School funding ‘fix’ would help some, hurt others

The last time Indiana House Republicans vowed to fix the state’s school funding formula, some districts saw double-digit cuts in their budgets. Now they’re at it again, and the results are likely to be similar.

House Speaker Brian Bosma announced the latest plan last week, putting school funding equalization at the top of the caucus’s 2015 legislative agenda. “I have had many teachers across Indiana tell me that the distribution of school funds is unfair,” he said in a news release. “We will fix this.”

It’s true there are discrepancies in Indiana school funding. Generally speaking, high-poverty school districts get more money per student; and growing, affluent districts get less. But those differences exist for a reason. And the GOP “fix” is almost certain to hurt some of Indiana’s most vulnerable students.

This is Indiana, after all, and we can probably rule out any kind of tax increase in 2015 to raise funding for schools across the board. That means the only way Republicans can boost funding for the typically low-poverty schools in their legislative districts will be to take from high-poverty districts.

As the civil rights leader Julian Bond said last week in a lecture at Indiana University, “In America, the education dollar follows the white child.”

House Republicans also exaggerated the size of the funding differences, telling reporters state funding for school districts varies from $9,500 to $5,000. It once varied about that much, but no longer. Continue reading

‘Achievement gap’ discussion should have local focus

Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington is hosting community conversations this Friday and Sunday on “Closing the Achievement Gap.” The topic hits close to home.

We typically think of the achievement gap as a national phenomenon – as the gap between test scores for white and minority students. Or the gap between scores for high-performing and “failing” schools.

But thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, individual schools and school districts report test results for “disaggregated groups” of students: those from racial and ethnic categories, students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, special-needs kids and English language learners.

And those results raise questions for the Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington. It had some of the lowest test-passing rates in Indiana this year for students from low-income families and for minority students. And it had some of the biggest test-score achievement gaps in the state.

I’ve lived in Bloomington most of my adult life, and I can’t think of a good reason why this should be the case. We know that poor kids are less likely to pass standardized tests than middle-class or affluent kids. But is poverty in Bloomington different from poverty in other Indiana cites?

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Public records quest meets dead end

My obsessive quest to uncover the whole story behind the 2012 Christel House Academy grade-change saga has apparently come to an end. And not a happy one.

One year, one month and 22 days after I filed a public-records request, the Indiana Department of Education responded. “After review of your records request, it was determined the Department does not maintain the records you are requesting,” legal assistant Leslie-Ann James said via email.

Oh, well.

The request was for certain DOE staff emails concerning the A-to-F school grading system that was being rolled out in 2012. The goal was to figure out when and why the department got rid of a “ceiling” on the points schools could earn for English or math test scores or student growth. This has never been explained to my satisfaction.

Remember that Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco unearthed DOE emails last summer that showed then-Superintendent of Public Education freaking out because Christel House, a highly regarded Indianapolis charter school, was going to get a C under the new grading system. Department staff scrambled to make changes, and Christel House ended up with an A. Officials decided to ignore test scores for the school’s high-school students. But that only pushed its grade to a B.

How did it get to an A? Continue reading

Ritz focuses on students in State of the Classroom message

Give Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz credit for putting the initial focus of her State of the Classroom message where it belongs: on Indiana’s students.

In a video message posted to the Indiana Department of Education website, Ritz urged Hoosiers to “look beyond the school walls” and address the challenges that students face in their communities, which are reflected in the issues they encounter in school.

“As a 34-year veteran teacher, I have never been able to meet the needs of children in my classroom from within the school walls,” she said. “I have always had children who were in need of food, clothing, adult and community support.”

Ritz said many students enter the classroom “burdened with the weight of poverty”:

  • 22 percent of Indiana youth are part of families living below the poverty line, and 48 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
  • 519,000 Indiana children live in single-parent families. Working parents “are the norm, with many adults each working two jobs to provide for their families.”
  • Over 16,000 Indiana students are homeless.
  • The state ranks second in the nation for teen prescription drug abuse.
  • 17 percent of Indiana high-school girls report having been sexually assaulted.

“All children can learn,” she said, a line apparently added to her prepared text. “But ultimately these stresses can have a terrible impact on students’ ability to learn, especially in the area of reading, a critical life skill that opens doors of opportunity for our students.” Continue reading

Charter initiative part of ‘war’ against ‘progressivism’

Sometimes a charter school isn’t just a charter school. Sometimes it’s part of a war.

At least that seems to be the mindset of some of the folks behind the Seven Oaks Classical School, which would open next fall in Bloomington. The Indiana Charter School Board will conduct a public hearing on the proposal at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Monroe County Public Library.

Seven Oaks organizers are working closely with the Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College, according to the school’s application. As retired educator Janet Stake points out in a letter to the charter school board, the Barney Initiative casts charter schools as a tactic in a battle to overturn “100 years of progressivism” that has “corrupted” America’s classical approach to education.

“The public school is arguably among the most important battlegrounds in our war to reclaim our country from forces that have drawn so many away from first principles,” the initiative says in its statement of philosophy.

Of course, Seven Oaks Classical School, if it succeeds, will pull funds from Monroe County and Richland-Bean Blossom community schools, threatening programs that serve all students. But, as parent Jenny Robinson writes on the blog of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, the issue is bigger than that:

What is our vision of Monroe County? Should our population of children be carved up into ideological segments so that we can all receive education with like-minded families who share our values, and, quite possibly, our ethnicity and socioeconomic status? I fear a vicious cycle. If a new charter means that our public schools get larger class sizes and fewer programs, more families will want to leave the public schools, and those who are left will be the ones with the fewest resources to advocate for themselves and their education.

The mission of the Indiana Charter School Board is supposed to be to create more high-quality schools for Indiana students. The board isn’t supposed to advance a political agenda. And it shouldn’t be in the business of creating schools intended to divide Hoosiers by their political beliefs.

The democratic alternative to “school choice” is “school voice.” There are school board elections Nov. 4. If people want a better education for all our children, that’s where they should focus their attention.


Ritz on governor’s office: ‘I’m happy where I am’

Glenda Ritz may present herself as an educator, not a politician. But she gave a politician’s answer when asked Monday if she would consider running for governor of Indiana.

“I’m perfectly happy where I am,” the Indiana superintendent of public instruction said, before reciting a list of accomplishments that could justify a run for higher office.

“I would love to have a governor that supports me,” Ritz said. And she added, regarding the question about running for governor herself: “I hear that a lot. Almost daily.”

Glenda Ritz

Glenda Ritz

Ritz spoke in Bloomington at a luncheon meeting of the Bloomington Press Club and then headed off to visit a couple of local schools and appear at a rally for Jeff Sparks, a Linton school administrator who is running for a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives.

In office for barely 20 months, Ritz seems to have visited schools and met with civic groups in every corner of the state. This sends a message that the state education chief cares about what’s going on in local classrooms. It also raises her profile with prospective voters leading to the 2016 election, when she will be up for re-election – assuming, that is, she’s not the Democratic candidate for governor.

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Examining data for Indiana’s ‘disaggregated groups’

Here’s a question that arguably deserves more attention from education researchers and policy types: Why are some schools better than others at getting students from low-income families to pass tests?

We hear a lot about high-poverty schools that produce better test scores than you’d expect. We pay a lot of attention to no-excuses charter schools and public schools that focus relentlessly on data. But poor kids are scattered throughout all kinds of schools and school districts, urban, rural and suburban. And judging by test scores, some districts do a better job of helping them learn than others.

The Indiana Department of Education recently posted district-by-district and school-by-school passing rates on the ISTEP+ exam for “disaggregated groups” of students: minorities, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, English language learners and special-needs students.

The data are a carry-over from the No Child Left Behind Act, which required schools to hit targets for the percentage of students in each group who passed standardized tests.

The results vary from school to school – a lot. Looking at students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, for example, the proportion who passed both the math and English ISTEP+ exams in 2014 ranged from 85.9 percent to 45.2 percent. The state average was 62.3 percent.

Some of the districts with the lowest passing rates for free-and-reduced lunch students are high-poverty urban districts. But some aren’t. Some of the districts with the highest passing rates are low-poverty schools with relatively few poor students. But some aren’t. It’s a mix, with no obvious pattern. Continue reading