Indiana education board urges faster intervention in low-performing schools at testy hearing

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INDIANAPOLIS — Failing schools could face quicker state intervention and the Indiana State Board of Education could have more say in how federal school improvement funds are used under recommendations approved by the board Wednesday.

The recommendations, which passed 9-2, drew fire from schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who said some of the proposed changes are an attempt to usurp her authority.

"You're really recommending that the State Board of Ed become the state's education agency," she said during a contentious hearing that stretched for hours.

The state board has spent months studying Indiana's process for turning around poorly performing schools.

Indiana law currently requires the board to intervene after a school receives an "F'' accountability grade for six consecutive years. That would change to an intervention after a school received a "D'' or "F'' for four consecutive years, and the board may also consider seeking the authority to put an entire school district under state intervention.

The intervention options include hiring an outside operator to take over a school, changing administration and closing a school.

Another recommendation would transfer oversight of federal money for turnaround schools from the Indiana Department of Education to the state board, as well as create a state turnaround fund to supplement federal dollars.

Ritz, who has opposed the state's practice of taking over failing schools and turning them over to private operators, noted that her department already has a 23-employee Division of Outreach whose job is to oversee turnaround schools.

"I am all about this. This is my job," Ritz said. "This is what we do at the Department of Education."

Board of education member Brad Oliver asked Ritz what assurances she could provide that her outreach division aligns with the state board's goals.

"It's the (Education) Department's role to do school improvements, so schools don't need to come to the Board of Education for intervention," she said. "I don't know why the board would want to change what we're doing that I just implemented."

Indiana took over five chronically failing schools in 2012 and turned them over to private operators. The move was hailed as an aggressive effort by former schools Superintendent Tony Bennett to hold schools accountable and improve performance. All five schools are still failing, and with four more failing schools facing potential state takeovers, education leaders say it's critical that everyone is on the same page.

Ritz, the lone Democrat in Gov. Mike Pence's administration, has clashed repeatedly with the board since taking office in January 2013.

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