Indiana ‘teacher choice’ initiative raises questions

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence wants to provide financial incentives for teachers to transfer to charter schools or underperforming public schools. It’s an interesting idea, but other states have tried it with mixed results. Have we learned from their experience?

Included in Senate Bill 264, Pence’s proposal would give $10,000 a year for up to two years to any teacher who moves to a charter school where at least half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches or any public school that got a grade of D or F.

The proposal raises questions. Here are a few:

  • Why isn’t it targeted to schools that are likely to need help? Fifty percent free-and-reduced-price lunch isn’t exactly high-poverty; the average FRL rate for Indiana public schools is 49 percent. And nearly one in five schools got a D or F last year.
  • Why not limit the program to teachers who are likely to be successful? A similar program in Washington, D.C., for example, requires teachers to have been rated “highly effective” to qualify for incentive payments. Not so the Indiana legislation. Continue reading

Indiana school corporation grades align with poverty too

The Indiana State Board of Education approved A-to-F grades for public school corporations this week and – no surprise – the grades reflect poverty, just like the grades for individual schools do.

Among the state’s 289 school corporations, most low-poverty corporations got As and Bs. But nearly three-quarters of high-poverty corporations got a grade of C or worse.

School corporation grades reflect the same criteria that go into grades for individual schools: 2013 performance and growth on standardized tests for students in elementary and middle schools, and test results, graduation rates and “college and career readiness” factors for high schools. Corporation grades are prorated by the number of students in elementary-middle and high schools. Continue reading

Indiana’s pre-K bill smells of politics

There’s bipartisan support for making Indiana the 42nd state in the nation to fund pre-kindergarten. Wouldn’t it be nice if legislators produced a bipartisan bill to make it happen? Apparently that’s too much to ask, at least for now.

House Bill 1004, approved last week by the House Education Committee, creates a pilot program to help fund preschool for 4-year-olds from low-income families. But it also opens another gateway to Indiana’s K-12 private school voucher program, already one of the most expansive in the country.

Under the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Bob Behning of Indianapolis, children who take part in the state preschool program would qualify for vouchers once they hit kindergarten. Until now, vouchers have gone to students who transfer from public schools or who live in an attendance area for a public school that gets an F on the state grading system.

As the Indiana State Teachers Association said, there are questions about the pre-K proposal, but “one thing is clear in the bill and that is it will become a ‘feeder system’ for the K-12 private school voucher schools.” Continue reading

Common Core and the anti-public school agenda

They say that if you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas. If that’s so, progressive critics of the Common Core State Standards may find themselves doing some scratching.

Stephanie Simon reports for Politico that the Koch brothers and other right-wing power brokers have jumped on the anti-Common Core cause as part of an effort to undermine public education:

What started as a ragtag opposition led by a handful of angry moms is now a sophisticated national movement supported by top donors and strategists on the right. Conservative groups say their involvement already has paid dividends in the form of new members and troves of email addresses.

But that’s just the start.

draft action plan by the advocacy group FreedomWorks lays out the effort as a series of stepping stones: First, mobilize to strike down the Common Core. Then push to expand school choice by offering parents tax credits or vouchers to help pay tuition at private and religious schools. Next, rally the troops to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Then it’s on to eliminating teacher tenure.

Opposition to Common Core has been catnip to tea-party types because … well, apparently because President Obama supports the standards. Continue reading

Few charter schools among Indiana’s overachieving schools

Last week School Matters pointed out that Indiana school grades align with poverty: the more poor kids at a school, the higher the chance of a low grade. But there are many schools in the state that do quite well despite serving lots of students who are poor.

One in five high-poverty schools – where two-thirds or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches – earned an A. More than one-third got an A or a B. These overachieving schools are found across the state. They are big and small, urban and rural. And almost none of them are charter schools.

It’s not just that charter schools got worse overall grades than traditional public schools. That’s not surprising, because many charters enroll disproportionate numbers of kids from low-income families. But even adjusting for poverty, charter schools fared worse.

Thirty-five percent of the state’s high-poverty schools – a total of 162 schools – received grades of A or B. But only three of those 162 were charter schools. Among all charter schools, 21.5 percent got an A or B, and most of those are not high-poverty charters.


It could be argued that, because many charter schools are located in and serve students from inner-city neighborhoods, it’s not fair to compare them to high-poverty schools across the state.

But even compared with other urban public schools, charter schools don’t do so well. Continue reading

Indiana school grades align with poverty

Indiana’s A-to-F school grades may say a little about whether schools are effective, but they appear to say a lot more about how many poor children attend the schools.

The 2013 grades, approved recently by the Indiana State Board of Education, track pretty closely with the percentage of children who qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches. The fewer poor kids, the higher the grades, and vice versa.

This is no surprise. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute showed it was the case with his analysis of Indiana’s 2012 school grades. And a look at the 2013 grades shows not much has changed.

Like Di Carlo, I divided Indiana schools into four equal-sized groups according to their percentage of free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) students, then looked at the number of As, Bs, etc., in each group. (He used only elementary and middle schools; this analysis includes all schools with grades and FRL data).

A few highlights:

  • Among low-poverty schools, nearly three-fourths got As and almost nine of 10 got As or Bs.
  • Low-poverty schools were three-and-a-half times as likely to get an A as high-poverty schools.
  • Barely 2 percent of low-poverty schools got Ds and Fs; among high-poverty schools, 42 percent got Ds and Fs.
  • Low-poverty schools were nearly 40 times more likely to get an A or B than a D or F; high-poverty schools were more likely to get a D or F than an A or B.
  • 79 percent of all Fs went to schools in the high-poverty group.

Continue reading

Denial of school voucher data raises accountability issues

It’s a fundamental principle of government transparency: When a government agency spends the public’s money, the public should know who is getting paid and how much.

That’s why it’s disturbing that the Indiana Department of Education rejected requests from the Monroe County Community School Corp. and the Bloomington Herald-Times for information about students who receive state vouchers to attend private schools.

This isn’t a clear-cut case. It pits the principles of transparency and accountability against reasonable concerns about privacy. If the state discloses information about voucher recipients, should it also reveal who receives need-based state aid for college? Should it name people who get food stamps or other public assistance?

Disclosing information about individual students also could run afoul of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The H-T appealed the denial of its request to state Public Access Counselor Luke Britt; and Britt cited FERPA in upholding the DOE decision.

But FERPA seems to make less sense as grounds for withholding data from the MCCSC. It is entrusted, after all, with information about 10,000 students who attend local schools. Continue reading

Pence should reach across aisle for preschool support

Gov. Mike Pence’s support for state-funded preschool could turn out to be a breakthrough for Indiana. It would be nice if he didn’t call his proposal a voucher plan. But its name matters less than its content, and we’re still waiting to see what that will be.

Here’s a suggestion: If the governor is serious about preschool, he should craft a plan that Democrats and public education advocates, not just voucher proponents, can support.

A lot of Indiana Republicans are from the old school that thinks government has no business spending money on early childhood education. They don’t buy into the many studies that show high-quality preschool makes a difference for kids. They’d prefer for every 4-year-old to be at home with Mommy while Daddy goes to work.

It took the state’s GOP leaders five years to approve funding for full-day kindergarten. And they still haven’t agreed that children need to be in school before age 7.

These folks can’t be counted on to support a state preschool program, even if it’s called a voucher program and even if parents can spend the money at private or church-based preschools as well as public preschools. Continue reading

Indiana public schools ‘out-grow’ charter, private schools

School-choice advocates argue that children will get a better education if they can leave public schools for charter or private schools, especially in urban areas. The Indiana Growth Model tells a different story.

It suggests public schools, overall, are performing better than charter schools or the private schools — most of them religious schools – that are getting state vouchers.

The growth model is a statistical tool that measures students’ test-score gains compared to those of students with similar academic histories. It may not be perfect, and critics argue that it shouldn’t be over-used. But it’s unquestionably a better measure of school effectiveness than standardized test scores or school grades, which have been shown to correlate closely to student demographics.

You can download 2012-13 growth scores for all the schools in the state from the Indiana Department of Education website. Sort and rank them, and what do they show? Continue reading

Ritz and Pence: Who’s blocking whom?

Did Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz head off a plan by Gov. Mike Pence to undercut her authority when she revealed parts of the governor’s legislative agenda the day before he announced it himself? Probably not, but we can wonder.

On Wednesday, after a testy meeting with the State Board of Education, Ritz told reporters the governor and his allies were trying to remove her as chair of the board.

Ritz’s staff produced a document – an Oct. 3 memo between officials with the Pence-created Center for Education and Career Innovation – that proposed doing just that. The memo, a summary of legislative proposals, said it’s a “problem” that Ritz chairs the board. Its proposed solution: Change the law to have Pence appoint the board chair.

The memo also called for: paying teachers bonuses to move to charter schools; treating charter-school networks like school districts for funding purposes; helping low-income families pay for preschool; taking over underused school buildings to potentially give them to charter schools; and awarding grants to teachers for innovative ideas.

On Thursday, Pence released his legislative proposals, and the education plank tracked closely to the Oct. 3 memo. One difference was that, instead of paying teachers to move to charter schools, he would pay them to work in schools that serve high-poverty areas. But as Scott Elliott of Chalkbeat Indiana notes, that probably means charter schools.

The other obvious difference: No proposal to remove Ritz as chair of the education board. Continue reading