding on the notion that coherence is important for teachers,” White said. “We think coherence is the foundation of empowerment. And once the state has done that, we don’t think it’s the job of the state to get in the way of what teachers want to do,” he said.”

On his next steps, and whether he’d ever want to be U.S. secretary of education:

Whitesaid he has “no plans” for his immediate future. However, he did say that he’ll continue to work on the issue of connecting high school graduates to work and careers, at a time when the connections between employers and their communities have basically “dissipated.” 

He pointed to a nonprofit group he founded, Propel America, that aims to connect students to pathways with the help of employers as well as schools. White serves as the group’s board chairman, but said he wasn’t planning to move from the Louisiana education department to working at that organization. 

And what if a president called him up and asked if he’d be interested in taking over the U.S. Department of Education?

“Of course I’d be honored to be asked and would discuss it” to see if it would be a good fit, White said.

Photo: Superintendent of Education John White speaks after his meeting with Gov. Bobby Jindal about public school testing, in Baton Rouge, La., in 2014. White, who helped strengthen the role of charter schools, backed a taxpayer-funded tuition voucher program for private schools, and oversaw major changes to the state’s school accountability efforts, is stepping down from his position in March.  (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte, File)

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The Hoosier Way: Good choices for all in Indianapolis

The superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, Aleesia Johnson, reads One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish to a kindergarten class at Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48. Johnson was a KIPP charter school principal before being asked to take over the district.

The superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, Aleesia Johnson, reads One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish to a kindergarten class at Louis B. Russell Jr. School 48. Johnson was a KIPP charter school principal before being asked to take over the district.

In the spring of 2015, Aleesia Johnson and Brandon Brown met for coffee. They both had new job offers.

Johnson was then a star principal at a local KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school and had been asked by Lewis Ferebee, the new superintendent at Indianapolis Public Schools, to head up his innovation strategy. It was a critical role: the state legislature had just passed a law making it possible for school districts to partner with charter schools rather than fighting them. New hybrid schools, comprising an “innovation network,” would have the autonomy of charter schools but would operate in district buildings and serve neighborhood students, sometimes replacing the district’s schools that struggled the most. Ferebee had lobbied for the law and now wanted Johnson’s help to put it into action.

As for Brown, after three years of running Mayor Greg Ballard’s charter-school office, he’d been offered a job at The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit focused on building school quality and access in the city. Ferebee and The Mind Trust’s then CEO David Harris had already struck a deal to work together on the innovation network schools idea.

If Johnson and Brown both took the jobs, they would be spending a lot of time together. Brown would be incubating the new schools that Johnson would oversee. Johnson remembers that they looked at each other that day and asked, “Are you gonna take the job?” “I don’t know. Are you gonna?”

Today, Johnson is superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools and Brown is CEO of The Mind Trust. The city has 21 innovation schools serving one in four of its public-school students. Two new rigorous studies point to promising student-achievement gains. These autonomous district schools stand against a backdrop of a thriving public charter sector and a private-school voucher program that fill the gaps.

What made this all possible? Indianapolis is a story of good people, good politics, good local and state policy, and some small-town goodwill and good luck. The mayors led, state policy provided backbone, and civic leaders and philanthropies stepped up. They broke down institutional barriers in support of what most education-policy people will tell you is the unifying goal in the city: good choices for all families.

Mayors Lead the Way

Mayor Bart Peterson visits with 3rd graders during the first day of classes in 2002 at Christel House Academy, a charter school.

Mayor Bart Peterson visits with 3rd graders during the first day of classes in 2002 at Christel House Academy, a charter school.

In the late 1990s, Indianapolis faced a schooling crisis: the landlocked, post-industrial city suffered brain drain; as a result, its schools and students also suffered. There were 11 separate school districts and no citywide approach. (Since 1970, the metro area has had a consolidated city-and-county government that encompasses the city itself and 10 other Marion County communities that retain some autonomy but fall under the control of the Indianapolis government. More than 75 percent of Indianapolis Public Schools students are black, Hispanic, or multiracial, and about the same proportion qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The other 10 communities are largely suburban in character and have more affluent populations.)

Bart Peterson, a Democratic candidate for mayor in 1999, saw education as a way to build consensus on economic development. People had been trying to fix the ailing public schools for a long time, and Peterson believed a catalyst from outside the system was needed.

At the time, Peterson says, education reform was a contentious issue. “People couldn’t sit in the same room with each other,” he remarks. He believed that charter schools could provide the common ground, since they offered independence to principals but were still fundamentally public schools.

Candidate Peterson hired a young lawyer named David Harris, who jumped in to craft an education agenda, reading up on charter schools and following developments in states like Minnesota, where Democrats were supporting innovation and experimentation with charter laws.

Peterson won, and in September 2000, he made his case for charters in a speech to Indianapolis-area school superintendents. The atmosphere in the room was tense, but Harris says that coming out early on this controversial issue allowed the administration to control the narrative: “After that speech, no article about charter schools was written without a quote from the mayor.”

State Policy

Republican legislators had tried to pass a charter bill for seven years but had been thwarted by a Democratic-controlled House. Republican state senator Teresa Lubbers, the bill’s main champion, says she thought hard about the details of the bill, such as who would authorize charters and how schools would be held accountable: “I never thought it should be easy to start a charter school,” says Lubbers, now Indiana’s commissioner for higher education. “It should be hard, because there had to be a compelling reason why, for the students’ sake. It was an experiment, after all.”

A provision in the law would empower mayors to authorize charter schools in their cities; the mayor of Indianapolis subsequently became the first such official in the country with that authority. Peterson’s backing of charters and his willingness to play a central role as an authorizer proved important to winning Democratic support for the bill.

Advocates also won key Democratic votes when Republicans agreed to rescind a mid-1990s law limiting collective-bargaining rights in the school system, a measure that had been backed by then mayor Stephen Goldsmith.

The charter school bill passed the Senate in April 2001 and was signed into law by Governor Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat and charter school supporter. Determined to create as many reform tools as possible, the state kept up the pressure. Over the next decade, under Governor Mitch Daniels and state schools chief Tony Bennett, state legislators passed a whole package of reform bills: launching a voucher initiative, expanding charters and giving them rights to unused district buildings, allowing virtual charters, and overhauling teacher accountability. A public-school-choice law allowed students to move from district to district and forced districts to start marketing and fighting to keep their students. According to the House education committee chair, Bob Behning, the state’s early commitment to providing student aid for its 30 private universities further helped establish choice as a normal way of operating.

State representative Todd Huston (at the time, Tony Bennett’s chief of staff) credits Governor Daniels for bringing state officials together around the charter school policy: “A lot of it was Mitch,” he says. “None of this works if you don’t have a committed governor.”

Greg Ballard, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel,took office as mayor in January 2008 and expanded his predecessor's charter-school strategy.

Greg Ballard, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel,took office as mayor in January 2008 and expanded his predecessor’s charter-school strategy.

Innovation Network Schools

Huston was a key figure in the passage of several bills, including the innovation network schools bill that would eventually transform the Indianapolis schools. A former school-board member, he understood the challenges involved in transforming school systems. Like many Hoosier education reformers, he had read about, and was inspired by, Milwaukee’s education reforms.

During the first dozen years of the new millennium, competition from inter-district choice and charter schools, along with the threat of state takeover of poorly performing schools, created an urgent sense that change was needed in the Indianapolis Public Schools.

Mayor Peterson’s early commitment to charter schooling held fast throughout his two terms in office. David Harris, his aide-de-camp, created one of the nation’s leading authorizing offices. Bucking national trends, Harris’s office drew on outside expertise to help develop a stringent review-and-oversight process for mayor-sponsored schools. Peterson was actively involved. Harris recalls late-night meetings with the mayor to decide specific performance metrics to use for accountability, for example. Before long, Harris saw the need to create a strong pipeline of charter operators by recruiting new talent to Indy and incubating new schools. In 2006 Harris left the mayor’s office and created The Mind Trust ( see sidebar).

In 2007, Bart Peterson lost his reelection bid to Republican Greg Ballard in a major upset. A retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and plainspoken former businessman, Ballard took office in January 2008. Unexpectedly to some, Ballard chose not only to stay the course on his predecessor’s charter-school strategy but to take it further. In 2012, during his second term, he recruited a young Teach for America alumnus named Jason Kloth to serve as deputy mayor of education, and elevated the charter office to the Office of Education Innovation. It didn’t take long for Kloth to see that educational improvement in Indianapolis would require more than just an outside push.

At the time, the school system was caught in a downward spiral, with enrollment having fallen to about 30,000 students in the mid-2000s from more than 100,000 in 1969. This drastic drop resulted from a combination of factors: students enrolling in neighboring-city school districts, the rapid expansion of charter schools, and the city’s changing demographics (see Figure 1).

Enrollment Surging in Indianapolis Charter Schools (Figure 1)

The city’s school superintendent at the time, Eugene White, had little credibility with state policymakers, and state superintendent Bennett was threatening to take over the city’s low-performing schools under the authority of a law passed in 2000.

In response to a request from Bennett, The Mind Trust put out a report in December 2011 calling for the elimination of elected school boards and the empowerment of educators at the local level. Though controversial, this “Opportunity Schools” plan laid out a vision for transforming the city’s schools and paved the way for the innovation schools law. At the same time, Stand for Children, an education advocacy nonprofit, was raising money to get reform-friendly school-board members elected, and much of the public debate centered on The Mind Trust’s proposal. Over the next two years, 2012 through 2014, a series of events would set a bold new district strategy in motion. A new board was elected in 2012 (the same year Mike Pence became governor) and the board quickly recruited a young new superintendent, Lewis Ferebee, to start in September 2013.

A Civic Triangle

Lewis Ferebee started as superintendent in Indianapolis in September 2013.

Lewis Ferebee started as superintendent in Indianapolis in September 2013.

Ferebee was unknown on the national scene and had never run a school system before. He had served as a school principal at Guilford County Schools in North Carolina and then as chief of staff at Durham Public Schools, where he led a successful school-turnaround effort. Ferebee came to Indy with an open mind and no preconceived change agenda.

Jason Kloth in the mayor’s office approached Ferebee with an idea to present to the state. Informed by The Mind Trust’s Opportunity Schools report and the experience of other cities with district-charter collaboration, Kloth had been developing a plan that could help the Indianapolis school system transform itself while also enabling local charter schools to become more sustainable. Charter market share exceeded 30 percent, but growth had stalled, primarily because of lack of access to facilities. Community members saw The Mind Trust as closely aligned with charters and antagonistic to the district. The narrative had to shift.

The Mind Trust brought school-board members and local civic leaders to New Orleans, which was implementing the portfolio model—characterized by broad school choice for families (based on a “portfolio” of charter and district-run schools), plus autonomy paired with accountability for educators. The Indianapolis leaders hoped to apply the concepts of school-level innovation and empowerment to create an approach tailored to Indiana.

Kloth and his colleagues developed a legislative proposal to give district schools full charter-like authority as called for in The Mind Trust report. Governor Pence liked it. Key legislators liked it. So did a politically diverse civic organization called the Lewis-Hubbard Group, which had originally convened to develop citywide facilities recommendations. While the idea came from Kloth in the mayor’s office and The Mind Trust, the mayor’s staff worked through the statehouse and with the school system, and Ferebee took the lead. “It was very powerful to have the superintendent lobbying for it,” Ballard says.

Ferebee, Harris, and Kloth formed what one observer called a civic triangle to focus on creating high-performing schools. They were acting out of an immense urgency to avoid state takeover: charter growth showed signs of slowing, the school board was looking for a strategy, and the community was calling out for change. Innovation network schools held promise for addressing this predicament.

A Pivotal Decision

Despite growing support for the innovation schools proposal, getting the bill passed in the legislature was no slam-dunk. Civic activists were still angry and mistrustful over The Mind Trust’s Opportunity Schools report, and the teachers union was strongly opposed: innovation schools would operate outside of the union contract. Even Indiana’s committed choice advocates weren’t a sure bet for support, as many were wary of attempts to bring charter schools under the district umbrella.

By all accounts, Ferebee’s backing made all the difference in the bill’s passage. He asked that its name be changed to align with a district initiative he had underway (originally the bill was called the Freedom to Teach Act), but otherwise he ran with it, meeting with legislators and local opponents and explaining how autonomy could improve district schools. He was only months into his new job.

“Ferebee wants what’s best for kids,” says Ken Britt, dean of Marian University, calling him “the quintessential gentleman.” “He’s gone on the record saying, ‘If we can’t serve this child well, what gives us the right to keep a child in a failing school?’ He put courage and political capital on the line.”

The Innovation Network Schools bill passed in the spring of 2014. Shortly thereafter, Ferebee and Harris agreed to work together to create a strong supply of new innovation schools through The Mind Trust. Philanthropies supported innovation network fellows. Brandon Brown from Mayor Ballard’s office was recruited to take on an important challenge: create a new function at The Mind Trust, working with the school system and developing school models that could succeed in the district context.

Ferebee knew he’d need someone to help him oversee the innovation schools program and rejigger his central office to fully support autonomous schools. He met a highly capable young KIPP principal who might fit the bill: Aleesia Johnson came onboard and handled the technical and political challenges of launching the new-schools initiative while also managing the internal dynamics and turf issues in the central office. One of her early decisions helped smooth the challenges of implementation. The law gave the district a turnaround strategy by allowing it to replace low-performing schools with charters. Johnson decided, however, to expand the initiative by also inviting good district schools to apply for innovation status, thereby giving effective district educators the same freedom and autonomy that charters enjoyed. This approach created a natural internal constituency for the innovation schools program and ensured that the “brand” would include high-performing district schools, not just new charter schools.

Mariama Shaheed Carson, a local teacher and principal, was one of the first to open an innovation network school. She had tried to start her dream dual-language charter school—the Global Preparatory Academy—in another Indianapolis district but was turned down. She applied for The Mind Trust fellowship and opened her school in partnership with the Indianapolis schools. Shaheed Carson’s school brought early credibility to the program and helped spur interest from other local educators. The Mind Trust and Stand for Children informed families about the law in a series of community forums that helped build grassroots political support.

Mariama Shaheed Carson (in blue dress), then Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, and Brandon Brown cut a ribbon with students in July 2016 to celebrate the opening of Global Prep Academy. The school offers “two-way immersion” in English and Spanish.

Mariama Shaheed Carson (in blue dress), then Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, and Brandon Brown cut a ribbon with students in July 2016 to celebrate the opening of Global Prep Academy. The school offers “two-way immersion” in English and Spanish.

New Life for New Schools

Nationally, many charter leaders dismiss the concept of district-charter collaboration as a waste of time. If charters can be successful on their own, some have argued, why not just invest in their continued expansion? Indianapolis shows why such collaborations, when done thoughtfully, can be a win for charters, for districts, and, most importantly, for families.

Without the Innovation Network Schools law, Indianapolis charter-school expansion might well have hit a wall. Growth was likely to slow as The Mind Trust struggled to find and finance new buildings for charter school operators in the city. And if other cities are predictive, public perception might have eroded to the point where people started to blame district financial woes on charter schools. The Innovation Network Schools law has allowed the city to tap a new pool of innovators and has enabled charters to get greater access to district-owned buildings by taking over the operation of low-performing schools.

At the same time, the schools brought a new level of credibility to education reform in Indy and blunted political pushback. David Harris, initially skeptical about collaboration with the district, notes, “Educators are often upset about the innovation schools but then meet the leaders and see they are credible and have a long history in IPS. Importantly, successful schools have converted to innovation status, choosing autonomy over union protections, and are some of the strongest advocates for the law.”

Aleesia Johnson took over as superintendent after Ferebee left in December 2018 to run the Washington, D.C., public schools. As a former charter-school leader, Johnson saw autonomy as an enabler for great educators. In order to spur innovation, she reasoned, the district needed to free those educators; it also needed to find ways to reset toxic dynamics in chronically low-performing schools. Today, one out of four Indianapolis public-school students is enrolled in an innovation school (see Figure 2), but Johnson does not have a prescribed vision for how many such schools will eventually open. She plans to leave it up to educators to ask for the conditions to innovate and will force those conditions only when low performance demands it. In that way, she reasons, the innovation schools will continue to be what educators want, not what they fear.

A Diversified Portfolio of School Types (Figure 2)

Gains in Student Learning

More than a third of all public-school students in Indianapolis now attend a charter school, and the vast majority of the charters are authorized and overseen by the mayor’s office. The Indiana Charter School Board oversees the rest. Twenty-one public schools operate as innovation network schools.

Compared to district-run schools across Indiana, Indianapolis charter schools serve a student population with more challenging academic needs, more students who identify as members of a racial minority, and fewer students for whom English is a second language or who qualify for special education and an Individualized Education Plan (see Figure 3).

Comparing Students in District and Charter Schools (Figure 3)

Promising new results from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, known as CREDO, show that in 2016–17, both charter schools and the new innovation network schools in Indianapolis had stronger reading and math gains than the city’s traditionally run schools (see Figure 4). The results were especially strong for black, Hispanic, low-income, and English language learner students. Compared to state averages, the results show more variation, with both innovation network schools and traditional public schools in the district showing weaker growth in math. The study, released in January 2019, compares each student’s gain to gains of similar students in district schools.

Another study conducted by researchers at Indiana University and released the same week as the CREDO study looked at elementary-school students who enrolled and stayed in Indianapolis charter schools sponsored by the mayor and found they outperformed their peers in all 11 Indianapolis school districts.

While Superintendent Johnson is pleased with the improvements in student performance, she cautions that early growth is to be expected in the innovation schools, given how low the scores were at baseline. She is looking to see sustained growth over time. She also notes that because the innovation schools label includes so many types of schools with different starting points and contexts, the trajectories of individual schools will provide more meaningful data than will performance averages.

Indianapolis Charter Schools Outperform District and State in Learning Gains (Figure 4)

Lessons Learned

The unique civic dynamics in Indy and the state of Indiana help explain why education reform in the city has been less contentious and more pragmatic than in many other places. Indianapolis is a small city where people know and like each other. Individuals may move to different organizations, but they stay committed to the mission. And then there is the “Hoosier Way,” a general belief that people should treat each other with respect and kindness.

Against this backdrop, leaders took a number of intentional steps to build and sustain political and technical supports for the expansion of choice. Some of the most important were:

Building trust and credibility. Several key charter advocates made it clear early on that expanding choice was not enough: quality was also paramount. The authorizer role was to establish and enforce clear quality standards. The Mind Trust’s role was to create the conditions that would ensure an ample number and variety of school options for families.

Focusing on quality and local authorizing would be best for students, these leaders believed, but it would also help build credibility. In the early days, nasty politics abounded. Superintendents were adamantly opposed to the mayor authorizing charters, but quality helped blunt their arguments.

Jason Kloth says many people initially thought there was a secret plan to take over the school district. But when the state, the school board, and the superintendent agreed to champion the Innovation Network Schools law, “we built trust and credibility,” he says. “It was the way we approached it: It wasn’t ‘let a thousand flowers bloom.’ Quality really mattered. People couldn’t say that we had a huge portfolio of mixed quality and were trying to blow things up. Credibility breeds trust. Quality builds trust.”

Continuity of smart and brave leadership. Leaders and advocates at every level strongly agree on what has driven progress in Indianapolis and what’s needed to move forward. A key factor in effecting change in the schools was the fact that four successive mayors, Democratic and Republican, maintained the same strategy over nearly two decades. And David Harris has been a constant throughout.

Peterson and Ballard credit Stephen Goldsmith, Peterson’s predecessor, with establishing a strong link between education and economic development in the city.

Peterson believed that charter schools “had the potential to save urban education,” he says. “My support was solely for policy reasons, not political, but it did not hurt me politically. In fact, it helped me.” Democrats denounced him on the policy but agreed with him on everything else, so it “didn’t hurt me with Democrats, and I won the support of reform-minded Republicans.”

When Ballard took the helm, he pushed the choice initiative forward and now cites the mayor’s office as modeling “the gold standard” for quality authorizing. “Less than 25 percent of those who apply get approved,” he notes.

As superintendent, Ferebee was, by all accounts, artful in building good relationships and inviting opponents to the table. Early in his tenure, he took time to look closely at the district budget; he found pots of money that he was able to repurpose toward supporting the innovation schools. This bought him a lot of goodwill among teachers and likely helped him keep innovation schools under the radar.

Local and national investments. Indianapolis, though small, has attracted significant local and national philanthropy over the years. The combined investments, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, have supported talent recruitment, school incubation, community engagement, technical assistance for the district’s central-office transformation, and political advocacy for key policies.

Not long after the charter law passed in 2001, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, an Indianapolis-based philanthropy, supported a “lead and seed” initiative to try to attract national charter-management organizations to the city. When the national organizations declined to come, the foundation shifted toward seed funding to start The Mind Trust and help the city grow its own charter schools. Also stepping in with support were the Lilly Endowment, the Casey Family Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Highly cultivated, aligned supports. Through The Mind Trust, the city invested early on in talent and school incubation and other citywide supports, sparking rapid growth in charters and innovation schools. The Innovation Network Schools law allowed the city to “build a partnership that is advantageous for both district and charters,” in the words of Representative Huston, “but it doesn’t work without The Mind Trust.” Teach for America provided an essential talent pool, and that organization’s alumni now run half of the city’s innovation schools.

Unified front on choice. Over the years, Indiana policymakers and advocates have not gotten hung up over which kind of choice or regulation is “best.” Whether they prefer inter-district choice, charter schools, tax credit scholarships, vouchers, or innovation network schools, they have not let specific ideology undermine each other’s efforts. The overarching goal of “good choices for all” is the unifying mantra in Indy, and reform is not seen as a zero-sum game.

Commissioner Lubbers, who originated the state charter law, says it was more than a sense of civility and the “Hoosier Way” that created such harmony. Advocates for change also shared a true commitment to the power of choice. “There was the potential for charters and vouchers to be adversarial,” she says. “That didn’t really happen. People were brought together by the sense that students were being left behind.”

Civic leaders stepped up. The idea that a strong education sector is central to a vibrant city has motivated local leaders to push for change in Indy schools. As noted above, bipartisan mayoral leadership has been critical to effecting education reform—and right behind the mayors stood the city’s most-respected business, civic, and education leaders. The Mind Trust board includes some of the most influential people in the city, who backed Ferebee and helped him make his case for innovation network schools to the community. Civic advocacy was key in putting forth the mayors’ priorities.

State pressure and cover. A series of important state policy moves over the last two decades paved the way for a third-way approach in Indianapolis. In 2011, when the city schools were under the greatest threat of state takeover, new legislation created the voucher program and enabled charter school expansion. The year ended with The Mind Trust’s controversial report, and the groundwork was laid for the 2012 school-board elections. With the passage of the Innovation Network Schools law in 2014, leaders like Ferebee, an educator and a “gentleman” with no stake in the warring ideological camps, could pursue a new strategy.

Brandon Brown was recruited from Mayor Ballard’s office to work on schools at The Mind Trust.

Brandon Brown was recruited from Mayor Ballard’s office to work on schools at The Mind Trust.

Missteps and Challenges

Deep community engagement came late. The key actors in this story can be described as elites—and many of them are white men. It was not until recently that a more representative set of actors came to support reform and get deeply involved in these efforts. Inattention to community engagement was, by all accounts, The Mind Trust’s greatest misstep. It wasn’t until after the Opportunity Schools report that the organization invested in meaningful community engagement. Despite support from local newspapers’ editorial boards, the black community recoiled and many people saw The Mind Trust as a group of elitists writing plans to take over the local schools. According to Brandon Brown, “We needed to engage with people on the front end and build more internal team capacity for that engagement. You can’t ignore the community. Plans can’t exist in a vacuum.”

In 2013, The Mind Trust hired Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo to change its approach to community engagement, finding ways to more effectively listen to people and respond to their concerns. Shaheed-Diallo led many dozens of difficult meetings with opponents of The Mind Trust’s Opportunity Schools plan. David Harris says it was a challenging but critical process. Following nearly two years of targeted engagement, black leaders showed public support for the innovation network schools plan by attending the public event announcing the first participating schools.

Blind eye to existing talent, district leadership. For years, Indy education-reform advocates dismissed the idea of partnering with the Indianapolis school system, viewing it as hostile and defensive toward charter competition. But The Mind Trust leaders now see that they were naive to believe they could import all the talent needed to improve the city’s schools. They also realize now that they couldn’t expect charters to grow indefinitely without working with the district to tackle the barriers to such growth. Investing in district change strategies and relationship building proved necessary.

To be sure, the collaboration has hit some snags. Some schools complain of transportation logistics problems and other issues. But talented district educators who once lacked autonomy now have an avenue to start their dream schools, and the charter sector is reinvigorated. The Mind Trust has learned that investing in local talent pays off in many ways. Says Brown, “Once respected leaders experience the benefits of autonomy, they have conversations with their colleagues, which leads to more opportunities.” Seventy percent of The Mind Trust’s innovation network schools fellows are leaders of color, reflecting the city’s demographics and thus contributing to more community goodwill.

Inattention to special education and other supports. Indianapolis charter schools, which must provide their own special-education services, have sometimes struggled to meet the needs of all students. Some people allege that charter schools have “counseled out” students and, more broadly, that their lack of capacity simply causes families of children with disabilities not to consider them as viable options. About 14 percent of those enrolled in Indy charter schools are students with special needs, compared to 18 percent in the Indianapolis Public Schools. Too many charter schools in the city are good enough to be renewed but lack incentive and knowledge to continue to innovate for instructional improvements. Under the leadership of Brown and others, this is changing: a new special-education collaborative effort is underway to allow innovation network schools to access the district’s special-education services. The Mind Trust now provides curriculum audits to help schools identify gaps in instructional rigor. Still, these are both nascent efforts, and other citywide challenges loom for the increasingly decentralized school system, including transportation and facilities access.

Jason Kloth, a Teach for America alumnus, was named deputy mayor of education by Mayor Ballard, and served as one side of the “civic triangle.”

Jason Kloth, a Teach for America alumnus, was named deputy mayor of education by Mayor Ballard, and served as one side of the “civic triangle.”

The Work Ahead

Study results on innovation network schools prompt many in the city to say: “We’re doing well, but not well enough.” Continued sustained progress is the goal, but it is not assured. Reform advocates still hold a majority on the school board, but it is narrower than in 2012. Superintendent Johnson and her team must complete the difficult work of transforming central-office practices to support autonomous schools while also providing strong supports for the schools they manage directly. Schools that have made initial gains by improving their academic quality now must turn to tougher challenges that impede students’ learning, such as trauma, poverty, and opioid addiction. Marian University recently revamped its teachers’ college to focus on content experts, in-school training residencies for teachers, and more diversity to further fuel school improvement in the city; the need for this kind of retooling and rethinking will persist.

New statewide and local pressure on the schools to increase their focus on career pathways creates opportunities to help education leaders reimagine and rethink everything, but it also runs the risk of reinforcing tracking. Higher education commissioner Teresa Lubbers says, “We need to move students to where they want and need to be to have a meaningful life, within an economy that’s transforming all the time,” with many jobs changing and some being eliminated.

A $272 million tax referendum, led by Ferebee and backed by the Urban League and other civic organizations, passed in November 2018; the new funding will pay for teacher raises and capital improvements. (Some believe that the reformers’ decision to back the referendum rather than invest in board elections was a mistake and a reason that more union-backed school-board candidates won than were expected.)

Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s higher education commissioner, speaks at the Indiana Statehouse in February 2015. Lubbers is pushing schools to increase their focus on career pathways.

Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s higher education commissioner, speaks at the Indiana Statehouse in February 2015. Lubbers is pushing schools to increase their focus on career pathways.

Many state and local leaders are concerned that none of the other 10 school districts in metro Indianapolis have taken advantage of the Innovation Network Schools law. The state finance system allocates education dollars on a per-pupil basis, taking into account student-need factors such as poverty. As a result, school operators are more interested in opening in the city’s downtown core, where the money is, than in the outskirts. The policy is meant to concentrate funding in areas that most need new options, but students in the other districts have their own unmet needs. Poverty is increasingly shifting to the surrounding districts as the city revitalizes, and some wonder whether the changing demographics will eventually lead to a change in funding and more new schools opening in the other districts.

As the school system and its schools continue to evolve, so too must their supporting institutions. The Mind Trust has demonstrated its ability to do this by backing new designs for turnaround schools and others. By all accounts, the quality of incubation keeps getting better, but new challenges lie ahead as the organization tries to figure out how best to further school improvement without imposing on school autonomy and parent preferences. Momentum for attention to career-relevant learning and solutions for students with unique needs may give rise to new constituencies and new school designs.

Amar Patel, head of Teach for America Indianapolis, would like to see an organization like the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research provide third-party analysis by drilling down on the data and learning what’s working. He also notes that despite all the investment, the talent requirements in the Indianapolis schools are still “a bottomless pit.” Patel says Teach for America could place four to five times more people in the pipeline than they currently have.

State politics have shifted under the new state schools chief, Jennifer McCormick, who is perceived as hostile to reform. (McCormick will complete her term in December 2020 and will be Indiana’s last elected superintendent; beginning in 2021, the position will be appointed by the governor.) Without the aligned efforts of the governor and state superintendent, local reformers are counting on continued commitment from the legislature. Still, the success of reform efforts in the city to date demonstrates that strong local leadership is also an essential element for change.

Local politics are fragile, and school-board dynamics could create more hostility to reform. The mayor is up for reelection in a year. Aleesia Johnson believes this is a natural inflection point for Indianapolis. The mayors and the state set the conditions, she says, but now it is up to the community to make the most of it. Brandon Brown agrees: “How do you move from community engagement to community empowerment?” he asks.

The common refrain in Indianapolis is that the reform efforts to date have set important conditions but will not be enough to achieve excellence. Sustaining progress for students will require continued commitment from adults, says Jason Kloth. “We have the best public policy framework in the country. We are one of the best capitalized with local philanthropy. We have all of the institutions in place that people think are needed. . . . It took a long time to get people aligned. Now we need to genuinely and authentically implement.”

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at University of Washington Bothell. Shannon Murtagh, Erik Luk, and Roohi Sharma contributed analysis and data to this article.


The Mind Trust
New-school incubation, talent recruitment

David Harris, founding CEO of The Mind Trust, focused on human capital.

David Harris, founding CEO of The Mind Trust, focused on human capital.

“We saw relatively quickly that progress would always be limited without a focus on a human capital strategy,” says David Harris, the founding CEO of The Mind Trust. Like many industrial cities, Indianapolis had suffered from years of brain drain, as talented young people left for greater economic opportunity.

To address this profound challenge, Harris recruited Teach for America and The New Teacher
Project (now TNTP) to bring new teachers—and especially entrepreneurial leaders—to Indianapolis. The early strategy created Education Entrepreneur Fellowships to attract non-educators to the city. Fellows receive a $20,000 stipend plus full salary and benefits for two years to develop their idea for a new school or nonprofit. The Mind Trust moved
quickly toward supporting teams rather than individuals through what became an intensive school-incubation process: designing, building, and launching new schools. The organization has helped create 12 new public charter schools and, in partnership with the school district, 17 innovation network schools. It has helped create nearly a dozen new nonprofit school-support organizations and placed more than 1,500 teachers in city schools.

As the city’s needs have evolved, so has The Mind Trust. Community engagement activity has progressed from a “grasstops” strategy that engages respected civic leaders in education to a grassroots approach that focuses on building widespread support. The organization has partnered with the United Negro College Fund to provide bus tours for local residents that showcase effective practices in Indianapolis charter schools and to host community discussions.

The Mind Trust has increasingly concentrated on instructional quality and professional development for existing schools. It also supports the school system through such initiatives as the creation of a unified enrollment system; Teach Indy (a collaboration between The Mind Trust, the schools, and the mayor’s office to recruit effective educators to the city); and a new effort to explore how charter schools can work with the school system on special education.

More than $100 million in funding has underwritten these activities, and some of Indy’s most prominent busi- ness and civic leaders sit on the organization’s board.

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California Teachers on Medical Leave Have to Pay for Their Substitutes. Will Lawmakers Step In?


Hannah Wiley and Sawsan Morrar, The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento special education teacher David Young doesn’t like calling in sick to work, even on days when he’s feeling the side effects of his chemotherapy treatments for bladder and prostate cancer and would rather curl up in bed.

But he has to go in, and not just because he loves working with his students and the co-workers who rely on his help.

Young, 51, also risks a financial hit if he misses too much school—one most private sector workers don’t have to worry about.

Because they are not eligible for state disability insurance, most California public school teachers must reimburse their employers for some of the cost of hiring a substitute during an extended medical leave.

“I even came in on days that I was sick from chemo to work,” Young said in interviews with The Sacramento Bee.

The arrangement, known as differential pay, dates back to the 1970s, when teachers chose not to pay into the state disability insurance fund that covers workers when they’re sick, injured or on pregnancy leave. Private sector workers pay into the fund with a paycheck deduction.

The California Legislature then determined that school districts could use a portion of a teacher’s wages to pay a substitute. That “differential” pay kicks in when teachers go on extended leave of up to five months, after they’ve exhausted their 10 sick days and accumulated time off.

Young said he bought a supplemental disability insurance plan, “just in case,” which would cover 75 percent of his salary.

So far, though, he’s skipped sick days to avoid both differential pay and going on disability.

“I’m trying to keep my sick days up. Accruing more and more is what I’m all about,” Young said. “I’m concerned that something might happen again, and that I will…I might need some days.”

Reform on the Way?

Differential pay has recently caught the attention of a former labor leader who is now chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

State Sen. Connie Leyva, a Chino Democrat and former president of the California Labor Federation, introduced Senate Bill 796 this month to remedy what she called an archaic mistake that’s left teachers unnecessarily on the hook for their substitutes’ wages.

“At a time when a teacher is literally fighting for their life, they’re not receiving their full pay,” Leyva said. “So how are they going to make their house payment, their rent payment? They may even be wondering how they are going to make the premium on their insurance.”

Leyva’s legislation is new and unions and district representatives alike have yet to consider their position. But the legislation begs an expensive question: Who will pay for the change?

Kevin Gordon, whose lobbying firm Capitol Advisors represents a majority of California school districts, said Leyva’s idea seems like a noble solution to a poignant problem, but one that carries substantial financial consequences.

“It’s a righteous cause, without any money,” Gordon said. “It’d be great, if the Legislature were willing to pay for it.”

A Pricey Choice

Young has been teaching special education in the Sacramento City Unified School District for 16 years, with the past seven at C.K. McClatchy High School.

He was diagnosed with cancer in December 2017. For nearly six months, his life centered on trying to rid his body of a painful disease with side effects that include urinary and bowel dysfunction and bleeding.

He had surgery in January 2018 to remove as much of a tumor as possible, with eight weeks of chemotherapy to follow. He then had his bladder and prostate removed in May. He lost his hair, his energy, and 80 sick days accrued over 13 years in the process.

During treatments, Young said he’d avoid staying home when possible, but sometimes he’d have to take a “sporadic” chunk of four to five days off. He didn’t like leaving his co-teacher in a bind, he explained, or relinquishing precious time off originally reserved for retirement.

“I would try to come in on days that I was feeling okay, or wasn’t too nauseous,” Young said, “So I could hold on to as many sick days as I could.”

Young is now cancer free, but a slew of health complications—including depression, chronic exhaustion, and a pulmonary embolism in his lung from chemo—have left him needing extra sick days.

When considering his options, the veteran teacher was told by his human resources department that he could take additional time off, but that he might have to pay about $130 for each day a substitute was hired as his replacement, to be cut from his paycheck.

Sacramento City Unified School District pays its substitutes in most of the K-12 schools a $146 daily rate for up to five days, when they start getting paid $222 a day. Sacramento Unified teachers make an average of $91,250. Teachers aren’t required to pay more than half of their paycheck toward a substitute.

Local unions usually work with their districts to establish paid leave banks where members can donate time to sick teachers.

More than 1,173 hours were donated to the Sacramento district’s bank in the 2018-2019 school year, district spokeswoman Catalina Martinez said. About 15 teachers each year dip into the fund, estimated Nikki Milevsky, first vice president for the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

“But while the number is relatively small,” Milevsky continued, “The impact on the individual, because it is someone with a serious illness, can be enormous.”

Young said he hasn’t had to ask for help just yet. He’s also confident his colleagues would step in with sick time donations, and he’s already accrued eight days since 2018 on his own.

On his “healthy days,” he has energy and does his job well. Other days are harder.

He’s grateful for his health insurance and for the allotted 10 days off, he said. But in retrospect, he thinks a $130-a-day pay cut might have been a better option.

“Looking back, I worked too hard,” he said. “I should have allowed myself a better break.”

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The Art of Slow Looking in the Classroom

Eight seconds — that’s the latest estimate of the length of the human attention span. The push to cover more material in the same amount of classroom time also provides a challenge, especially when teachers are told that the skills (like critical thinking and creativity) their students will need in order to compete in the 21st century are ones that take time to develop. For educators working with a new generation raised in a world of rapid information exchange, it may seem difficult to hold students’ attention when it comes time for extended observation.

As an antidote, Project Zero researcher Shari Tishman offers “slow looking” — the practice of observing detail over time to move beyond a first impression and create a more immersive experience with a text, an idea, a piece of art, or any other kind of object. It’s a practice that clears a space for students to hold and appreciate the richness of the world we live in.

How “Slow Looking” Can Support Students

Slow looking helps students navigate complex systems and build connections

Activity: Take something apart, whether it’s a physical object or an idea like “family.” What are the different components and how do they function together?

“Looking at physical or conceptual systems and how they’re put together and how they can be taken apart is a powerful strategy for close looking,” says Tishman, the author of Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation. Tishman has her graduate students take apart everyday objects in small groups, think about the purpose of the different parts, and make an inventory of the pieces they find. In this activity, students develop an appreciation for complexity and how small pieces can come together to form a larger whole — and in turn, can inspire students to use what they know to design new systems.

Slow looking fuels empathy and self-awareness

Activity: Change your vantage point. That might mean looking with the naked eye and then through a microscope, asking students to think about what a glass of water might look like to an ant, or examining eating utensils from around the world.

“When you look for a while, you become aware of how a thing might look to somebody else; you also become aware of your own lens,” says Tishman. Through slow looking, “students come to an understanding of the multi-perspectival nature of knowing things in our world.” Slow looking allows students to understand how they see something through their own lens — and opens them up to how others in the world and in the classroom may see the same object or idea differently. It also provides a space for them to notice the commonalities in different perspectives.

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Trump Team Plans to Relax School Lunch Rules. Opponents Warn of ‘Junk Food Loophole’ – Politics K-12

Thumbnail image for perdueschoolunch-thumb-500xauto-25034.jpg

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Friday announced plans to further relax heightened school meal nutrition standards created by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

The proposed changes won praise from some school nutrition workers, who said they would give them more flexiblity to manage tight budgets and the logistics of feeding students. But children’s health advocacy groups said the new rules may serve to erode progress in tackling issues like childhood obesity. They warned that one of the changes, which would allow entrees to be served à la carte, could lead to students eating more foods like pizza and burgers.

Here’s what the proposed changes would do:

  • Provide more flexibility in compliance with a rule that requires a variety of specific types of vegetables to be served with school lunches.
  • Allow anything that can be served as a lunch entree on the main line to be sold on the à la carte line, even if it doesn’t meet the nutrition restrictions for a single à la carte item. School nutrition workers said such rules, which limit calories and sugar in individual à la carte purchases, prohibited them from selling leftover meal items, like pizza, which they had used to balance tight cafeteria budgets. But child nutrition groups have called the proposal a “junk food loophole” that will allow schools to serve unhealthy food for profit.
  • Lift a requirement that schools must offer a certain amount of grains in a breakfast before they can include meat in the meal.
  • Reduce the amount of fruit required in school breakfasts served outside of the cafeteria, such as those provided through grab-and-go programs.
  • Allow states to extend the time between standard reviews of schools’ meal programs, which are completed to ensure they are in compliance with federal rules.

“Schools and school districts continue to tell us that there is still too much food waste and that more common-sense flexibility is needed to provide students nutritious and appetizing meals. We listened, and now we’re getting to work,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement announcing the proposal.

The School Nutrition Association, an industry group that opposed some of the Obama-era regulations, praised Perdue for listening to its members concerns. The Trump administration previously relaxed rules related to milk, sodium, and whole grains. Some of the nutrition requirements “contributed to reduced lunch participation, higher costs and food waste,” the SNA said in a statement.

But groups concerned about child obesity and children’s health said the proposal represents a step back.

The changes “could jeopardize kids’ health by potentially reducing the variety of vegetables available on lunch lines,” said a statement from Food Corps, an organization that advocates for child nutrition and school gardens. 

And the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the Trump administration seems intent on “sabotaging” the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, expressing particular concern about the à la carte rule change.

“The proposed rule would allow anything that might be allowable as an entrée on any one school day to be served as an a la carte item every single day,” the organization said in a statement. “In practice, if finalized, this would create a huge loophole in school nutrition guidelines, paving the way for children to choose pizza, burgers, French fries, and other foods high in calories, saturated fat or sodium in place of balanced school meals every day.”

Joe Urban, director of food and nutrition services for Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, said it will take time for local officials to read the new rules and fully understand the changes.

“People who are doing a really, really good job serving high quality nutritious food to kids right now will continue to do so regardless of any changes in the rules,” he said.

The proposed rules will be published in the Federal Register Jan. 23, and will be open for public comment for 60 days.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue eats lunch in a school cafeteria. –USDA

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AP Exclusive: State voucher violations leave details unknown

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Some Tennessee parents were accused of misspending thousands of dollars in school voucher funds while using state-issued debit cards over the past school year, a review by The Associated Press has found, and state officials say they do not know what many of those purchases were for.

The Tennessee voucher program is currently modest in scale but is set to expand under Republican leadership over the next year. The state gives families of children with certain disabilities the option of removing their students from public school and then provides a state-issued debit card loaded with tax dollars to help cover their children’s private school needs.

When it’s expanded, families won’t be given a state-issued debit card, but will instead use a website to purchase items largely due to attempts to prevent misspending.

Ahead of the expansion, the AP reviewed letters sent by Tennessee’s Department of Education alerting families of improper purchases paid with the state-issued cards between May 2018 and September 2019. The program lets families spend roughly $6,000 each year on approved private educational services.

The department does not keep a database or list of families that violate the program. The AP relied on the letters to compile and analyze the violations over the past school year.

Of the 51 letters sent out by the state, 20 simply listed “unknown” as the reason for the improper purchases because parents had failed to include receipts.

In total, the AP found that Tennessee flagged nearly $30,000 in misspent voucher funds during the 2018-2019 school year. A portion of that amount was overturned through the appeals process.

The education agency provided the violation letters through a public records request but redacted names of the recipients, making it impossible to identify possible repeat violators or contact those who received notices. The agency also provided documents showing that a handful of the parents who had been flagged as submitting incomplete forms successfully appealed their violations.

The brief and direct letters highlight misspent funds, but do not reveal if any of the violations were particularly egregious.

In one Nov. 14, 2018, letter, the state said an $851 mystery expense violated the state’s policy because it was spent “not for the education benefit of the student enrolled in the IEA program.”

Another letter sent in April announced the voucher account had been closed due to an unreported $1,456 expense on Jan. 15 and warned that the recipient would no longer be eligible to reapply in the future. However, that action was later successfully appealed after the recipient provided receipts showing the money had been spent on preapproved private school tuition.

In one case, the state denied an appeal of an Oct. 26, 2018, purchase of $1,725 after noting the recipient again failed to submit receipts showing how the money was spent. The original violation letter noted the recipient had paid for education therapy before the provider had been approved and failed to provide a receipt.

A separate appeal letter said the department had approved an appeal for an $1,899 iPad pro as a “one-time courtesy.”

The department declined to discuss any of the individual letters, citing privacy concerns.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told the AP that she increased supervision over use of the state debit cards — known as the Individual Education Account program — shortly after taking over the position last year.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure one plus one equals two on the balance sheet,” Schwinn said. She added that she found “a lot of opportunities for improvement” in how the program was managed.

Schwinn said she too had noticed the violations flagged by the AP and moved the program to a different department to improve oversight.

Schwinn said she would prefer that families enrolled in the IEA program move away from using debit cards in order to prevent future misspending.

Tennessee’s program will be expanded to thousands more students in Nashville and Memphis beginning in the 2020-21 school year.

Currently just five states have some sort of voucher program that relies on monitoring debit cards: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Nationwide, there’s been a push, supported by President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to give parents more freedom to use public school funding as they see fit for their children’s education. Critics have countered that education vouchers divert critical funds from public schools. They have also pointed to problems with monitoring spending in the state’s limited voucher program to bolster the case against expansion.

The program in Arizona made national headlines last year after an audit found that parents using state-issued debit cards had misspent more than $700,000 in public money.

Voucher proponents say states have gotten better since then at preventing fraudulent purchases as the push for more so-called “school choice” initiatives have popped up across GOP-controlled Statehouses.

However, for two years in a row, Tennessee education officials said in annual reports that monitoring the use of the voucher funds was one of the top challenges of implementing the Individual Education Account voucher program. Other challenges included educating account holders on state laws surrounding the program; and ensuring that expense reports and receipts were being properly submitted.

Just 36 students enrolled in the voucher program when the program launched in January 2017. That number has jumped to 137 children during the 2018-2019 school year, though thousands more are estimated to qualify.

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State and Local Affiliates Aren’t Waiting for National Teachers’ Unions to Endorse Candidates – Politics K-12


A few more state and local teachers’ unions have endorsed Democratic presidential candidates in the last few days, even as their powerful national peers—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—continued their lengthy vetting processes.

The Massachusetts affiliate of the AFT and the Boston Teachers Union endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who represents their state and has called for quadrupling Title I, “fully funding” IDEA, and putting new restrictions on charter schools.

And over the weekend, former Vice President Joe Biden, who was born in Scranton, Penn., announced he’d won the endorsement of the Scranton Federation of Teachers. Biden wants to triple Title I funding, which is targeted toward schools with large enrollments of students from low-income families, full funding for IDEA within 10 years, and the reinstatement of some Obama-era civil rights regulations that have since been rescinded by the Trump administration.

Those endorsements come about two months after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won early support from the United Teachers of Los Angeles. That union’s leadership said Sanders, an independent, would “stand up against privatization, the charter billionaries, and high-stakes testing,” which have all been the focus of recent teacher activism in the nation’s second largest school district.

What About the National Teachers Unions’ Endorsements?

The national teachers unions have said any endorsements of primary candidates will come much later in the cycle than they did in 2016. Some union members criticized the national organizations in 2016, saying they moved too quickly to support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and did not give Sanders enough consideration.

The AFT has responded by holding town halls with most of the 2020 Democratic candidates to discuss their priorities. The NEA released a series of video interviews with candidates. And both unions were among the organizers of a forum on public education issues that was livestreamed and conducted by MSNBC.

But even as the Iowa caucuses are less than a month away, neither union has made an endorsement.

What Will the New Endorsements Mean for Candidates?

Endorsements from the Massachusetts and Boston chapters signal an important nod from Warren’s home state. It may also motivate some of the organizations’ members to hit the road for neighboring New Hampshire to help organize voters in that early primary state. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts primary is March 3 on Super Tuesday.

Warren often mentions her year as a special education teacher on the trail, a talking point echoed by the unions in their endorsements.

Scranton is a relatively small district with about 10,000 students. But Pennsylvania, which President Trump won in 2016, is a significant state in the general election. The Pennsylvania primary is April 28.

“As a native of Scranton, Vice President Biden knows firsthand about the economic, educational and social issues that matter to our community,” SFT President Rosemary Boland said in a statement. “He has been a lifelong advocate for strong public schools, labor rights and access to quality and affordable healthcare—issues important to our members, working families and the students we teach.”

Photo: Getty

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What We’re Watching: What It Will Take for Social And Emotional Learning To Succeed

The American Enterprise Institute recently hosted a two-part conversation with experts, researchers, and policy stakeholders to discuss social and emotional learning in K-12 education.

The discussion is moderated by Frederick Hess, who, with Chester E. Finn, co-wrote “What Social and Emotional Learning Needs to Survive” for Education Next.

Watch the video here.

— Education Next

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A Quarter of Kids With Autism May Go Undiagnosed, Study Finds


Rita Giordano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

A new Rutgers study has found that one-fourth of children with autism spectrum disorder may go undiagnosed.

Moreover, children whose autism is not recognized are more likely to be black or Hispanic, according to findings published last month in the journal Autism Research.

The bottom line, the new findings suggest, is that children whose lives could be improved by getting needed services may be falling through the cracks.

“There may be various reasons for the disparity, from communication or cultural barriers between minority parents and physicians to anxiety about the complicated diagnostic process and fear of stigma,” said study coauthor Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“Also, many parents whose children are diagnosed later often attribute their first concern to a behavioral or medical issue rather than a developmental problem,” he added.

Children of color have long been suspected of being underdiagnosed with autism, the nation’s fastest-growing developmental disability. Characterized by communication and social difficulties or deficits and repetitive behaviors, autism must be detected early in order to help children reach their full potential, experts agree.

The study was conducted by reviewing medical and education records of children in 11 states, including New Jersey, that are part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Studies are performed within the network to estimate autism prevalence rates.

The researchers analyzed records of 266,000 8-year-old children and found 4,550 who met the diagnostic criteria for autism. Of those children, 1,135 had not been diagnosed with the disorder. Black and Hispanic children were more likely to be in the undiagnosed group.

When the network’s prevalence rates for 8-year-olds were last released in 2018, one in 59 children were estimated to be on the spectrum. New Jersey had the highest prevalence, with a rate of one in 34 children. Diagnosis of children of color at the time appeared to be increasing, but the new study suggests there is still substantial need for improvement.

Zahorodny, who directs the New Jersey portion of the study, said findings like this underline the need for universal screening for autism.

“I have no problem advocating that every child be screened at 18 and 24 months,” Zahorodny said. “In fact, I’m a person who would be most likely to say not only at 18 and 24 months but given what we see about late detection, I would do screening at 30 or 36 months and again at 40 or 48 months because there are still children who are getting to school age without evaluation.”

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Defining Social-Emotional Learning | Harvard Graduate School of Education

The recent uptick in research on social-emotional learning frameworks and curriculum has meant that words like “resilience” and “self-control” are used by everyone from classroom teachers to state leaders. But not all stakeholders use these words in the same way, according to social-emotional intervention expert Stephanie Jones. When language around SEL is used inconsistently, she says, it’s difficult for researchers, teachers, and leaders to communicate, make strategic decisions, and determine whether interventions have been implemented successfully.

“Words and the definitions matter,” Jones says. “We should strive to connect our words and definitions to those others are using so that we are coordinated in what we do.”

To achieve this connection, Jones and her team at HGSE’s EASEL Lab developed Explore SEL — a digital resource with tools to help users identify the overlaps and divergences in SEL frameworks, domains, and skillsets.


Because the field of SEL has grown rapidly, classroom teachers, school leaders, districts, states, policymakers, and nonprofits have likely engaged with SEL research — but often without clarity about how it might actually apply to their particular needs. That’s why a primary audience for Explore SEL, Jones says, may be institutions that are positioned to act as mediators between SEL research and its implementation. Those institutions — grant-making agencies, think tanks, departments of education, nonprofits — can help ensure common definitions of SEL vocabulary, so decision-makers can determine which framework will target their needs.

“As we think about how Explore SEL can be best deployed to address the terminology of SEL, we’re thinking about district and school leadership, but also those who are the brokers who sit in between the practice, policy, and research communities — those who make the connection between what’s known and the people who make decisions,” Jones says, also noting that she’s also heard from educators and school and district leaders as well as program designers who have used the site.

Here, Jones walks through a few of the different tools on the site to help potential users orient themselves.

Compare SEL Approaches

The Problem: Among other uses, SEL frameworks act as an organizing system for a program or curriculum and serve to set goals and targets. Multiple frameworks might include “executive functioning” but associate different skills with the term. Frameworks might also describe the same skills using different words.

The Solution: Explore SEL allows users to compare frameworks and see where there is overlap in how skills are defined, even if the terminology is different. This overlap can provide valuable insight into forming a common definition, target areas for programs that work with different schools and frameworks, and opportunities for collaboration.

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