Moneyed interests call the shots

They say legislators are supposed to represent the people who elect them, but what, exactly, does that mean? Do they represent the people who voted for them? The people who live in their districts?

Or do they look out for the businesses and organizations that made their election possible through campaign contributions? Judging by the actions of the Indiana General Assembly, it may be the latter.

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Black legislators were right to talk about race

Some Indiana House Republicans lost their cool last week when Democratic colleagues dared to raise the issue of race. According to the Indianapolis Star, the Republican legislators “shouted down and booed Black lawmakers during floor debate on a bill that some see as discriminatory.”

Rep. Greg Porter (House Democratic Caucus).

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, became emotional and walked off the House floor when Republicans interrupted his attempt to speak, the Star reported. Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, began talking about his own experiences with racism and “was met with ‘boos’ from several … GOP lawmakers.”

But Porter and Smith were right. Lawmakers were debating House Bill 1367, which would allow Greene Township in St. Joseph County to secede from South Bend Community Schools and join John Glenn School Corp. Greene Township’s population is 98% white, according to census data, while nearly three-fourths of South Bend students are Black, Hispanic or multiracial. John Glenn’s enrollment is 90% white and less than 1% Black. How can you debate a bill like that and not talk about race?

According to the Star, the conflict in the House spilled into the hallway, where a confrontation erupted between Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis. Eberhart said Summers called him a racist. She said Eberhart “just went off and got mad and tried to hit me.”

Eberhart told the Star, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

But bones aren’t at issue; and, actually, neither are hearts. It doesn’t matter if Republicans aren’t stereotypical racists who hate Black people. Their actions are what matter. When legislators promote laws that make schools more segregated, their actions should be scrutinized.

The same should apply to Indiana’s state-sanctioned open enrollment policy, in which families may transfer their children from the school district where they live to another, provided there’s room. The policy accounts for about half the “school choice” in the state. In theory, it lets parents choose the public school that best fits their children’s needs, as long as they can provide transportation. In practice, families are leaving racially diverse urban schools for mostly white suburban or rural districts.

Muncie Community Schools, for example, where 57% of students are white, lose nearly a quarter of their prospective students through inter-district transfers. Many go to nearby districts where over 90% of students are white. Figures are similar for Marion Community Schools, where 48% of students are white and many leave for districts that are 80% or more white.

Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, the author of HB 1367, said it has nothing to do with race but would address transportation concerns for Greene Township students, 274 of whom already attend John Glenn schools. The bill sets up a “pilot project” and applies only to one township and two school districts. But Teshka acknowledged there is interest in similar district secessions in other parts of the state.

The House approved the bill, 53-42. If the Senate follows suit, it could open the door to redrawing district boundaries in ways that make many districts more racially segregated. That policy decision shouldn’t happen without debate, and Black legislators shouldn’t be on their own in forcing it.

Funding cap would hurt high-poverty schools

The state budget being considered this week by the Indiana House would shift millions of dollars away from high-poverty schools and school districts.

That’s because it includes a cap on the complexity index, the calculation that Indiana uses to direct additional funding to schools that serve many low-income families. Lawmakers would impose the cap at a time when many Hoosier communities are struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The budget legislation, approved by the Ways and Means Committee and now before the full House, puts a limit on how much a district or school’s complexity index can increase. For the most part, the cap would not affect low-poverty schools and districts, but it could have a big impact on those that enroll large numbers of poor students.

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Budget would increase charter school funding

Charter schools would get a boost in funding under a budget bill that’s headed for approval by the Indiana House. There may be an argument for that, but don’t expect the legislature to debate it.

Under a budget amendment adopted Thursday by the House Ways and Means Committee, the state’s “charter and innovation network school grant” would increase from $750 per pupil to $1,000 in 2021-22 and $1,250 in 2022-23. The increase would cost the state nearly $40 million over two years.

The grant program is intended to compensate for the fact that charter schools can’t levy local property taxes, while public school districts use property taxes to pay for student transportation and facilities expenses. The result is that districts spend about $3,300 more, per pupil, than charter schools, according to a report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Charter schools aren’t required to provide student transportation; reportedly some do, and some don’t. They do have costs for facilities and may have to pay most of those from their state operating funds. According to the CRPE report, charter schools spend $1,285 per pupil on facilities.

Charter school advocates have long objected to the unequal funding and have lobbied to change it. In the 2020 elections, one of the biggest contributors to the House Republican Campaign Committee was a new political action committee called Hoosiers for Great Public Schools. Chaired by former Democratic Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, the group gave $150,000 to the House GOP committee and another $50,000 to the campaign of Republican House Speaker Todd Huston.

The PAC raised $900,000 in 2020, none of it from Hoosiers: it all came from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and former energy trader and hedge-fund manager John Arnold. (It also spent heavily on Indianapolis Public Schools board elections).

Peterson told me last fall that his primary concern was the “funding gap” between charter schools and traditional public schools. Just what constitutes fair funding for charter schools is a debate worth having, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead, House leaders have dealt with the issue in the budget, effectively bypassing any discussion of charter-school funding policy.

When it comes to advocacy, money talks; and those with the most money get heard.

Still waiting for action on virtual schools’ alleged malfeasance

It’s been a year since the State Board of Accounts released a detailed report alleging that tens of millions of dollars in “public funds were misappropriated” by two virtual charter schools. We’re still waiting to see if anyone will do anything.

Copies of the report were sent to the offices of local and federal prosecutors and the Indiana attorney general; but none are disclosing how they will respond. An official with the Marion County prosecutor’s office suggested the matter fell under federal jurisdiction. At the office of the U.S. attorney for the South District of Indiana, spokesperson Steven Whitaker provided a no-comment comment:

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IPS candidates spent big to win

Winning candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools board positions spent over a half million dollars on their 2020 campaigns, with most of the money coming from advocacy groups that back school choice.

At-large candidate Kenneth Allen spent half that total — $255,742 — to be elected to an office that pays about $6,000 a year, including per-diem payments for meetings and events. The winning candidates outspent their opponents by 10-to-1 on the November 2020 election, according to campaign finance reports filed this month with the Marion County clerk’s office.

The four ran as a slate in favor of continuing the district’s policy of promoting “innovation network schools,” which include charter schools and district schools that operate with charter-like autonomy.

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Governor unclear on school choice

Gov. Eric Holcomb made a vague nod in both directions of the school choice divide in his State of the State address Tuesday. As usual, he’s playing his cards close to the vest.

“Parents not only deserve to have options about where they send their child to be educated – after all, they pay for it,” he said. “But at the same time, those options shouldn’t come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90% of Hoosier children.”

Both parts of that statement could use clarification. When the governor says parents “deserve to have options,” it sounds like he might support expanding access to private school vouchers or adding other choice options, which are likely to be debated in the 2021 legislative session.

It’s not clear what he means that “they pay for it,” however. It’s true that parents pay taxes to support schools, but so does everyone else. If he’s talking about parents who pay their own money for private school tuition, they already have that option, regardless of what the state does.

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Legislators propose expanded vouchers, ESA’s

Indiana legislators are proposing a huge expansion of the state’s private school voucher program, extending eligibility to families that make well over $100,000 a year.

The legislation, House Bill 1005, would also create state-funded Education Savings Accounts that certain K-12 students could use for various educational services, including private school tuition.

Indiana Statehouse

House Republican leaders listed the bill among their top legislative priorities last week, but details were not available until Thursday. The lead author is Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee and the primary architect of Indiana school-choice policies for the past 10 years.

Under HB 1005, families that make up to three times the limit to qualify for reduced-price school meals – which is over five times the federal poverty level — would become eligible for vouchers in 2022-23. For a family of five, that’s $170,274 a year, more than three times the median household income in Indiana.

Families would also receive more generous voucher funding under the legislation. Currently, only the lowest-income families receive a full voucher, worth 90% of the per-pupil funding that their local school district gets from the state. Higher-income recipients get 50% or 70% of that amount.

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I will miss Jennifer McCormick

Today marks the end of the Jennifer McCormick era in Indiana education. I have a feeling we will appreciate her more and more now that she has left her job as the state’s education leader.

McCormick is the last person to hold the title superintendent of public instruction, a position that dates from the 1800s. Effective today, Indiana’s chief education officer will be called secretary of education.

Jennifer McCormick

Also, she is the last person elected to the job. The law was changed so the governor now appoints the secretary of education, just as he appoints nearly all members of the State Board of Education.

McCormick has been a tireless and outspoken advocate for public schools and for their students and teachers. Those schools enroll 88% of Hoosier K-12 students, yet they are often an afterthought for lawmakers and policy elites who promote charter and private schools.

I was skeptical when McCormick, a Republican, was elected in 2016. Her campaign received considerable support from advocates for school privatization, and she was part of a GOP ticket that didn’t seem to make public education a high priority. She turned out to be a pleasant surprise. In four years as superintendent of public instruction, she:

  • Pushed back against efforts by the legislature to expand Indiana’s private school voucher program and shift funding from traditional public schools to charter schools.
  • Tried to implement a more meaningful school accountability system despite state laws and policies that tie accountability to test scores and require A-to-F grades for schools.
  • Championed better pay and more professional treatment for teachers, including speaking at the November 2019 “Red for Ed” rally at the Statehouse.
  • Objected to discrimination – against LGBTQ students and families, students with disabilities and others – practiced by private schools that receive state funding through the voucher program.
  • Stood up to Betsy DeVos when the U.S. secretary of education tried to divert federal CARES Act funding intended for public schools to private schools. And won.
  • Cast off her party affiliation and endorsed Democrats in 2020 state elections.

In October, she looked ahead to the 2021 legislative session and called on lawmakers to protect funding for public schools, expand internet connectivity for schools and families, protect students from discrimination and check the growth of charter schools and the voucher program.

Like her predecessor, McCormick was often at odds with Republican legislators and State Board of Education members. Many advocates for vouchers and for charter schools didn’t like her focus on traditional public schools. Critics suggested she could have done more to prevent abuses by virtual charter schools, although McCormick blamed GOP-promoted policies for those problems.

I’ve focused on McCormick’s advocacy, but arguably her more important work was providing leadership for a state Department of Education that schools could rely on for day-to-day guidance and support. On her next-to-last day on the job, for example, she announced a partnership with Purdue University to help science educators teach about climate change.

The new Indiana secretary of education, starting today, is Katie Jenner, a former Madison, Indiana, school administrator who was senior education adviser to the governor. I’m hopeful that she will do a good job, but she won’t have the independence that McCormick enjoyed as an elected officeholder.