Last week’s election results were mostly positive for education. Not entirely – there were definitely a few missed opportunities. But the news was more good than bad.
Close to home, voters in the Indianapolis Public Schools district approved a referendum to raise property taxes and increase school funding by $272 million over eight years. Most of the money will go to operating expenses, including long-overdue teacher raises; some will fund building improvements.
This is a big deal. IPS has struggled for years with declining enrollment and reduced state funding. Officials were reluctant to try to raise property taxes for fear voters would shoot down the measure. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce first called for a smaller increase, then got on board.
Around the state, eight school funding referendums were approved and four were turned down. That’s a worse success rate than schools have achieved in recent years, as officials have become more cautious and savvy in asking for tax increases. In May, voters approved 12 of 12 referendums.
Nikole Hannah-Jones had a blunt message for the largely well-educated and politically liberal audience that she addressed Thursday night in Bloomington, Indiana. Go home, she said. Look in the mirror. Reflect on the decisions you make about your child’s schooling.
Ask if they serve the common good or if they benefit your child at the expense of other children.
“To believe in equality is not enough,” she said. “Your beliefs don’t help a single child.”
Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer and 2017 MacArthur genius award recipient, spoke to several hundred people in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in a lecture sponsored by several Indiana University organizations and the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.
She promised at the start that her talk would not be “uplifting.” It wasn’t. It was about tearing down the illusions of people who think they can in good conscience enroll their children in mostly white, low-poverty schools and avert their eyes from segregation that harms poor children and children of color.
“It’s not good enough to have a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard if you make decisions about your child that harm other children,” she said.
The organization formerly led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is spending at least $325,000 this year to keep the Indiana General Assembly in Republican control.
The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, the American Federation for Children, doesn’t give directly to candidates or parties but funnels its largesse through state partners. In Indiana, that’s Hoosiers for Quality Education, which has led the push for private-school vouchers and charter-school expansion.
The federation’s political action fund gave Hoosiers for Quality Education $325,000 in three big contributions in 2018, according to campaign finance reports filed this month. That’s about half the money the Indiana-based group received this year.
In turn, Hoosiers for Quality Education has handed out $575,000 this year, nearly all of it to the campaigns of Republican candidates for the Indiana House and Senate. It’s sitting on a cash balance of $170,000 that can be parceled out between now and Election Day if needed.
The nation’s eyes were on Kentucky in the spring when Bluegrass State teachers walked off the job because of low pay and threats to their pensions. We should all be watching again on Nov. 6, when teachers and their supporters try to take the state back from ALEC-aligned Republicans.
Over 50 active and retired teachers are seeking seats in the Kentucky House and Senate, part of what veteran Courier-Journal political reporter Tom Loftus calls “an unprecedented wave of educators running for the General Assembly this fall.”
It’s happening across the country. HuffPost, citing National Education Association figures, reports over 500 educators are running for state legislative seats. Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider highlight the phenomenon in episode 52 of their “Have You Heard” podcast.
House Chamber, Kentucky Statehouse
But nowhere are teachers running with more enthusiasm, or is more at stake, than in Kentucky, as members of Save Our Schools Kentucky made clear last weekend at the Network for Public Education conference in Indianapolis. Four of the activists led a panel titled “How Grassroots Can Stop the Kochs in Your State,” arguing that citizen activism can check big-spending outsiders like the Koch brothers.
The movement to support public schools is big, diverse and deeply committed. That’s the obvious take-away from the fifth annual conference of the Network for Public Education, which took place last weekend in downtown Indianapolis.
The network has grown like crazy since its start a mere five years ago, boosted by the reputation of co-founder Diane Ravitch but also by a hunger among teachers, parents and activists for a way to voice their concerns about the threats facing public education. The conference drew nearly 400 people.
And they came from all over – from California, New York, Washington and Puerto Rico, and from across Indiana, where public schools have been under fierce attack from the Republican-dominated state government and bunch of generously funded advocacy groups.
The mood in Indy was optimistic and determined. Teacher walkouts last spring in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, and the public support they garnered, were still on everyone’s minds. The expansion of charter schools has slowed, studies have found that vouchers don’t work and news media have caught on to how unregulated school choice promotes segregation and inequality.
Black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students. On average, black students are 2.2 grade levels behind their white peers academically. White students are 4.3 times as likely as black students to be enrolled in advanced classes.
The figures aren’t from a struggling urban school district or from a Southern district still shaking off the legacy of Jim Crow. They’re from Bloomington, Indiana, the liberal college town where I live.
They should be a wake-up call for officials with the local Monroe County Community School Corp. – and for the entire community. They should be a relentless focus for school board members and for the half-dozen brave souls currently running to be elected to the board.
The data come from a remarkable reporting collaboration by ProPublica and the New York Times. Titled “Miseducation” and published Tuesday, the project provides searchable data on academic opportunity and achievement, discipline and segregation for 17,000 school districts.
Jennifer McCormick ran for Indiana superintendent of public instruction in 2016 vowing to keep politics out of the office. She did her best, but it was too tall an order.
A state education governance system that McCormick calls “dysfunctional” has made it hard for her to do her job. And in recent months, her fellow Republicans have reportedly been talking among themselves about making the job an appointed one in 2020, likely removing her from office.
Last week, trying to calm the waters before the next legislative session starts in January, McCormick announced that she will not seek re-election when her term ends in two years.
“When we got into the race, I did it for sake of kids, for helping with the field and to try and calm things down and ease that disruption,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I said, if it ever came to where that wasn’t the case, I would need to re-evaluate.”