A lousy election for Indiana Democrats, public education

Public schools lost some loyal advocates in the Indiana legislature last week with the defeat of Democratic Sen. Tim Skinner and Reps. Shelli VanDenburgh and Mara Candelaria Reardon.

Skinner, a former school teacher from Terre Haute, may have been the most outspoken supporter of public schools in the General Assembly. He lost his bid for a fourth term by more than 1,000 votes to Republican Jon Ford, a business owner.

Tim Skinner

Tim Skinner

VanDenburgh, from Crown Point, and Reardon, from Munster, were part of a northwestern Indiana Democratic delegation that advocated reliably in the House for public schools. VanDenburgh lost a close contest to Julie Olthoff, a Merrillville ad agency owner. Reardon’s narrow loss to Munster attorney Bill Fine means there is now only one Hispanic legislator in a state that is over 6 percent Hispanic. (That’s Rep. Christina Hale, an Indianapolis Democrat who is part Cuban-American).

Republicans expanded their super majorities in both the House and Senate with the election. They now control the House, 71-29, and the Senate, 40-10. On partisan issues – and there are a lot of them in education – Democrats will do well to get a word in edgewise.

Senate Republicans put more than $100,000 into Ford’s campaign. Skinner got some help from the Indiana State Teachers Association but it was too little, too late.

Olthoff’s campaign against VanDenburgh picked up nearly $75,000 in late, large contributions as her supporters apparently realized she could win. About half came from the House Republican campaign committee and the rest from the school-voucher advocacy group Hoosiers for Quality Education.

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Lawmaker uses real numbers to paint false picture

They say figures don’t lie but liars figure. The axiom comes to mind in connection with claims that District 62 Republican state Rep. Matt Ubelhor is making to attack Democratic challenger Jeff Sparks.

Ubelhor, in a flier mailed to Monroe County households and a nasty TV attack ad, uses true figures to create a misleading picture of school funding in Indiana. He labels Sparks “dishonest” for challenging him on the issue and for suggesting Republicans have cut school funding. The flier says Ubelhor “has delivered an increase of $3,952,008″ to the Monroe County Community School Corp.” since 2010.

It’s true that state funding for MCCSC has grown by about that much under budgets he and other lawmakers approved. But over four years and with a $60 million-plus budget, that’s just 1.6 percent per year – not enough to keep pace with costs for health care, utilities, etc. In real terms, it’s arguably a cut.

Ubelhor also says state spending for MCCSC has increased every year since Republicans took control of the House. The flier includes a graph that shows spending decreased in 2010, when Democrats had a majority. But Democrats had nothing to do with that cut. It happened because Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels unilaterally cut state spending on schools by over $300 million as the recession decimated state tax revenues. For MCCSC schools, that meant a $3 million loss.

As David Emmert, general counsel with the Indiana School Boards Association, pointed out Friday on WFIU radio’s “Noon Edition” program, Indiana schools continue to operate at pre-recession funding levels – while the state sits on a $2 billion budget surplus.

Since 2009, before the Daniels cut, state funding for MCCSC has grown by $900,000 – only 1.4 percent after five years. Per-pupil state funding has barely budged.

The Ubelhor flier also employs a common but unfortunate trick in the graph showing trends in MCCSC funding. It sets the baseline for the vertical axis at $5,600 per pupil, not at zero. This makes it look like funding has more than doubled since he took office, when nothing remotely like that has happened.

This is a hot contest, and the House Republican Campaign Committee has dumped $215,000 into Ubelhor’s campaign in the past two weeks. Apparently this kind of desperate tactic is the result.

Referring to Sparks, the flier says: “We don’t need more politicians who are willing to do or say anything to get elected.” Look in the mirror, Rep. Ubelhor.

PAC gets voucher money to Indiana candidates

The political tiger that used to call itself Hoosiers for Economic Growth has a new name, but it hasn’t changed its stripes. It’s up to the same thing: Funneling money from out-of-state billionaires to state legislative candidates likely to support private-school vouchers.

Now called Hoosiers for Quality Education, the political action committee has spent over a half million dollars this year to influence Indiana elections – including at least $187,500 in large contributions made in the last 10 days to Republican state legislative candidates.

As in the past, the group’s money comes primarily from non-Hoosiers. Some $325,000 – more than half of what it raised this year – was contributed by the American Federation for Children PAC, a pro-voucher group headed by Michigan GOP activist Betsy DeVos.

It got $100,000 from a Hoosier, Fred Klipsch, who organized the group and claimed credit for getting Indiana to adopt school vouchers, expanded charter schools and test-based teacher evaluations in 2011. It also got money from John Bryan, an Oregon industrialist with ties to the Koch Brothers, and Charter Schools USA, the Florida for-profit tapped to run three low-performing Indianapolis schools.

American Federation for Children files its Indiana campaign reports from the Terre Haute office of GOP super lawyer James Bopp, a primary figure behind the Citizens United case in which the Supreme Court overturned restrictions on corporate political giving.

And where does the American Federation for Children PAC get its money? Mostly from heirs to the Walmart fortune, Continue reading

Another take on Indiana school funding fairness

There are several ways to calculate the per-pupil funding that Indiana school corporations receive from the state. Arguably the fairest and most transparent is to focus on the basic “tuition support” that’s awarded to all districts, plus the complexity index that provides more dollars to higher-needs schools.

If you take that approach, the claim by House Republicans that state funding for schools varies from $5,000 up to $9,500 per student is truly out of whack.

Per-pupil funding for the current year using only tuition support and the complexity index is included in a school funding chart posted to the Indiana Department of Education’s Learning Connections site. You can see that the lowest-funded districts – typically low-poverty schools like those in Hamilton County, which don’t benefit much from the complexity index – fall a bit short of $5,000 per pupil.

But the most generously funded districts don’t get close to what House Republicans said. Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, gets $7,058 per pupil. East Chicago, at $7,526 per pupil, is the highest-funded district (though several charter schools are close).

In a post on Monday, I reported that IPS received $8,300 per pupil. That figure, from a chart generated by a legislative office, included special education funding, full-day kindergarten grants and payments for students who earn an honors diploma and those who enroll in career-education classes.

The honors diploma funding is set by the state and is the same for all schools. Career education funding is supposed to be an incentive to train students for high-demand jobs. Indiana began funding full-day kindergarten in 2011. Special education funding is based on the number of students identified with special needs, with more dollars allocated for those with more severe disabilities.

In other words, these are “below the line” calculations that should not be in play when House Republicans go about trying to “fix” the funding formula.

Most of the variability in per-pupil funding comes from the complexity index, so lawmakers could be tempted to rewrite that formula. But the index is arguably one of the things Indiana does right. This year’s school funding fairness report card from the Education Law Center in New Jersey gives Indiana an A for “funding distribution,” a measure of whether states provide more money to high-poverty schools.

Legislators need to remember that old saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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