Small town beats odds, passes school referendum

Search the internet for Austin, Indiana, and you’ll find dozens of stories about drug abuse, HIV and Gov. Mike Pence’s belated declaration of a public health emergency. Here’s some good news from Austin. Last week, residents of this hard-hit Southern Indiana town bucked the odds and voted to increase their own property taxes to benefit local schools.

“The town really values the schools. They always have,” said Trevor Jones, superintendent of the local school district, Scott County District No. 1. “We’ve had a lot of issues in Austin the last five or six years, but the schools have been a real bright spot for this community.”

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No clear pattern to high- and low-spending school districts

It’s an article of faith in Indiana that school districts serving large populations of poor students spend more money than affluent districts. At one level, it’s true. When it comes to state funding, high-poverty districts get and spend a little more, per pupil, than low-poverty districts.

But when you consider total spending – including funds from state, federal and local sources – a different picture emerges, according to the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of School System Finances.

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Referendums help school districts, but not all of them

Voters in 10 Indiana school districts will go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to raise their own property taxes to help fund local public schools. It’s another sign that Indiana has become a referendum state, with districts turning to local taxpayers to do the job that legislators haven’t done.

'Vote Here' sign near polling place.But only some of them: 60% of Indiana school districts have never attempted a referendum.

That’s approximately 180 districts that haven’t turned to the voters for funding in the 10 years that Indiana has had school funding referendums. Maybe they haven’t needed the money; or maybe superintendents and school boards didn’t think the local voters were ready.

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Indiana NAEP results show widening gap in reading

Indiana saw some of the nation’s biggest declines in fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading scores when 2019 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released Wednesday.

More worrisome is what appeared to drive the declines: A sharp drop among Indiana’s lowest-scoring students. That mirrors national results, which showed a divide between the highest-scoring and lowest-scoring students that grew larger between the 2017 and 2019 administration of NAEP.

“The most disturbing pattern we see in the 2019 NAEP results is that both fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores decreased most among our lowest performing students,” Indiana University professor Sarah Theule Lubienski said by email. “For example, while reading scores slipped just 1 point for students scoring among the top 10%, they fell 3-6 points among those scoring within the bottom 10%.” Continue reading

Indiana ‘at-risk’ funding has declined

Indiana needs to spend more money on K-12 education. And it should target more of its spending to school districts that serve a large share of students from poor families.

Statehouse domeThose were key take-aways from a study presented Tuesday to a legislative committee examining Indiana’s complexity index, which channels extra money to schools to compensate for their enrollment of students who may require additional resources.

Robert Toutkoushian, a professor at the University of Georgia, produced the study, which found that Indiana’s per-pupil complexity index funding has declined by half in the past 10 years. As a share of overall state school funding, complexity funding fell from almost 20% to less than 10%.

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Advantage, public schools

Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski challenged conventional wisdom when they published research that found public schools were better than private schools at boosting student achievement.

Book cover The Public School AdvantageFive years later, their conclusions have been confirmed several times over – especially by studies of state voucher programs that provide public funding for students to attend private schools.

“In the last four years, every study of student achievement in voucher programs has found large negative impacts, except for a couple of studies that found no impact,” Christopher Lubienski said recently. “The programs are hurting the learning outcomes of children using the vouchers.”

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Charter schools excel – at PR

UPDATE: Matt Shafer Powell, chief content officer of WFYI Public Media, provided the following statement regarding this post and its reference to a letter supporting the Rooted School charter application:

As a journalistic enterprise, WFYI Public Media does not endorse nor support any particular argument or set of opinions within the charter school debate.  It’s important to us that the public recognizes WFYI as an independent voice, without editorial bias or influence. The letter in question is not representative of WFYI’s viewpoint.  It was written by a non-news employee who was unaware that the inclusion of WFYI’s name on the letter was an objectionable practice.

WFYI recently developed an ethics guide for each of its employees and will soon embark on an organization-wide training program to make sure everyone understands their role in our journalistic mission. Our hope is that such incidents as this are rare or non-existent in the future.

Kudos to WFYI for this thoughtful, ethical response.

Research has found that charter schools, overall, are no more effective than public schools at raising student achievement. But there’s one area where they seem to run circles around public schools:

Marketing and public relations.

How else can you explain the way individual charter schools generate so many favorable stories in the news media? It’s an impressive skill, one that public-school leaders might want to study.

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