Why Indiana has charter schools and Kentucky doesn’t

Indiana has one of the most active charter school programs in the nation while Kentucky has no charter schools, not even a law that allows them. How did that come about?

Sociologist Joe Johnston attributes the divergence to perceptions of public schools in the state’s biggest cities: negative for Indianapolis and generally positive for Louisville. And he traces those perceptions back to district boundary decisions made 40 years ago.

“It’s become so common to think of urban schools as failing, as these places that can’t possibly succeed,” he told me. “It’s interesting that, when you change the boundaries and have a different sort of school district, people can rally around that.”

Johnston, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University, conducted research on the history of charter school debates in Indiana and Kentucky as a graduate student at Indiana University, where he received a doctorate in May. He presented his study Saturday in Chicago at the 110th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Indiana adopted a charter school law in 2001 and has seen a rapid spread of charter schools. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools ranks it as one of the most charter-friendly states in the country. But Kentucky, which is contiguous with and politically and demographically similar to Indiana, is one of a handful of states without charter schools.

To understand how that came about, Johnston conducted a detailed comparison of education policy development in the two states from 2002-12. He analyzed 2,200 newspaper articles, gubernatorial and mayoral speeches and school reform group documents.

In Indiana, he shows, the push for charter schools was intimately tied to the argument that Indianapolis Public Schools were failing. This squares with what I saw as a reporter covering the Statehouse during the charter debates. Just like elsewhere across the country, charter schools were sold as an alternative to failing urban schools – specifically IPS.

But in Kentucky, there wasn’t the same sentiment that public schools in Louisville were under-performing; there was nothing like the hand-wringing and finger-pointing directed at IPS. While Indiana and other states rushed to create charter school programs, Kentucky held out.

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There’s more to home than crawfish

Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article on the benefits that accrued to New Orleans residents who relocated after Katrina is persuasive on first reading. But give it a bit more thought and some of the economic gains he describes start to feel shaky.

Gladwell cites a study of 700 women who left the city and settled elsewhere after the hurricane. Most of them were black and poor:

Median family income was forty-four hundred dollars higher. Ethnic diversity was greater. More people had jobs. Their exposure to ‘concentrated disadvantage’ — an index that factors in several measures of poverty — fell by half a standard deviation.

That sounds pretty good. But suppose one of those women has a child who needs day care while the mother works. If she is in Texas, a common destination for New Orleans refugees, the average annual cost of child care is $2,000 to $3,000 more per child than in Louisiana.

Suppose she has two. Or three. The relocation premium that Gladwell and his economists and sociologists tout gets washed away pretty quickly.

In fact the working poor are likely to rely on family and neighbor networks for child care and babysitting. This may be a foreign concept to academic economists and New Yorker writers, but it’s often not such a bad thing – not for the children and not for the grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends providing the care.

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PDK/Gallup Poll: Views differ by race

People of color have a different view of their community schools than do white people. That’s an important take-away from the 2015 PDK/Gallup Poll, released Sunday.

For example, asked to rate the schools in their own community, 51 percent of poll respondents gave local schools an A or B. But only 23 percent of African-American parents and 31 percent of Hispanic students gave their local schools an A or B.

Maybe that’s to be expected: Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to live in economically struggling communities with under-resourced schools. But for years, the PDK/Gallup Poll has highlighted the fact that a majority of parents think local schools deserve an A or B – the message being that most parents are satisfied with local public schools. It turns out that’s only partly true.

And African-Americans differ from whites on other topics and issues: They are:

  • More likely to think test scores are an important measure of school effectiveness.
  • Less sympathetic to the “opt-out” movement and less likely to exempt their own children from testing.
  • More supportive of having schools teach the Common Core State Standards.

The PDK/Gallup Poll tends to produce similar headlines every year: Americans rate their local schools highly, they favor charter schools and choice but are skeptical of testing and accountability schemes, etc. But this year’s poll added a web-based component that let the pollsters break down some results by race and ethnicity and political party loyalty. That gives a better picture of the public’s attitudes.

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Three reasons Ritz made the right call

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz announced last week that she’s dropping her short-lived campaign for governor and throwing her support to John Gregg. That’s good news for Indiana Democrats: It means Ritz and Gregg can campaign together instead of spending the nine months until the May 2016 primary tearing each other down.

Abandoning the bid for the governor’s office and instead seeking re-election to her current position is also the right decision for Ritz to make. Here are three reasons:

Superintendent is an important office. Ritz has been the most vocal and consistent advocate in state government for public education, for students and for teachers. She’s been a voice of sanity when it comes to testing, school grading, and teacher licensing and accountability. She has put a welcome focus on reading and literacy, and her frequent visits to schools around the state – while they may serve a political purpose – put a spotlight on education and its importance to Indiana.

She can do better. True, she has been hamstrung by feuding with Gov. Mike Pence and the State Board of Education and by efforts by Republican legislators to reduce her authority. I’ve been reluctant to blame Ritz, but board members’ complaints about communication may have some substance, based on my interactions with Department of Education staff. Now, however, the board has several new members, and two of Ritz’s most vocal critics are no longer part of the mix. It’s a chance to start fresh and an opportunity show herself to be an effective leader who can work across the aisle, a necessity for a Democrat in Indiana.

She wasn’t going to win. Ritz’s campaign for governor got off to a rocky start with disclosures that it accepted contributions during the 2015 legislative session, a violation of state law. But the real problem was the lack of contributions before and after the session. Ritz raised $30,529 in the first half of this year; Gregg raised $1.76 million. Campaign money isn’t everything – Ritz proved that when she beat Tony Bennett in 2012 – but you need a well-financed campaign to beat Pence, who will be rolling in election cash.

Gregg still faces a contest for the Democratic nomination with state Sen. Karen Tallian, who is courting the party’s progressive wing. Gregg, a former speaker of the Indiana House, had a reputation as something of a conservative in 16 years as a legislator. But lately he has been going after Pence over religious discrimination and other social issues.

And it’s possible for a politician’s views to evolve. After all, according to an Indianapolis Monthly profile, Glenda Ritz often voted Republican until 2008.

Still the problem we live with

Look at Will Counts’ iconic photo of a white mob taunting Elizabeth Eckford, a black teenager who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Then listen to audio of the white parents expressing their alarm about black students coming to their local school in 2013, included in Nicole Hannah-Jones’ remarkable piece on school segregation that aired last week on “This American Life.”

Not much difference, is there?

The hour-long radio story tells what happened when the mostly black, mostly poor Normandy School District lost its accreditation. Under Missouri Law, Normandy students could transfer to the high-achieving Francis Howell district across town.

About one-fourth of the Normandy students opted to move, surprising school officials who thought the inconvenience would deter them. But the Francis Howell parents had no say in the matter, and they aired their displeasure at a town hall meeting. (The audio starts at 23:20 on the broadcast).

These are middle-class suburbanites in 2013, not poor Southerners in 1957. They don’t use the N-word, and they insist their concerns aren’t about race. But the coded language they use – and the boisterous cheers that greet the most over-the-top statements – belie that claim.

“My question is, when a child who is coming from an underperforming school comes into a math class at Francis Howell, how will they possibly cope?” one parent asks. “Once Normandy comes here, will that lower our accreditation?”

Another wonders why Francis Howell parents won’t get to vote down accepting Normandy students like residents were able to reject an expansion of public transit. And yet another insists Francis Howell will need metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs to protect her children from the Normandy invaders.

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Indiana’s teacher shortage

The social contract for becoming a teacher used to be simple. You knew you’d never make a lot of money. And there wouldn’t be many opportunities for advancement.

On the other hand, you could make a middle-class living, there would be annual raises, you’d have several weeks off in the summer, and the job security was good. The work was sometimes lonely, spent in the company of children. But you wouldn’t have a boss looking over your shoulder, telling you how to do your job.

Well, those days are gone. The money is no better, but the expectations are higher. You will be evaluated on the basis of your students’ test scores, and there will be intense pressure to ensure that all kids succeed. Politicians are coming after your job security.

So it’s probably not surprising that fewer young people are going into education – and that school administrators in Indiana and across the country are complaining about not finding qualified teachers. The number of first-year teachers getting licensed in Indiana has dropped nearly 20 percent in the past five years, and education programs at state universities have seen big declines in enrollment.

The situation has received enough media attention that Rep. Bob Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the chairmen of the Indiana House and Senate education committees, called last week for a legislative study committee to investigate why fewer Hoosiers are entering the teaching profession.

“It would be helpful to receive testimony from experts and the field on why teacher enrollment and licensing are dwindling,” they wrote. “We believe it is important to have a plan … prior to the 2016 legislative session, and studying it during the interim could be a key component in crafting that plan.”

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New school grading system produces little change

The new school grading system that Indiana will adopt in 2016 is supposed to give more weight to student growth on standardized tests and less to straight-up test performance, making it more likely that high-poverty schools can earn high grades.

But that may not happen. In a comparison of the grades that schools received in 2014 with the grades that they would have received if the new system had been in effect, there’s not much difference.

A majority of schools would have received the same grade under the new system as under the old. Almost no schools would have seen their scores rise or fall by more than one letter grade.

The Indiana Department of Education calculated grades that schools would have received, based on their 2014 test scores, if the proposed new system had been in place. The department provided the grades in spreadsheet format in response to a public records request. Continue reading