Stevens was right on vouchers

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who died Tuesday, is being remembered for a lot of things: His evolution from Republican corporate attorney to a leader of the court’s liberal bloc. His common-sense and non-ideological approach to the law. And yes, his snappy bow ties.

Those of us who care about education should remember his forceful dissent in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the 2002 decision that said it was OK for states to pay for tuition vouchers allowing students to attend private schools, including religious schools.

Justice John Paul Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens (uscourts.gov)

Zelman was a 5-4 decision. If just one more justice had agreed with Stevens’ reasoning, the school choice landscape in 2019 might look very different.

The case involved a small pilot program in Cleveland that let about 5% of the city’s students receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools. Susan Zelman, the Ohio superintendent of public instruction, challenged the program as an unconstitutional violation of church-state separation.

The majority decision, by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, reasoned that vouchers were allowable because the state money went to the parents, not directly to religious schools. He justified the decision with a discourse on the poor quality of Cleveland public schools and the choices available within the public system.

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Reckoning for virtual schools

Is Indiana finally getting serious about cracking down on abuses by virtual charter schools? It sure looks like it, but we’ll have a better idea after Wednesday’s meeting of the State Board of Education.

The board will decide whether to try to recover tens of millions of dollars that two of the schools – Indiana Virtual School and Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy – received for students who were enrolled but apparently didn’t take classes or earn credits.

State officials estimate the schools inflated their enrollment figures and were awarded more than twice the appropriate funding in the past three years. The estimate comes from the head of the State Board of Accounts, which is auditing the schools’ books after they fell years behind in filing financial reports.

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‘Good schools’ or ‘affluent schools’?

What do we mean by “a good school”?

Is it a school where all children are loved and respected and made to feel safe and valued? Where trained and caring educators know all students can succeed and work hard to help them reach their potential? Where children smile and laugh when they walk through the doors and enjoy being with each other and their teachers?

Or is it a school where most of the students are middle- or upper-class and at least a clear majority are white? Where families can provide their children with healthy food, a comfortable home and enriching after-school activities. Where average test scores are high, and GreatSchools ratings are near the top.

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Debate puts ‘busing’ back in the news

Three years ago, I read Matt Delmont’s “Why Busing Failed” and wrote a post about it. It never occurred to me that the book’s theme would emerge as a theme in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Yet here we are. Since last Thursday’s Democratic candidate debate, when Kamala Harris called out Joe Biden for working with segregationists to oppose busing, the reality of America’s segregated schools has become part of the national conversation.

Reporters are revisiting the history of school desegregation efforts – especially in Berkeley, California, where Harris rode a bus as a young student. And pundits are weighing in with various hot takes, often to the effect that busing is unpopular and would be a losing issue for Democrats.

But as Delmont, a historian at Dartmouth, has made clear, the busing story isn’t straightforward. Court-ordered busing made great progress at desegregating public schools. But resistance by white parents in Northern cities captured the media lens, and politicians jumped on board.

Today, the conventional wisdom is that we tried busing and it didn’t work. It’s not that simple.

“In public-policy debates and popular memory … the perspectives of students have been overshadowed by those of antibusing parents and politicians,” Delmont writes this week in the Atlantic. “As a result, the successes of school desegregation have been drowned out by a chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.”

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Indiana schools that discriminate receive public funding

It’s great that the firing of gay teachers by Indiana Catholic schools is generating national attention – and a great deal of outrage. But the bigger issue is that Hoosier taxpayers are subsidizing this discrimination through the state’s voucher program.

And the incidents in the news, involving three Indianapolis high schools, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Schools under the purview of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis are now being required to terminate teachers who are in a same-sex marriage, and those schools received $38.6 million in voucher funds in the 2018-19 school year, according to Indiana Department of Education data.

But Indiana law lets private schools that receive vouchers discriminate against against students and their families as well as against employees. As Indiana University professor Suzanne Eckes and other scholars have shown, voucher programs in Indiana and other states allow schools to exclude students on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

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‘Public hearings’ without the public

Indiana law requires charter school authorizers to conduct a public hearing before they give permission for a new school to open. Did the Indiana Charter School Board follow the law when it authorized the Excel Center that will open this fall in Bloomington?

James Betley, executive director of the Charter School Board, said there were two “community meetings” in 2018 in Bloomington, attended by representatives of business and civic groups, including Judy DeMuth, the superintendent of the Monroe County Community School Corp.

He said those meetings were “open to the public,” but I can’t find any evidence that the public was told about them. There was nothing about them in the local newspaper, either before or after the fact. If the “public” wasn’t informed, in what sense were they public hearings?

Excel Centers are adult charter high schools operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives, a program of Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana. The schools are designed for adults who dropped out of school and want to go back and earn enough credits for a high school diploma. At least 15 Excel Centers have opened since 2010 in Indianapolis, Lafayette, Kokomo, Richmond and other cities. Continue reading

Candidates should name pick for education leader

Candidates for Indiana governor in 2020 should put their education cards on the table when they start campaigning. That means they should announce whom they will appoint as secretary of education.

At the latest, they should do this by the time of the Republican and Democratic state conventions in June 2020. That’s when candidates for the chief state education officer would have been nominated in the past. Better yet, they should announce their choice during the campaign for the May 2020 primaries.

For most of Indiana’s history, the state superintendent of public instruction has been chosen by the voters. But this year, legislators voted to make the position one that’s appointed by the governor. They also changed its name to secretary of education.

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