Voucher program growing – and changing

Indiana’s school voucher population is getting whiter, more affluent – and a whole lot bigger. That’s the conclusion to draw from a report on the voucher program released this week by the Indiana Department of Education. A few highlights:

  • More than 29,000 students are getting vouchers, seven times as many as when the program started in 2011-12 and a 46 percent increase from a year ago.
  • 61 percent of voucher students are non-Hispanic white, up from 46 percent in the first year. That’s despite the fact that most voucher enrollment is in urban areas.
  • Only 31 percent of voucher students are African-American or Hispanic, down from 44 percent the first year.
  • Three in 10 are from higher-income families that receive less than the full voucher amount, double the percentage in the first year of the program.

Indiana taxpayers are paying more than $116 million this year for tuition at 314 private schools – nearly all of them religious schools, and almost all of those Christian schools.

And vouchers are going to families that are far from poor.

For a family that makes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, students get 90 percent of what it would cost for them to attend the local public school, typically over $5,000 a year. (The amount is currently capped at $4,800 for grades K-8).

Students from families earning up to 277 percent of the poverty level qualify for 50 percent of the cost of attending the local public school. And they don’t lose the vouchers if the family’s income rises, up to 370 percent of poverty. Continue reading

House budget shifts funding to schools in affluent areas

The Indiana House Republicans vowed to equalize school funding, and that’s what they are doing with the budget they put forward this week. They’re doing it by taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

Their state budget and school funding formula cuts 25 percent — $290 million – from the complexity index, the formula Indiana uses to steer extra money to high-poverty schools.

The result is predictable: more money for school districts with few poor students, and less money for districts with many poor students. The 10 lowest-poverty districts get per-pupil increases ranging from 4.4 percent to 6 percent. The 10 highest-poverty districts all get their per-pupil funding cut.

High-poverty school districts will still get more money, per pupil, than low-poverty districts. But the gap narrows. Schools with the most challenging demographics will do with less.

That said, the House plan would do better by public schools than Gov. Mike Pence’s budget proposal. It provides more money: Increases of 2.3 percent each of the next two years compared to Pence’s 2 percent the first year and 1 percent the second year. And under Pence’s proposal, fully 30 percent of the K-12 funding increase in fiscal 2016 would have gone to charter schools, which serve less than 3 percent of Indiana students.

The House plan keeps Pence’s $1,500-per-pupil grant program for charter schools. But unlike the governor’s it would fund the grant with a $20 million per year budget line – it wouldn’t take the money out of the pot for regular public schools. And the charter-school grants could pay only for buildings, technology and transportation, not for teacher salaries and regular operating expenses. Continue reading

Indiana isn’t the only state facing more testing

What if Indiana hadn’t dumped Common Core and fled the PARCC consortium? Would we still be having this brouhaha over how long our students are sitting for standardized tests? Yeah, probably.

Many of us were taken aback when we learned last week that the time it takes to complete the ISTEP+ exam has more than doubled since last year. But longer tests seem to go hand-in-hand with the more rigorous “college and career ready” standards that Indiana and other states are adopting.

Anne Hyslop, who follows testing and accountability issues as a senior policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, believes tests are getting longer because they include performance tasks and writing sections that attempt to better reflect whether students are learning the standards.

“In other words, if you want a high-quality test, you need high-quality items, and those may take longer to complete than a multiple choice question,” she said.

Back when Indiana had adopted Common Core and its teachers were preparing to implement the standards, it was part of PARCC, a consortium of states developing Common Core-aligned tests. And the PARCC exams that will be given this spring aren’t much shorter than the new Indiana ISTEP+.

Testing-Time

When the word came out that ISTEP+ was more than doubling in length, some parents and teachers were outraged. A pediatrician told the State Board of Education last week that forcing young children to sit for such lengthy tests amounted to child abuse. Continue reading

Anti-Ritz legislation is overkill

The way Indiana legislators’ are trying to fix the state’s education governance system calls to mind what an American officer reportedly said during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

The lawmakers say they want to save the system from the dysfunction that’s come with feuding between Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the other 10 State Board of Education members, all appointed by Republican governors.

But their approach is to blow up a structure that has served Indiana well for many years, even when the elected superintendent and governor were from different parties.

Their main weapon is House Bill 1486, approved last week on a party-line vote by the House Education Committee. It transfers significant elements of education authority from the Department of Education, headed by Ritz, to the State Board of Education.

The bill authorizes the board to hire an executive director and staff and to employ outside contractors. And the board is going to need a lot of help if it takes on all the duties described in the bill. They include new responsibility for turnaround schools, teacher evaluation, standardized tests, state learning standards and audits of federal and state education programs. Continue reading

The Bennett-Ritz-Common Core narrative that won’t die

Last week’s New Yorker has a long and detailed story about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his prospects as a candidate for president. It focuses on Bush’s history as an advocate for “education reform” and his ties to for-profit education services and charter-school companies.

A key question raised in the story is whether the Republican base will forgive Bush for his embrace of the Common Core State Standards – an interesting and important question.

But writer Alec MacGinnis sounds a false note when he suggests Common Core was a significant factor when Glenda Ritz upset Tony Bennett in the 2012 Indiana superintendent of public instruction election. It wasn’t. And hardly anyone who was actually in Indiana during the campaign would say it was.

“In 2012, the Tea Party organized opposition to Bennett’s re-election; e-mails between Bennett’s office and the foundation that summer are full of alarm about the ‘black helicopter crowd,’” he writes. “In November, Bennett lost to an anti-Common Core Democrat who had Tea Party backing.”

So Ritz was “anti-Common Core” and was supported by the Tea Party? I don’t think so. Continue reading

Legislation seeks to roll back ‘zero tolerance’

Indiana legislators could be on their way to doing something important for the state’s students. Bills have been filed in the House and Senate that would pull back from the harsh school discipline policies that have been in place since the “zero tolerance” philosophy swept the nation in the 1990s.

The measures, Senate Bill 443 and House Bill 1640, were introduced by Republicans Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee. And they have bipartisan support; Democrat Greg Porter is second author of the House bill.

“These are very good bills, with three or four noteworthy provisions,” said Russell Skiba, education professor and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. “It’s certainly encouraging that the leadership in both the House and Senate is behind this.”

The proposals result from recommendations developed last fall by the legislature’s interim study committee on education. The Children’s Law and Policy Initiative, the Indianapolis NAACP and other groups have been pushing for these sorts of changes.

Driving the bills is concern about overuse of suspension and expulsion, often for minor offenses. Research has found large disparities in how discipline is applied, with minority students punished more harshly than white students for the same offenses. Indiana has some of the worst disparities in the nation, according to federal data. Continue reading

‘Education budget’ would shortchange public schools

Following up on the George Orwell theme from last month: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. And Gov. Mike Pence’s state budget proposal is an education budget.

OK, that’s a bit harsh. But public-school supporters probably rolled their eyes when they read that the governor announced his plan by declaring, “This is an education budget.”

First, at a time when Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are saying they want to make school funding a priority, Pence’s budget increases state spending on K-12 schools by just 2 percent in fiscal 2016 and 1 percent in 2017. That’s not enough to keep pace with inflation, let alone to help schools recover from the funding cuts they endured several years ago.

But the worst of it is that much of Pence’s funding increase wouldn’t go to regular public schools. He wants to give an extra $1,500 per pupil to all Indiana charter schools. That would cost $41 million a year at current charter enrollment – a big chunk of the proposed $134 million increase in fiscal 2016.

In other words, 30 percent of the new money will go to charter schools that serve less than 3 percent of Indiana’s public-school students.

Continue reading