Confusion over charter school teacher licensing

A disagreement over licensing requirements for teachers in Indiana charter schools is coming to a head with legislation making its way through the General Assembly. It centers on how to interpret language in state law. Depending on how you read the law, it either requires most charter-school teachers to have a standard teaching license — or it doesn’t.

The Indiana Department of Education, which administers teacher licensing requirements, has interpreted the law to say that 90 percent of teachers in a charter school must have a regular teaching license, the kind that would let them teach in a neighborhood public school. The Indiana State Teachers Association agrees; it says licensing requirements should apply to state-funded charter schools just as they apply to public schools.

“We believe the professionals going into the classroom need to be properly trained, not only in content areas but also in pedagogy,” said ISTA Vice President Keith Gambill. “You don’t learn classroom management in a calculus course.”

But some advocates for charter schools, including the Indiana Charter School Board, say the flexibility allowed to charter schools should include more leeway in hiring teachers.

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State funding lags for high-poverty schools

The state budget bill approved last month by the Indiana House continues a trend that we’ve seen for several legislative sessions: School districts that primarily serve affluent families are getting decent funding increases while high-poverty school districts are losing out.

But the story is more complicated than a simple tale of taking from the poor and giving to the rich. It also touches on the innate difficulty of coming up with an accurate and reliable measure of student poverty. For some districts, another factor in play is the current atmosphere for immigrant families.

For over 20 years, Indiana has used a school funding device called the Complexity Index to direct more money to high-poverty schools, which face more complex challenges in educating students. The House budget reduces Complexity Index funding by 15 percent, or $136 million.

The result: High-poverty school districts, those that rely for extra funding on the Complexity Index, could face financial challenges in the two-year period covered by the budget. The legislation is now being considered by the Senate, which could make changes in the House-approved school funding formula.

According to data from Libby Cierzniak, an attorney who represents Indianapolis and Hammond schools at the Statehouse, average per-pupil funding would increase three times as much for the state’s 50 lowest-poverty school districts as for the 50 highest-poverty districts under the House budget. Lawmakers could tweak the formula to make the results more equitable, but so far, they haven’t.

“High-poverty school districts, compared to low-poverty school districts, would take the biggest losses,” Cierzniak said.

Why does Complexity Index funding decrease? The short answer, Cierzniak said, is that, according to the poverty measure used in the index, there are fewer poor children in the state than two years ago. Continue reading

Cost calculation missing from voucher report

The annual school voucher report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education includes lots of useful and important information. But something is missing.

Gone from the 122-page report is the “special distribution” calculation, which gave us an idea of how much the voucher program could be costing the state’s taxpayers. In its place is a new calculation that shows how much it might cost if all voucher students attended Indiana public schools.

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said the old calculation was dropped because the result “can be misleading as it does not show a true depiction of what the cost/benefit situation is.”

That’s true, but neither does the new calculation. It’s obvious that many families receiving vouchers never had any intention of sending their children to public schools, so the cost of their education amounts to a new expense for the state, not a savings. The voucher program has become a state subsidy for religious education.

The special distribution calculation provided a sort of worst-case estimate of the net cost to the state of the voucher program. In 2015-16 the figure was $53.2 million.

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Vouchers a new entitlement to religious education

Indiana’s school voucher program keeps drifting further from what we were told it was supposed to be. That’s the inevitable conclusion from data in the 2016-17 voucher report released recently by the Indiana Department of Education.

When lawmakers created the program in 2011, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels said it was a way to help children from poor families find a better alternative to failing public schools. But the program has evolved into a new entitlement: state-funded religious education for middle and low-income families.

Some 54 percent of students receiving vouchers this year have no record of having attended an Indiana public school, the report says. Voucher advocates initially insisted the program would save the state money, because it would cost less to subsidize private school tuition than to send a student to a public school. But increasingly vouchers are going to families that never had any intention of sending their kids to public schools; that’s an entirely new cost for the state to take on.

Also, vouchers are more and more going to students who are white, suburban and non-poor. When the program started, more than half of participating students were black or Hispanic. Now over 60 percent are white, and only 12.4 percent are African-American. It’s reasonable to ask if, in some cases, vouchers are a state-funded mechanism for “white flight” from schools that are becoming more diverse.

Vouchers were sold on the idea that they would help low-income families that couldn’t afford private school tuition. But from the start, the program has also served middle-income families, providing a partial voucher — 50 percent of per-pupil state funding for the local public school — to families that could probably afford private school without help.

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IPS shows way on immigrant students

Between Betsy DeVos in Washington and tight-fisted legislators in Indianapolis, you’d think the education news is all bad. It’s not. And we can thank the Indianapolis Public Schools board for that.

The IPS Board of School Commissioners voted unanimously last week for a resolution expressing support for immigrant students, regardless of whether they and their parents are in the country with proper documents. It’s not just a feel-good statement. The resolution commits IPS to a policy of not asking about students’ immigration status. And it reminds IPS staff that they should not help with immigration enforcement “unless legally required and authorized to do so by the superintendent.”

This is an example that every school board in Indiana should follow. And boards in other states too.

It doesn’t matter whom you voted for in last year’s elections or what you think of immigration as a policy issue. Most children of immigrants are here through no choice of their own. A 1982 Supreme Court decision guarantees them a right to education. Schools have a moral obligation to welcome them. Continue reading

Pre-K expansion still faces hurdles

An Indiana University research center released a detailed report last week recommending Indiana expand its pre-kindergarten pilot program and explaining how 10 others states have done just that. But on the same day, a state Senate committee slashed funding for pre-K expansion to almost nothing.

And so it goes here in the 201st year of Indiana statehood. We are determined to pinch pennies as tightly as we can, even if it means depriving our youngest citizens of the education they deserve.

The report, from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU, was produced for the State Board of Education. It describes Indiana’s nascent pre-K program – which serves about 1,600 4-year-olds in five of the state’s 92 counties – and contrasts it with programs in other states that started small and grew.

The programs vary in scope, student eligibility and academic requirements. Not surprisingly, states that spend the most money serve the most students. Georgia, for example, provides pre-K in 100 percent of its school districts. Massachusetts, which got a later start, serves 25 percent of districts. Other states examined are Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Indiana’s pilot pre-K program, On My Way Pre-K, is available only in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. It was created in 2014 and spends $10 million per year.

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Message for legislators: School funding hasn’t kept pace

Indiana schools still haven’t recovered from the financial hit they took from the recession of 2007-09. And schools that serve poor children have fallen furthest behind where they once were.

Those are key findings from an analysis of school funding from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. The report, “Equity Analysis of the 2015-17 Indiana School Funding Formula,” was written by CEEP researcher Thomas Sugimoto for the State Board of Education.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

The findings should be front and center for legislators as they put together a state budget for the next two years, including a funding formula that will allocate about $7 billion a year to schools.

Sugimoto said lawmakers shouldn’t see the report in isolation but should consider it in light of their efforts to create a fair and effective system for funding education. And the report should improve their understanding of the challenges facing schools where funding has declined, he said.

Indiana schools have been digging out of the hole left by the recession, the report shows, but they’ve not reached daylight. Adjusting for inflation, they operate on less money today than eight years ago. State leaders will say there’s only enough money to give schools a modest increase. But the state has $2 billion in reserves, some of which could be tapped. And tax cuts approved in recent years reduced state revenue by $650 million, according to Purdue agricultural economist Larry DeBoer. Investing that money in education would have put schools on much more solid ground.

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