Teacher pay proposal a surprise

Gov. Eric Holcomb dropped a surprise Tuesday in his State of the State address, and it was a good one. He called for tapping Indiana’s budget surplus to add $70 million to funding for K-12 schools each of the next two years.

That’s a little less than a 1 percent increase, but it’s something. And it’s on top of a 2-percent-per-year school funding hike in Holcomb’s budget proposal.

Gov. Eric Holcomb

Gov. Eric Holcomb

It was a surprise because the Republicans who control both the House and Senate had signaled that Indiana’s $1.8 billion surplus was off the table in this budget-writing session. If the GOP governor says it’s not off the table, then it’s not.

The $70 million per year would help pay teacher pension costs that schools currently bear. That would free money for schools to use for other purposes. Holcomb said they should use it all to increase pay for teachers.

The funding will offset some of what school districts and charter schools pay into the Teacher Retirement Fund for teachers who joined the fund after 1996, a spokesperson for the Indiana Public Retirement System told me. Teachers who joined prior to 1996 are in a pay-as-you-go system that’s funded by the state.

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Lawmaker tries again to protect student journalists

Will the third time be the charm for legislation to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists in Indiana? It’s a long shot, but we can hope.

Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, has again introduced a bill to prohibit school officials from censoring student publications produced under the guidance of teachers who serve as media advisers. The measure almost became law two years ago, but opponents managed to block it.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle this year, probably the most uphill it’s been in three years,” said Ryan Gunterman, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association and a supporter of the bill.

The legislation, House Bill 1213, calls for school corporations and charter schools to adopt policies to protect the rights of student journalists. It says high school and middle school officials can’t block the production and distribution of student media unless it’s libelous, illegal or would disrupt school activity.

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Lawmakers: Raise teacher pay by cutting elsewhere

Indiana legislators want to give educators a raise, but they don’t want to pay for it. Their plan: Shame school districts into cutting spending elsewhere so they can target dollars to teachers.

Their tool for doing this is House Bill 1003, unveiled this week by House Republicans and presented Wednesday to the House Education Committee. It would “strongly encourage” districts to spend at least 85 percent of their state funds on instruction; it would subject them to public scrutiny if they don’t.

Indiana StatehouseThe assumption behind the bill is that schools have plenty of money, but they waste it on bloated administrative expenses and frills. But the data don’t support that claim.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said in a news release that many school districts are spending as much as 20 percent of their state revenue on “overhead and operations.” That includes central administration as well as building maintenance, insurance, technology and other costs that districts can’t always control.

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How to beat reform ‘addiction’

John Merrow spent 41 years reporting on education for NPR and PBS “Newshour,” long enough to develop a clear-eyed view of what’s right and wrong with America’s schools. He argues that our obsession with “reform” is an addiction that’s harming students and teachers.

But he insists we can beat it, if we just work the steps. And yes, there are 12 of them.

Book cover“The process of school reform is unquestionably addictive,” he writes in his book “Addicted to Reform.” “Its goals always feel good and sound right. … Unfortunately, as with drug addicts, the high is temporary, lasting only until reality intervenes and it becomes clear that the problem persists.”

Merrow diagnoses the illness in detail. He laments the way schools sort students into winners and losers at an early age. He criticizes overuse and misuse of standardized tests, segregation of schools by race and socioeconomic status, and inequalities in school funding. He calls out schools of education for failing to effectively prepare teachers.

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Data raise questions about school staffing – but don’t answer them

Indiana ranks near the bottom of the states for the percentage of school employees who are teachers and near the top for the percentage who provide “support services,” according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

I don’t know if those stats are perfectly accurate, but they have become a handy talking point for state legislators who claim to want to raise teacher salaries but don’t want to spend any more money.

Lawmakers have pointed to data, reported to the U.S. Department of Education by the states, that indicate only 37.7 percent of Indiana school employees are teachers. The implication is that teachers could be paid more if only there weren’t so many other school employees.

The National Center for Education Statistics is a reliable and widely cited source. The figure is based on 2015 data, the latest available. Only Ohio, at 31.5 percent, has a lower percentage of school employees who are teachers. The national average is just under half.

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Weak laws allow discrimination in voucher, charter schools

School voucher programs and charter schools practice discrimination in enrollment and hiring because they can, according to a recent policy brief from the National Education Policy Center. Federal and state laws permit discrimination in private schools that receive public funding. And charter schools are held to looser standards than traditional public schools when it comes to selecting students.

The policy brief, by education law scholars Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin and Suzanne Eckes of Indiana University, examines the legal landscape that allows for discrimination and recommends changing laws to ensure publicly funded schools are open to all.

“To the extent that states have determined that voucher programs and charter schools are part of the menu of educational opportunities” they write, “those programs must also ensure equitable access to both students and employees. To do anything else is to return to the days of separate and inherently unequal education.”

Mead and Eckes identify three factors that allow for discrimination.

  • Federal law largely prohibits discrimination in public spaces but may allow it in private spaces such as private schools, even those that receive public funding via vouchers.
  • Private schools and charter schools design their own programs and may not offer adequate services for certain students: for example, students with disabilities and English learners.
  • State legislatures have taken a hands-off approach to discrimination in voucher or voucher-like programs, which now exist in 28 states.

In Indiana, for example, voucher schools are barred from discriminating by race, color or national origin but may discriminate by religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status or other factors.

The policy brief cites the example of Indianapolis Roncalli High School, which indefinitely suspended a guidance counselor after learning she had married her longtime female partner. The school has received almost $6 million in state voucher funding over the past four years.

It also points to reports that Indiana voucher schools refuse to enroll students because of their religion or sexual orientation and research that finds many charter schools are racially homogenous and enroll fewer special-education students and English learners than public schools.

Mead and Eckes recommend four changes:

  • Congress should prohibit discrimination by schools that receive public funding.
  • Federal agencies should consider withholding funds from schools that discriminate.
  • States should revise voucher laws to ban discrimination by sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, first language and other factors.
  • States should strengthen laws to ensure that charter schools are accessible to all students.

Vouchers and charter schools may have been created with good intentions, Mead and Eckes write, but “we can ill afford to experiment with equity and access in programs funded by public dollars. Insisting that publicly funded programs ensure access to the entirety of the public should be beyond argument.”

Regulations proposed for virtual schools

New accountability could be coming to Indiana’s online K-12 schools. A State Board of Education committee is recommending stricter oversight, limits on growth and class size and other measures targeting “virtual schools,” most of which are charter schools.

The board will consider the proposals today. Most would require action by the Indiana General Assembly, which begins its 2019 session in January.

The committee on virtual schools was created in response to low tests scores and other issues at virtual charter schools. In one example, a Chalkbeat Indiana investigation found that Indiana Virtual School graduated few students, had a student-teacher ratio of over 200-to-1 and paid millions of dollars in rent and management fees to a business run by its founder. Continue reading