Superintendent-elect starts strong with transition team

Against the crazy national political news, here’s an encouraging development in Indiana: Jennifer McCormick, the newly elected superintendent of public instruction, has picked a solid group of education professionals to help with her transition to office.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

The team includes school administrators, policy experts, leaders of education organizations and others who are familiar with education issues in the state. Notably absent are the conservative ideologues and school-choice advocates who have been prominent in state school politics.

“The team’s commitment to Hoosier students will drive critical decision-making which will ultimately impact Indiana’s education system and ensure Indiana has one of the best departments of education in the nation,” McCormick said in a news release.

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DeVos money big in Indiana politics

News stories about Betsy DeVos, selected by President-elect Donald Trump to be the next U.S. secretary of education, often say she’s not well known outside of Michigan. But you can bet Indiana Republican legislators know who she is. DeVos money has been key to building the state’s GOP super-majority.

Betsy DeVos chairs the American Federation for Children, which promotes private school vouchers and deregulation of charter schools. According to campaign finance reports, she and her husband and their adult children have given the group’s political action committee over $1.4 million since 2010.

The American Federation for Children PAC also has had big contributions from for-profit charter school companies, hedge fund managers and the Walton family, majority owners of Walmart.

The federation funds school choice initiatives in several states. In Indiana, its on-the-ground affiliate is Hoosiers for Quality Education, formerly Hoosiers for Economic Growth. American Federation for Children has given the advocacy organization $1.2 million since 2010, according to campaign reports.

Hoosiers for Quality Education in turn helped fund the campaigns of Republican candidates for Indiana superintendent of public instruction: It gave $90,000 to Tony Bennett’s losing campaign in 2012 and $130,000 to Jennifer McCormick’s successful campaign this year. But the bulk of the $3 million it has spent on Indiana campaigns since 2008 has gone to GOP candidates for the state House and Senate. Typically, the money is targeted to contests that could be competitive.

Fred Klipsch, the founder of Hoosiers for Quality Education, boasted at an American Federation for Children-sponsored policy summit in 2012 that the group and its allies had spent $4.4 million to push an agenda of vouchers, expanded charter schools and other reforms through the state legislature. Continue reading

School choice group bankrolled campaign

I still hope Jennifer McCormick turns out to be a good superintendent of public instruction, one who looks out for students, teachers and public schools. But my optimism takes a hit when I look at her campaign finance reports for this year’s election.

McCormick got a big surge of late cash — $100,000 in October – from Hoosiers for Quality Education, the pro-voucher and anti-union organization started by Carmel businessman Fred Klipsch. In 2016, the group gave the Republican candidate $130,000, more than one-third of all she raised.

Hoosiers for Quality Education, despite its name, isn’t a grass-roots organization of Indiana folks advocating for better schools. Its funding comes from a handful of big donors, many of them out of state. They include Red Apple Development, a sister company of Florida-based Charter Schools USA, and K-12 Management, a for-profit that runs online charter schools.

Over the years, much of the group’s money has come from the American Federation for Children, a group headed by the Michigan Republican activist Betsy DeVos, reportedly a leading contender to be named secretary of education by President-elect Donald Trump.

The American Federation for Children PAC restocked its coffers this year with over a half million dollars from DeVos and her husband Dick, an Amway heir, and $300,000 from Alice and Jim Walton, two of the siblings who own over half of Walmart. It got $100,000 from Tennessee GOP rainmaker James Haslam. Continue reading

Scores drop when students move to private, magnet schools

Students who leave neighborhood public schools for private or magnet schools tend to fall behind academically in the year after they transfer, according to a new study of school choice in Indianapolis.

Students who move to charter schools don’t fall behind, but neither do they move ahead. Their performance is about the same as if they had stayed in their neighborhood school, the study finds.

The authors of the study, Mark Berends at the University of Notre Dame and R. Joseph Waddington of the University of Kentucky, say the findings don’t discredit the potential benefits of school choice, but they raise questions about the conditions under which choice might be a strategy for improving academic achievement.

“It’s sort of a cautionary tale, that school choice is not a panacea,” said Berends, a professor of sociology and director of Notre Dame’s Center for Research on Educational Opportunity.

The study, “School Choice in Indianapolis:  Effects of Charter, Magnet, Private, and Traditional Public Schools,” has been accepted for publication and posted by the journal Education Finance and Policy.

Berends and Waddington analyzed several years of ISTEP test math and English/language arts scores for Indianapolis students in grades 3-8. The students attended neighborhood and magnet schools in public school districts as well as charter schools and private schools in the city. Magnet schools are public schools organized around themes, such as international engagement, foreign language immersion and Montessori education; students typically apply for admission to the schools.

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Superintendent election part of GOP wave

Jennifer McCormick won big over incumbent Glenda Ritz in Tuesday’s election for Indiana superintendent of public instruction. How did she do it? The explanation is simple:

McCormick ran as a Republican.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

And running as a Republican was about all a candidate needed to do in this year of a massive GOP sweep in Indiana. Anyone with an R beside her or his name was likely to win.

That’s not to suggest McCormick wasn’t a good candidate. She ran a respectful, issue-focused campaign, and she may prove to be an excellent superintendent. She is an experienced educator. She has promised to keep politics out of the office, probably an impossible pledge to keep but a worthy objective.

But her victory wasn’t a mandate for policies or pledges. It was a function of Indiana turning bright red in the Year of Trump. Ritz, the darling of teachers’ unions and public-school advocates, didn’t have a chance. Neither did any other Democrat.

“I think it was a wave election for Trump that swept in the Republicans at all levels,” said Paul Helmke, a professor of practice at Indiana University and former mayor of Fort Wayne. “Even when Glenda Ritz was the incumbent and presumably still had the same support from teachers that she had four years ago, when there’s a big wave, there’s no way you survive in those situations.”

McCormick got 53.4 percent of the vote to Ritz’s 46.6 percent, according to unofficial figures. In the governor’s race, Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb beat Democrat John Gregg by about the same margin – even though Gregg, a former House speaker, is smart, funny, Hoosier to the core and ran a strong campaign.

Trump got 57 percent of the Hoosier vote to Hillary Clinton’s 38 percent. In the only no-name state race, Republican Curtis Hill got 62.3 percent of the votes for attorney general. In Southern Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, Trey Hollingsworth, arguably the worst candidate Republicans could have chosen, smashed Shelli Yoder, who was the best candidate Democrats will ever find for the contest.

You could argue that Ritz and Gregg beat the spread.

The results were surprising, though. Recent polls showed Gregg and Ritz leading. GOP insiders looked to have written off the superintendent’s race; they didn’t try to keep up with Ritz in campaign fund-raising. House Speaker Brian Bosma and Education Committee chair Robert Behning seemed almost caught off guard when they discussed the outcome with WFYI’s Eric Weddle.

But mandate or not, congratulations to McCormick, and good luck. Let’s hope she advocates for public schools, rejects the fool’s gold of school choice and stands up to anti-public education legislators. May she hire strong professional staff, not the partisans who surrounded Tony Bennett, Ritz’s predecessor.

Before Bennett came along, Republican Suellen Reed who served four terms as a rigorously nonpartisan Indiana superintendent from 1993-2009. That’s a model McCormick would do well to emulate.

Dark money clouds IPS election

Stand for Children is at it again. The Oregon-based education advocacy group is spending big money to determine who gets elected to the Indianapolis Public Schools board.

That in itself could be cause for concern. But what’s really troubling is that the amount Stand for Children is spending and the source of its money are being kept secret.

If you or I give more than $100 to a candidate for school board or any other public office, the contribution is made public. And candidates have to report how they spend campaign money. But Stand for Children is carrying out a so-called independent campaign in support of the slate of IPS candidates endorsed by its Indianapolis branch. So under the law, it doesn’t have to tell us anything.

It is sending glossy mailers to residences in the IPS district, an expensive undertaking that you might expect in a race for mayor but not in a school board election. It did the same thing in the 2014 IPS election, and its favored candidates won by overwhelming margins.

Judging by the limited and vague information Stand for Children reports to the Internal Revenue Service on its Form 990, it’s a safe bet the organization spent $200,000 or more in Indy in 2014. The report says it paid an Indianapolis firm over $140,000 for printing and mailing services. It also reportedly paid individuals to stand at the polls and hand out fliers on Election Day.

That would be in line with what the group reported spending this year on school board elections in Nashville, Tenn., where it is now facing complaints that it violated campaign finance laws.

But Jim Scheurich, part of the local Our IPS group that is pushing back against Stand and endorsing a different slate, estimates the group is spending considerably more than that this year in Indianapolis. Continue reading

Yes for MCCSC

Some of the first posts on this blog argued for the school funding referendum that voters in the Monroe County School Corp. district approved in 2010. Now it’s time to vote again, and the need for a yes vote is as urgent as it was six years ago.

The 2010 referendum authorized a modest increase in local property taxes to supplement the school funding MCCSC receives from the state. The authorization expires after this year. If we don’t vote to extend it, it’s likely staff will be reduced, class sizes will balloon and programs will be cut.

As I’ve written before, it’s easy for people to find a reason to vote no. We can all point to school corporation decisions that we don’t agree with. But voting down the referendum won’t hurt the school board or administrators. It will just hurt our children and grandchildren.

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