Kelly Bentley on charter schools, funding and sports-envy

Dateline: Thu 30 Apr 2009

With Indianapolis Public Schools rif'ing 300 teachers and no budget in sight at the Statehouse, the five minutes or so I heard of Kevin Teasley, the charter-school guy, being interviewed by Abdul on his 1430-AM radio show Tuesday rang central.

Teasley, CEO of the 21st Century Charter School here, has been successful seeding charter schools in other states. On Abdul's show, he was speculating about IPS: why, he wondered, doesn't the state's largest school system, in hot water financially and with so many failing schools, give a nod to the charter school concept and create their own?

Since Kelly Bentley of the IPS board had sent out an urgent email the day before, alerting all of us to Superintendent Eugene White's statement in the Star, I asked her: what do you think? Kelly has always been a passionate advocate of IPS, as well as a big picture thinker.

She reeled off her insights in an email (although she had to wait a bit; she said she was "too cranky" after the board had to lay of 300 teachers).

Starting with my premise -- one shared by many of you, I am certain -- that education should be our No. 1 priority in this city and state, (and not sports, which is always in the news) here is what Bentley has to say:

"Sports should not be the focus of K-12 education, but sports and other extracurricular activities--Debate Team, Brain Game, Chess Club, Key Club, et al--are important to the school program. Students who make positive connections to their school through involvement with extracurricular activities are more likely to do better in schools and not drop out.

"Do we need to build Taj Mahal sports facilities to provide opportunities?--No, but as long as some communities do just that, then others will feel like they need to compete. I'm proud of the fact that IPS has not spent any bond funds on building lavish sports facilities, but our students are very aware that what they have pales in comparison to what students in other districts have. Also, last week I did vote against the appointment of a full time assistant athletic director/basketball coach/summer sports camp coordinator because I'm not sure this is the time to hire someone at $70,000+ a year who won't be teaching.

"I would love to explore chartering some schools, but there hasn't been much interest shown by a majority of the board or the IPS administration. It is my understanding that the law makes it almost impossible for a public school to convert to a charter school and the funding for conversion (to) charter schools creates a disincentive. I also believe that seniority and other collective bargaining agreements would apply to conversion charter schools, so teachers teaching in a conversion school might not have any protection in the event of another reduction-in-force. IPS does have the authority to authorize new charter schools and our application process is similar to the Mayor's, but we haven't had any groups apply.

"We could explore creating an independent not-for-profit, organize some charter schools, and go to the Mayor or Ball State for authorization. Some of our most innovative programs were hit by the reduction-in-force, which makes it almost impossible to protect the integrity of these programs. The IEA (Indianapolis Education Association) did agree to exempt some teachers based on completion of specialized certification and/or teaching license endorsements, but some schools are still at risk. Chartering these schools would go a long way in protecting their integrity.

"Reductions-in-force are not the only threat to our innovative and specialized programs. My fear is that many central office mandates run counter to the educational philosophy of many of these schools and further weaken them. Indianapolis cannot afford to lose schools like Montessori, International Baccalaureate at CFI, The Sidener Gifted Academy, the Key School, and Spanish Immersion because they provide an exceptional education to a diverse group of students. These schools also keep families from moving out of IPS. CFI at #84 for example, has been a huge success. Families in Meridian Kessler who would have moved when their children reached school age are staying in the neighborhood. School 91 Montessori was named a Federal Blue Ribbon School and continues to be a popular choice for parents. The Sidener Gifted Academy is another very popular addition to the choices in IPS, but the parents there are very upset about the possibility of losing some of their teachers.

"I have always been a supporter of giving schools as much autonomy as possible. I feel even more strongly than ever that school communities must have some control over their own destiny in order for real reform to occur. Unfortunately, IPS has backed away for school based decision making in favor of a more top-down model of management. And the reality is that the cookie cutter approach isn't very supportive of creativity and innovation.

"President Obama and (U.S.) Secretary (of Education Arne) Duncan are huge supporters of charter schools and based on what is happening in Chicago, they both support school autonomy as well. When Arne Duncan lead the Chicago Public Schools, he not only opened charter schools, but also created a system of varying levels of autonomy that could be earned. All other things being equal, the one thing charters have that traditional public schools don't have, is autonomy, and that alone is very appealing to innovative, visionary school leaders and to many parents. The other thing charters have--at least when done correctly--is strict accountability.

"I've been on the board for 10 years and continue to be a huge supporter of public education, IPS and the many quality and innovative programs in the district. We have some great teachers in the district and some very innovative and effective school leaders--not just in our magnet and option programs, but in our traditional boundary schools as well.

"But accountability is still as elusive as ever and we continue to shuffle folks around without ever addressing the issue of weak building leadership. We approved laying off 300 teachers last night based purely on seniority. Many of these teachers are young, energetic, and passionate about teaching in IPS. At the same time the principals in IPS only let go 8 teachers this year for poor performance. And that number is high compared to other years. We also approved the annual administrative shuffle, which disrupts school communities and creates terrible instability.

"And last but not least is the funding issue. The current House version of the budget has IPS losing $3 million over the biennium. The Senate version has IPS losing $27 million. These figures do not include the estimated $8 million in circuit breaker loses tied the the property tax caps. Yes, IPS is getting Title I and IDEA stimulus funds, but there a host of rules about how that money can be spent. And the intent of the stimulus dollars was not to have states reduce regular education funding. If the Senate version passes, the 300 teachers we laid off last night will be a walk in the park compared to what will have to happen next year."

Thanks to Kelly for sharing this.

One observation: I recall when Derek Redelman was seeking a seat on the IPS board, and he was unsuccessful -- largely, I believe, because he supported charter schools and was "a conservative." But times are changing; Kelly's observations about national support for alternative schools with maximum autonomy makes sense.

More to come, from the spouse of a veteran IPS teacher, in the wake of teacher cutbacks.

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