Supreme Court case ‘a virtual earthquake’ for public schools

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 that the First Amendment created “a wall of separation between Church and State.” A case before the U.S. Supreme Court today could not only tear down that wall – it could declare that efforts by the states to enforce the wall are unconstitutional.

Supreme Court Building

Supreme Court Building

The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, concerns a Montana program that provides tax credits for donating to tuition scholarships for private schools, most of which are religious schools. A type of school voucher program, it’s not as blatant as the Indiana program that directly funds tuition for students in religious schools, but it accomplishes the same purpose.

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Bill to ban school voucher discrimination should be heard

Legislators have filed around 900 bills in the current session of the Indiana General Assembly, and there won’t be time in the short session to hear them all. One that should be a priority is Senate Bill 250, Sen. J.D. Ford’s proposal to ban discrimination by schools that receive state funding.

Sen. J.D. Ford, head shot

Sen. J.D. Ford

The legislation pertains to Indiana’s $161 million voucher program, which funds tuition scholarships for students who attend private schools, nearly all of which are religious schools. Some of those schools discriminate against students and employees based on sexual orientation, disability and other factors.

“No Hoosier should have their own tax dollars used against them in a discriminatory way,” Ford, an Indianapolis Democrat, said in a news release.

The issue gained attention when guidance counselors and a teacher at two Indianapolis Catholic high schools lost their jobs after church officials discovered they were in same-sex marriages. Those two schools, Roncalli and Cathedral, have received over $12 million in state voucher funding in the past six years.

Also, some voucher-funded Christian schools condemn homosexuality and require families and employees to sign “statements of faith.” Some voucher schools do not serve students with disabilities.

SB 250 would bar state voucher funding for schools that discriminate by disability, race, color, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, religion, or ancestry. (Current law prohibits discrimination by race, color or national origin).

At a news conference to promote the bill, Ford was joined by Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick and Dominic Conover, a 2019 Roncalli High School graduate who said school officials warned him to be silent after he organized support for the school’s counselors.

McCormick said it’s contrary to Hoosier hospitality for the state to fund schools that turn away students and staff because of who they are and whom they love.

“We’re talking about Indiana being a state where people want to work and live,” she said. “That should be for everyone who wants to come here and feel accepted and respected.”

Ford introduced a similar bill as a freshman legislator in 2019, but it didn’t get a hearing. Why might this year be different? For one thing, Ford said he has developed relationships that will help him make the case for the bill. For another, the issue has received a lot of attention, with fired Roncalli guidance director Shelly Fitzgerald the subject of media stories and an appearance on the “Ellen” show.

Religious conservatives have a lot of clout with the General Assembly, and it’s likely that the Republicans who control the House and Senate would like for the bill to die a quiet death.

But lawmakers also answer to their constituents. If you think state-funded discrimination is an issue that the legislature should at least discuss, contact your representatives and let them know.

Celebrate the women of the movement

It’s great that students are learning about Martin Luther King Jr. in schools across the United States this week. Possibly no American in my lifetime is more worthy of being so honored and memorialized.

Ella Baker speaking into microphone with fist raised.

Ella Baker

But I hope teachers also take advantage of the King holiday to share lessons about the many people who were crucial to the success of the civil rights movement, not just its best-known leader. They could focus on the women who did essential work, often behind the scenes.

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Two strikes against Bennett reforms

It’s been a rough week for the Tony Bennett education reform agenda in Indiana.

Monday, the state House of Representatives voted unanimously to drop a requirement that teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores. And Wednesday, the State Board of Education voted to return the operation of four “turnaround academies” to public school districts in Gary and Indianapolis.

Both votes represented reversals of education initiatives that then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett championed in 2011.

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Indiana’s federal school ratings, the good and bad

The Indiana Department of Education released federal accountability ratings for schools recently, and there’s both good news and bad news when it comes to looking to these ratings to evaluate schools.

The good news: Unlike the more familiar state accountability system, the federal system doesn’t rely on overly simplistic A-to-F grades. Instead, schools receive ratings of Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Approaches Expectations or Does Not Meet Expectations. Those are more meaningful designations than letter grades. They’re more like the evaluations you’re likely to see on student report cards, at least in the early grades.

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More than meets the eye in graduation rates

I’m no fan of charter schools, but Indiana data showing that only 40% of their students graduate from high school are arguably misleading. The data are correct, but the category includes more than what we typically think of as charter schools: i.e., schools that resemble public schools but are privately operated.

It includes 20 or so adult high schools, which are designed to help older students and dropouts make up missing credits and earn a degree. Dominated by at least 15 Goodwill Excel Centers, those schools tend to enroll students who are behind on credits. Their 2019 “cohort” or on-time graduation rate was 18.2%.

It also includes virtual charter schools, which seem to have a lousy record for graduation rates, test scores and nearly everything else. The overall graduation rate for virtual schools and blended schools, which combine online and classroom learning, was 32.6%.

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Courtney Everts Mykytyn: ‘She’s built something beautiful’

It feels presumptuous to write about Courtney Everts Mykytyn. I never met her; and, unlike many of her other admirers, I never spoke with her by phone. But nothing seems more urgent and proper than calling attention to the work she did – and that her colleagues have vowed to continue.

Everts Mykytyn, 46, died last week when she was struck by a car while standing on the sidewalk across the street from her home in Los Angeles. It was a tragic loss for her family and friends and a setback for those who believe schools should be a force for social justice.

She was founder and director Integrated Schools, which describes itself as “growing a grassroots movement of, by and for parents who are intentionally, joyfully and humbly enrolling their children in integrating schools.” Started in 2015, it has chapters in 20 cities, a popular podcast and an online book club, and it serves as a support network encouraging parents who choose diverse schools.

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