Nuanced findings in study of ‘learning loss’

Indiana students lost nearly six months of learning in math and over four months in reading as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s an obvious and accurate headline about the Education Recovery Scorecard, a study of COVID’s academic effects led by Stanford and Harvard researchers.

An alternative headline might be: It’s complicated. The findings, based on 2019 and 2022 results on state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, are nuanced, especially on why students fell further behind in some districts than others.


Yes, schools that shut down or went remote for longer tended to see more of an impact. “But the losses varied widely,” writes Chalkbeat’s Kalyn Belsha in a report on the study, “and many districts that went back in person had bigger losses than districts that stayed remote.”

Continue reading

State won’t properly fund education. Voters can.

If the state won’t do it, we will. That’s the attitude driving a proposed property-tax referendum in the Monroe County Community School Corp.

Superintendent Jeff Hauswald laid out the rationale at a meeting Wednesday. He said the referendum will pay for free or reduced-price pre-kindergarten and cover educational costs that families now pay out of pocket, such as fees for Advanced Placement exams and career and technical education classes.

MCCSC logo
MCCSC logo

The MCCSC school board voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize Hauswald to go forward with plans for the referendum, which would raise property taxes by up to 8.5 cents per $100 assessed property value. It comes on the heels of a referendum that voters approved last November. The 2022 referendum raised teacher and staff pay while the 2023 vote will be “family-centered and community-focused.”

“We know it’s the right thing to do,” Hauswald said. “So, can we do it locally? Well, we’re going to ask our taxpayers.”

Continue reading

Charter schools made big gains in legislative session

Indiana’s private school voucher system was the big winner in the 2023 legislative session, but charter schools came in a close second. They secured sizeable increases in state funding to pay for facilities and transportation, along with – for the first time – a share of local property taxes.

As Amelia Pak-Harvey of Chalkbeat Indiana explains, the success followed an all-out lobbying and PR effort in which charter supporters teamed with voucher proponents. Advocates insist charter schools are public schools, and private schools certainly aren’t.  But the joint effort was effective.

The Republican supermajority in the General Assembly rewarded charter schools with:

Continue reading

Referendum success rate was typical

Ten Indiana school districts had property-tax referendums on the ballot in last week’s elections, and seven of them passed. That’s a typical success rate.

In the past 10 years, voters have approved 132 school district funding referendums and rejected 51. That’s an approval rate of 72%. There was speculation that inflation and talk of rising property taxes could dampen voter support this year, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

Indiana has two primary types of school funding referendums. Districts must get voter approval to raise property taxes to pay for expensive construction and renovation projects. They can also ask voters to raise property taxes to help pay for school operations if they conclude state funding isn’t adequate.

Continue reading

Session wrap-up: How bad was it for schools and students?

Expanding the voucher program and banning gender-affirming care for minors were the most egregious education-related actions that the Indiana General Assembly took in the session that just concluded. But they are far from the only damage lawmakers did.

Book banning. Legislators teased the idea of banning books and criminalizing librarians all session, then finally put the language in a House-Senate conference committee report and passed it on the last day. House Bill 1447 requires schools to publish lists of all the books and materials in their libraries and create a procedure to challenge books as obscene or harmful to minors. Making obscene or harmful materials available to minors is a felony, and the bill repeals a provision that lets school librarians defend themselves by arguing the books are educational or they’re acting in the capacity of their employment. It was approved 69-28 by the House and 39-10 by the Senate on the last day of the session.

Indiana Statehouse dome

Outing trans kids. HB 1608 requires schools to notify a parent within five days if their child asks to be called by a different name or gender. Critics said the requirement could harm children whose parents aren’t supportive of their gender identity. The bill also bans instruction in “human sexuality” for students in preschool through grade 3. The provisions apply to public and charter schools but not to private schools, including those that receive state-funded vouchers. The House voted 63-29 to approve the bill, and the Senate voted 37-12 to concur with changes made by the House.

Union busting. Senate Bill 486, promoted as a “deregulation” measure, repeals a requirement that school boards and administrators discuss certain issues, such as curriculum, discipline and class size, with local teachers’ unions. It’s one more step in a long-running campaign by the Republican supermajority to sideline unions, which tend to support Democrats. The bill also eliminates some teacher training requirements and school regulations. The House approved it, 63-36. After several delays, the Senate narrowly signed off on changes made by the House, 27-23.

Continue reading

Voucher expansion aids the rich

The voucher expansion that Indiana legislators approved last week constitutes a massive handout to religious institutions and a transfer of wealth from everyday Hoosiers to benefit Indiana’s elite.

Lawmakers voted early Friday to raise the income limit for families receiving private-school tuition vouchers from 300% to 400% of the level for receiving reduced-price school meals. For a family of four, that’s $220,000.

The expansion raises the cost to the state of the voucher program to $1.1 billion over the next two years. That’s up from an estimated $300 million that Indiana is spending this year on vouchers.

Continue reading

Issues abound in session’s final week

The 2023 session of the Indiana General Assembly is coming down to the wire. The deadline for lawmakers to finish their work is Saturday. Several questions affecting schools are still unanswered.

Indiana Statehouse

What will school funding look like? A state revenue forecast suggested legislators have an extra $1.5 billion to work with, so they could decide to be more generous. Will they dedicate more funding to education (and other state needs like mental health), or will they shift their attention to cutting taxes? If they provide more for schools, how will they divide it among public, charter and private schools?

Will they expand private school vouchers? The House budget bill expanded program eligibility to 400% of the cutoff for reduced-price school meals; that is, to $220,000 for a four-person household. The proposal would have soaked up over one-third of the House’s K-12 funding increase. The Senate kept voucher eligibility where it is. The revenue forecast could add pressure to expand the program.

What about charter schools? The House and Senate budgets would both change funding for charter schools, but they take a different approach. The House would increase state funding for charters while also taking steps to equalize local property taxes for school districts. The Senate would give charter schools a share of future increases in local property taxes for schools.

Continue reading

‘Deregulation’ bill is about sidelining unions

I have to pull out the Henry Adams quote at least once every session of the Indiana General Assembly: “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

How else do you explain Senate Bill 486, an “education deregulation” bill that seems to be largely about punishing the Indiana State Teachers Association and the Indiana Federation of Teachers.

The measure does include some deregulation, but a key component would repeal current law that gives teachers, through their unions, a voice in how their schools operate. Blocking it has become the top priority for the ISTA and IFT, which brought hundreds of teachers to the Statehouse last week to protest.

Continue reading

Senate pares back voucher expansion

Hoosiers learn to be grateful for small favors when the legislature is in session. Take, for example, the budget the Indiana Senate is about to approve. When it comes to education, it could be worse.

Indiana Senate chamber

For one thing, the Senate would dial back the expansion of Indiana’s private school voucher program that was part of the House version of the budget. The House would raise eligibility for the program to 400% of the income cutoff for reduced-price school meals. That’s over seven times the federal poverty level, or about $220,000 for a four-person household next year.

The Senate budget leaves the income cap where it is: 300% of the reduced-price meal level, or about $166,000 for four people. That’s still two and a half times the state’s median household income.

House Republicans boasted that their budget would provide record funding increases for K-12 education, but over one-third of the increase would go to private schools via vouchers. The Senate would leave the voucher program alone, but the already generous program is still likely to grow even larger.  According to a Legislative Services Agency fiscal analysis, nearly 15% of the increase in state funding for K-12 schools – more than $116 million over two years – would go to private schools, which enroll about 7% of Indiana students.

Continue reading

Hoosier librarians step up

UPDATE: The House Education Committee did not vote on Rep. Cash’s amendment. Instead, it voted 12-0 to advance the original, unamended, SB 380 — dealing with how graduation rates are calculated — to the full House. Language similar to the amendment was approved by the Senate in March as SB 12, but it wasn’t given a committee hearing in the House. Because the language was approved by one chamber, it’s feasible, but probably not likely, that it could still be added to a different bill in a conferenc committee.

Hat’s off to Indiana’s librarians. They turned out in force last week when legislators considered making it easier to ban books and prosecute people who provide material that’s “harmful to minors.” And they pushed back when lawmakers suggested they didn’t know what they were saying.

Slaughterhouse-Five book cover

But it may not matter. The legislation is on the agenda again today for a meeting of the House Education Committee, and Republicans on the panel seem determined to pass it into law.

The measure is a proposed amendment to Senate Bill 380, which initially dealt with high school graduation rates. Rep. Becky Cash, R-Zionsville, wants to replace that language with new rules to govern obscene and harmful materials and their distribution to anyone under 18.

The amendment would require school libraries to compile lists of all their books and materials, post them online, and print them out for parents or others who request hard copies. They would also have to create and publicize a procedure for members of the public to seek to remove books from libraries. That seems heavy-handed and unnecessary, but school libraries can probably manage it. Most have computerized inventories that could be used to satisfy the law.

The other part of the amendment is what scares librarians. Indiana law says that disseminating to minors any matter that is “harmful to minors” is a felony. Currently, a person who’s charged can argue in their defense that the material has an educational purpose. It’s also a defense if the material is disseminated by an employee of a school, museum or public library in the scope of their employment.

But Cash’s amendment would remove the educational purpose defense. And it would eliminate the “scope of employment” defense for school and public libraries and their employees. It would retain the scope of employment defense for university, college and museum libraries.

In other words, it would make it easier for a politically ambitious prosecutor to convict a school or public librarian on a felony charge. No wonder librarians are alarmed.

No one is arguing that libraries should expose children to obscene materials, but criminalizing material that is “harmful to minors” is a slippery slope. State law says material is harmful if it depicts nudity or sexual conduct, appeals to a “prurient interest in sex” for minors, offends community standards and, “considered as a whole,” lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Most of those criteria are subjective.

The committee debate last week was disturbing in several respects. For one thing, Cash, the amendment’s author, claimed it didn’t eliminate the “scope of employment” defense for librarians. Clearly, it does. (See amendment 21, page 3, lines 22-28).  

For another, legislators acted as if they had never heard of Kurt Vonnegut, certainly the most important writer Indiana produced in the second half of the 20th century.

This came out when Julia Whitehead, founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, located two blocks from the Statehouse, testified against the amendment. Rep. Martin Carbaugh, R-Fort Wayne, brushed off Whitehead’s Vonnegut references and kept asking if she was from a school or a public library. Rep. Zach Payne, R-Charlestown, mocked her concern that government book bans can put booksellers and librarians at risk. Yet, as Whitehead pointed out, the Indy Reads bookstore experienced a bomb threat recently over its drag story hours; and, in what may have been a related incident, someone threw a rock through the Vonnegut Library window.

Lawmakers also played down Whitehead’s fears that Vonnegut’s classic “Slaughterhouse-Five” would be “one of the first to go” if conservative activists, emboldened by state legislation, campaign to remove books from libraries. In fact, legislators are working from a playbook pushed by Moms for Liberty and similar right-wing groups, which sniff out salacious passages in books and put them in front of legislators. A Florida Moms for Liberty chapter recently released a list of books that it considers inappropriate for school libraries. On the list: Vonnegut’s anti-war satire “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Those organized campaigns explain why, according to an American Library Association report, attempts to censor library books more than doubled in 2022. And these aren’t cases of individuals reading a book and finding it objectionable. In 40% of incidents, more than 100 books were targeted.

The House Education Committee meets at 8:30 a.m. today, and SB 380 is second on its agenda. There will be no more testimony; just committee discussion and a vote on whether to approve the amendment.