Education secretary nominee backed senator’s campaign

The early 20th century writer and activist Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If he was right, it may be hard to make Indiana’s new Republican senator, Todd Young, understand the danger to public education posed by Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s choice to be secretary of education.

money-coinsDeVos and her family contributed $48,600 to Young’s campaign last year, helping him win election against Democratic former Sen. Evan Bayh. She and several relatives – her husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law – appear to have each given the maximum $5,400 in 2016.

Young sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is scheduled to hear testimony on DeVos’ nomination today and will vote on whether to recommend her confirmation.

The DeVos family’s direct contributions to Young’s campaign were a pittance for an election in which more than $30 million was spent by the two sides. Young will no doubt say they won’t be a factor in his vote.

But the family also gave millions of dollars in 2016 to GOP and conservative political action committees, including the National Republican Committee, the Senate Leadership Fund and American Crossroads. Some of those PACs spent millions on nasty political ads trashing Bayh and painting him as a flaming liberal (a joke for Hoosiers who remember his tenure as governor and senator).

The DeVoses have also given generously to four other Republicans on the HELP Committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings: $70,200 to Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, $49,900 to Tim Scott of South Carolina and $43,200 each to Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Continue reading

Bending toward justice

This is a good time to remember that, yes, the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it can be excruciatingly long.

That’s a slightly twisted version of an aphorism that’s most strongly associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today. Around the country, many schools are closed for the holiday. Others are in session, but hopefully teachers are teaching about King’s life and legacy.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Library of Congress photo

And hopefully schools everywhere are focusing their history lessons not just on King but on the civil rights struggle, and not only frontline leaders like King and Rep. John Lewis but strategists like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin and fearless combatants like Fannie Lou Hamer and Vernon Dahmer. (Look them up!).

The effort to mark King’s birthday as a national holiday began soon after he was murdered in April 1968. Even that took 15 years to succeed; the arc was long. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that made the third Monday in January a federal holiday memorializing King. Authors of the bill were Republican Jack Kemp of New York state and Democrat Katie Hall of Gary, Ind.

Indiana University professor Bill Wiggins, who died last month, placed the quest for a King holiday in a much longer history of black freedom holidays, including Emancipation Proclamation anniversaries and Juneteenth, which marks when news of the end of the Civil War reached Galveston, Texas. Continue reading

Lots of B’s for Indiana school districts

The Indiana Department of Education released A-to-F grades for school districts this week, and 60 percent of districts were awarded B’s under the new grading system.

That’s probably about right. All the evidence suggests most public school districts in Indiana are doing a pretty good job. But if we’re honest, most could probably all do a little better.

School district A banner

Some school districts may need to change their branding as a result of new district grades.

One of the most consistent findings of the annual Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa Poll of the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools is that people are more likely to give their local schools a B than any other grade. And those are the schools that the public knows best.

The whole idea of labeling schools and school districts with letter grades still makes little sense, however. It’s quite likely that school districts that received A’s, for the most part, are no “better” than those that got B’s. And those that got C’s are no worse.

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School legislation grew from chat at county fair

This is how lawmaking is supposed to work. It starts with a friendly talk with a constituent at the county fair and moves on to legislation given a positive reception in a Senate committee. If things go the way they should, it will end up with a new law that provides modest but important help for public schools.

Senate Bill 30 would require the Indiana Department of Education to report to school districts twice a year on the number of local students receiving tuition vouchers and the private schools they attend. Introduced by Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, it’s scheduled for consideration today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

The idea was hatched last summer, when Koch ran into Laura Hammack, the newly appointed superintendent of the Brown County School Corp., at the school district’s popcorn booth at the Brown County Fair in Nashville.

“It was like 8,000 degrees outside and we were covered in popcorn grease,” Hammack recalled.

Koch asked about school issues, and Hammack said she was concerned the district was losing students and, as a result, losing state funding.

“The outgoing superintendent had shared that he expected us to be down about 40 students,” Hammack said. “That would have been a big hit, but in reality we were down 100 students last fall compared to the prior year. That generates a loss of just over a half million dollars to our general fund.”

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Governor wants to appoint state superintendent

Gov. Eric Holcomb says he wants Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction to be appointed by the governor, not elected by the voters. It’s not the worst education proposal we’re likely to hear this legislative session. But it’s up to Holcomb to make a case for the change.

His fellow Republicans raised this idea in 2012, after Democratic Glenda Ritz upset Republican incumbent Tony Bennett in the superintendent election. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce made appointing the schools chief part of its 2014 legislative agenda. But changing the law when there was a Republican governor and a Democratic superintendent would have been a slap in the face to the voters who favored Ritz. Republicans rightly recognized that.

In November 2016, voters chose Holcomb as governor and Republican Jennifer McCormick, over Ritz, as state superintendent. According to the Indianapolis Star, House Speaker Brian Bosma will sponsor legislation that will let the governor appoint the superintendent in 2021, after McCormick’s term ends.

Indiana is one of 13 states that elect their chief state school officers, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. In 15 states, governors appoint the schools chief. In 22, the position is appointed by the state board.

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ISTA priorities go beyond state budget

Improved school funding is at the top of the Indiana State Teachers Association’s 2017 legislative agenda. But it’s not all about the money. Also high on the list are supporting students who experience childhood trauma or developmental delays and helping teachers get better at what they do.

The ISTA also wants to put less emphasis on standardized tests, hold schools harmless for low grades until testing glitches are sorted out, improve teacher salaries and check the growth of private school vouchers and charter schools.

ISTA President Teresa Meredith answers questions.

ISTA President Teresa Meredith answers questions.

“All of these proposals are part of putting kids first in Indiana, making kids our first priority,” said ISTA president Teresa Meredith, who unveiled the agenda Wednesday at the Statehouse while appealing to lawmakers to focus on the more than 90 percent of Indiana students who attend public schools.

A top ISTA priority, Meredith said, is helping schools implement “trauma-informed care,” which recognizes and responds to the impact that adverse childhood experiences – such as abuse or neglect, family violence, substance abuse, mental illness and divorce — can have on development. The ISTA wants the legislature to create a safe and supportive schools program and fund training grants for educators.

Meredith cited reports that 26 percent of children experience a traumatic event before age 4 and research that finds childhood trauma linked to poor school outcomes, later mental health and substance abuse issues and a shorter life span. Continue reading

Public schools and investing in all our children

Everyone who cares about education should read this Indianapolis Star guest column by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Edward Curtis IV.

Headlined “Why we love our D-rated school,” it explains why Curtis sends his two elementary-age children to their neighborhood public school, regardless of test scores and school grades. The decision, he says, reflects his family’s deepest hopes for all children, not just their own.

“My choice is based not only on our family’s ethics, but also on calculated self-interest,” he writes. “We act out of our deepest values while also providing our kids with great opportunities by sending them to a multiracial, multireligious, multilanguage, working-class school.”

Curtis describes the joy that he sees when he visits the school’s classrooms and attends after-school activities. He celebrates that his children are learning by experience to live in a world that includes poor people, people of color, refugees and families that are learning to speak English.

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