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State board blames Ritz for waiver jeopardy

INDIANAPOLIS – The State Board of Education on Tuesday blamed Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz for putting Indiana’s federal education waiver in jeopardy during a special meeting punctuated by grumpy exchanges.

Ritz defended the Indiana Department of Education’s work, pointing out the recent federal report questioning state performance doesn’t take into account any changes or progress made since August.

“The department has done its due diligence and takes full responsibility for making Indiana eligible for the waiver extension,” she said, noting later she is confident of its full approval.

The board – comprised mostly of Republicans – called for the special meeting and questioned the Democratic officeholder and her staff intensely, sometimes interrupting and talking over presenters.

“We have a number of problems and they are very serious – not technical,” board member Dan Elsener said.

He added he thought the Indiana Department of Education is downplaying the seriousness and questioned why the board wasn’t kept in the loop.

The Indiana Department of Education knew in December after a phone call with the U.S. Department of Education that there was a strong likelihood of conditions being added to the waiver because of noncompliance following an August monitoring visit.

But the federal department didn’t make that official until the end of April, followed by a May 1 letter.

Board members expressed frustration that they weren’t told specifically during that four-month time of the possible problems. An April 25 email to the board said “the report will indicate that Indiana will receive a ‘conditional status’ on our waiver.”

Still, though, the board didn’t get the actual monitoring report and letter from Ritz or the state department. It instead came from reporters.

Indiana was one of 10 states to receive a waiver from the landmark No Child Left Behind education law in 2012. Its goal was to get all children up to par in math and reading by 2014. But state education leaders increasingly complained the goal wasn’t realistic.

The states excused from following the law were exempt from the 2014 deadline but had to submit plans showing how they would prepare children for college and careers, set new targets for improving achievement among all students, reward the best-performing schools and focus help on the ones doing the worst.

Washington became the first state to lose its waiver after it refused to implement teacher evaluations.

Losing the waiver would mean the state would have to go back to following a federal accountability law instead of using its own A-F grading system. And the state and local districts could lose flexibility on how to spend more than $200 million in federal Title I education funds.

U.S. Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle told Ritz in the May letter that federal monitors had identified problems in the state’s handling of its federal accountability waiver during a review in August.

The requirements for the waiver were crafted and approved under former schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican, but the implementation has been left to Ritz, who defeated Bennett in the 2012 election.

The issues include handling of teacher and principal evaluations, monitoring of college- and career-ready standards and technical assistance for troubled local school districts.

The federal monitors say that in many cases, Indiana has failed to follow through on promises it made in its initial waiver plan.

The feds granted conditional approval of Indiana’s request for a waiver but said the state must address numerous steps identified in the letter or risk losing its waiver.

The state has 60 days – June 30 –from its receipt of the letter to respond to the recommended steps. Indiana was not moved into the high risk category.

Ritz’s staff gave hours-long presentations on how the state is working toward compliance. For instance, the state department will finalize 500 school monitoring visits this month that started in January.

But board member Brad Oliver said it appears there was no monitoring of priority or focus schools at all in 2013.

“We made assurances and we didn’t honor them,” he said.

Oliver said overall it was a productive meeting and he has a “better understanding of where the department is at with regard to their thoughts on how they respond in the next 60 days.”

The Indiana department plans to have twice-weekly calls with the U.S. Department of Education on specific topics in the next several weeks. Then a formal update will be given to the board in June.

A final submission to the federal government is expected June 25.