Struggling schools would be subject to takeovers and other interventions after four years of Ds and Fs instead of six years of failing grades under legislative recommendations the State Board of Education made Wednesday.
During another tense meeting, members also voted to take control over federal money earmarked for school interventions, a change that would require approval by the General Assembly as well. And the board wants to create its own school turnaround office with staff that would answer directly to the board, not the state superintendent of public instruction.
“There needs to be a clear line of sight of who’s in charge,” said board member Dan Elsener, who chaired the committee that worked on the recommendations. “We want every authority to move to the advantage of kids.”
“We’re already doing this intervention,” Ritz said vehemently and repeatedly. “That’s what we’re responsible for. It’s what we do.”
And she said the changes could have a much broader impact – making the board the recipient of all federal funding that now comes to the Department of Education.
Under current law, schools that receive an F for six straight years are subject to one of several state interventions, which are negotiated by the State Department of Education and approved by the state board. A handful of schools have been subject to administrative takeovers under the program, which is the most invasive option.
The new recommendations – if approved by the General Assembly – would put more schools in the intervention category, both because Ds would be counted in addition to Fs and the action would occur much more quickly.
Board member Tony Walker said the latter is necessary because the administrative steps necessary to take over a failing school mean that drastic action sometimes isn’t taken until eight or nine years after the school received its first F. Elsener said that’s too long to leave any student in a failing school.
However, Ritz said state education officials already step in much earlier with programs that help schools achieve better grades before they reach intervention status. Her Outreach Division of School Improvement provides districts with a liaison to the department to help schools focus on raising achievement.
“We’re doing it right away,” Ritz said. “We’re not waiting to get to an intervention point before we actually entertain these ideas.”
The discussion led to tense debate between Ritz and board members, who said the proposal is aimed only at administering the board’s legal obligation to intervene in schools that have failed repeatedly.
When Ritz got excited as she described what education officials already do to help schools, Elsener quipped, “I’m really glad you’re expressing energy around this because we haven’t heard that.”
And later, he told Ritz, “You’re defensive.”
“There is some defensiveness,” Ritz acknowledged. “You’re taking away the authority of the Department of Education and giving it to the State Board of Education.”
The skirmish is the latest between Ritz, a Democrat who two years ago defeated a Republican incumbent, and the board, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence.
Before the election, the Department of Education had for years staffed the state board. After the election, Pence created a separate education agency that reported to him and now staffs the board. Since then, the board and the superintendent have regularly battled over education policy and meeting procedure.