Court embraces ‘short-sighted view of history’

It’s bad enough that the Supreme Court took a wrecking ball Tuesday to the constitutions of 38 U.S. states. What’s truly discouraging is that it did so while vastly oversimplifying American history.

Supreme Court Building, West Pediment

Supreme Court Building, West Pediment

The court ruled, in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, that Montana couldn’t bar religious schools from participating in a “neo-voucher” program that provided state funding for scholarships to religious K-12 schools. In a 5-4 decision, the conservative majority ruled that barring religious schools was discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.

The majority opinion — and especially concurring opinions by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — framed the decision as a blow against anti-Catholic bias enshrined in state constitutions via 19th century “Blaine amendments.” But that view papers over complex history, said Steven K. Green, a legal scholar at Willamette University and a leading expert on church-state issues.

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Supreme Court rules for vouchers

The Supreme Court came down heavily in support of religious education when it ruled today that a Montana voucher program that excluded religious schools was unconstitutional. I’ll write more later, but for now, here are a couple of points:

First, the decision doesn’t have any immediate impact on vouchers in Indiana. The Hoosier state, like Montana, has language in its constitution that bars state aid for religious institutions. But the Indiana Supreme Court got around the provision by reasoning that vouchers go to parents, not private schools.

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Pence’s ‘school choice’ in Indiana

Asked a simple question Tuesday about race in America, Vice President Mike Pence deflected to a soliloquy about all the Trump administration has done for African Americans, including the way it has “stood strong for school choice.”

Indiana state flagPence was following the script laid out by the president, who said that school choice is “the civil rights (issue) of all time in this country.”

How does that look from Indiana, where Pence was governor for four years before he hitched his wagon to Trump’s star? Frankly, not so good.

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Voucher growth levels off

The number of students who received private school vouchers in Indiana leveled off last year, marking a possible end to voucher program’s steady growth.

Students enrolled in the program at the start of the 2019-20 school year declined slightly from the previous year. But the state added a second signup period, and some students enrolled late, resulting in a slight increase.

Cover page of voucher reportAccording an Indiana Department of Education report, 36,707 students received vouchers last year. That’s a little over 3% of the state’s K-12 students.

Indiana awarded $172.8 million in vouchers in 2019-20, up from $161.4 million the previous year. Over the program’s nine-year history, state spending for private school vouchers has now topped $1 billion.

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Court removes one hurdle on discrimination

The Supreme Court delivered a huge victory for LGBTQ rights Monday. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to help teachers and counselors who were fired by Indianapolis Catholic schools for their sexual orientation.

Supreme Court Building

Supreme Court Building

In a landmark 6-3 decision, the court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits job discrimination against gay or transgender employees.

“I think it’s a really big deal,” said Suzanne Eckes, an education law professor at Indiana University. “It’s just wonderful news for equity.”

The opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices, concluded that the law’s ban on discrimination by sex applies to sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Good results for school referendums

Unemployment is at record levels in Indiana, with hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers out of work. A recession is coming, likely to be deeper than the last one. It seems like a bad time to call for a tax increase.

But voters in 12 school districts approved referendums Tuesday to raise money for school operating expenses and building projects. Yes, they said, raise our property taxes. Because we want to support our students.

Four of the districts passed both operating and building referendums. In all, 16 of the 18 referendums that were on the ballot won approval.

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‘All work is now homework’

Research by sociologist Jessica Calarco has shown how socioeconomic differences in schools play out in homework. Privileged parents are more likely to assist their kids. Lower-income parents struggle to help, and their children are penalized.

With schools closed by the COVID-19 pandemic and K-12 classes moved online, that dynamic is revealing itself in a much bigger way.

Jessica Calarco head shot

Jessica Calarco (Indiana University)

“My sense is that all work is now homework,” the Indiana University associate professor said. “I would argue that, if students are being graded, if their work is expected to be graded, there are going to be huge inequities.”

Even if students are not held accountable, there are inequities in what and how they learn online. As others have noted, low-income parents are less likely to have computers and reliable internet service. They are less likely to have jobs that let them work from home, where they can help and supervise their children. They may not have the academic skills or confidence needed to help.

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Data show issues with A-to-F grades

Over one-third of Indiana public schools would have received D’s or F’s for 2019 under the state’s school grading system if not for the “hold harmless” legislation that the Indiana Genera Assembly approved in January.

For elementary and middle schools, the figures are even worse. Some 43.5% of schools serving students in grades 3-8 would have received D’s or F’s.

That’s a far cry from the grades that will go on the schools’ official records, the ones approved by the State Board of Education. Under the hold harmless grading, just over 12% of all public schools got D’s or F’s. Continue reading

Indiana schools chief stands up to DeVos

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick is taking bold action by rejecting guidance from the U.S. Department of Education and distributing emergency aid for schools the way Congress intended.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

It’s remarkable that, thanks to McCormick, Indiana appears to be the first state to openly push back against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and refuse to follow guidance that it deems to be contrary to the law.

At issue is funding from the CARES Act, which provides $13.2 billion to help schools respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools can use the money to improve technology, protect student health and plan for the next school year.

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Court could weaken discrimination protections

Counselors and teachers at Indianapolis Catholic high schools looked to have a solid case when they sued after being fired for being married to same-sex partners. But the legal ground may be shifting beneath them.

Arguments heard Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court could result in religious schools being given a blank check for widespread employment discrimination.

Supreme Court Building

“It’s important,” said Dan Conkle, a constitutional law expert at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “And depending on how the court decides, it could have pretty dramatic implications for parochial school teachers.”

The case heard Tuesday involves two fifth-grade teachers at California Catholic schools who said they were unjustly fired, one because of her age and the other because she needed time off for cancer treatment. The schools countered with the so-called ministerial exception, which says ministers and others who perform important religious functions aren’t covered by anti-discrimination laws.

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