Timely words from a school board president

At a time of overheated rhetoric about education reform, here’s a reminder from Mark GiaQuinta, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board, that the important stuff is what happens in the schoolhouse, not the Statehouse.

GiaQuinta sent this message last week to Fort Wayne public education supporters, responding to efforts in the Indiana legislature to expand charter schools and implement a new voucher program. It seems relevant to the discussions taking place in the Monroe County Community School Corp. over how to allocate revenue from the recently approved property-tax referendum.

The Journal-Gazette newspaper reprinted it in the Learning Curve blog. With GiaQuinta’s permission, School Matters is sharing it here as well:

“The current debate over charters and vouchers fails to address the single most important issue in the reform of education, which is the commitment to a strategy that individualizes instruction to enable the appropriate intervention to change the outcome for the student. That commitment has to be “owned” by the School Board, the Administration, the Building Leaders (Principals and Assistants) and, most importantly, the teaching professionals.

“Each of the aforementioned has to demonstrate that commitment in different ways. For example, the Board has to commit to leave the implementation of the strategy to the Administration and the educators and limit its role to goal setting and the approval of policy that supports those goals. The Board has to approve budgets that reflect the district’s goals and not allow itself to be diverted by demands that will not lead to high achievement for all students. Continue reading

Referendum spending a challenge and opportunity for MCCSC

Some initial thoughts on the Monroe County Community School Corp. budget committee recommendations on how to use $7.5 million a year from the recent property-tax referendum.

1 — This is an opportunity for the school board to get the process right. That means having all its discussions in public, however difficult and messy they may be.

The board shouldn’t hash this out behind closed doors on the rationale that it involves collective bargaining strategy. It is doing the right thing by getting input from parents, teachers and the public. It should listen to what people have to say, then do what’s best for students and the community and clearly explain the rationale.

2 – The budget committee report says improving student performance is its No. 1 priority. While acknowledging the central role of teachers, it calls for spending money in a way that will “provide the most meaningful benefit for our students and … reflect an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our school corporation.”

“If enhancing student performance isn’t our primary goal, then I think we’ve got a problem in this school corporation,” said MCCSC Comptroller and committee member Tim Thrasher. It’s hard to argue with that.

3 – The committee gets style points its “three Rs” approach: restore positions and programs that were cut, replenish the district’s operating balance, and reform instruction.

Best of all is using reform to describe investing in programs and personnel aimed at making sure young children learn to read and older students don’t fall through the cracks – reclaiming a term that has come to refer to charter schools, vouchers, teacher merit pay and union-busting.

Indiana school voucher bill – more radical than expected

Taxpayers would subsidize private-school tuition for families that make more than $100,000 a year under school-voucher legislation introduced in the Indiana House of Representatives.

The bill would award “choice scholarships” to help pay tuition for just about any student who moves from a public to a private school, except for those from the wealthiest families, as Scott Elliott explains in the Indianapolis Star. You can read the bill on the state legislature’s website.

Robert Enlow, head of the pro-voucher Foundational for Educational Choice, tells the Star that Indiana “would certainly jump to the head of the class” with passage of the bill. Nate Schellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, says it “sounds like another of the continual attempts coming from the (Daniels) administration to destroy public education in Indiana.”

Students who already attend private schools would not be eligible for the scholarships.

Private schools would have to be accredited to benefit from the vouchers, but that’s about all. Unlike public charter schools, they could reject voucher students based on their own admission rules. They wouldn’t have to adopt a curriculum that complies with state standards. Apparently they wouldn’t need to be accountable or transparent in any way to the taxpayers who will support them.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has been speaking out for a voucher program, which provides public funding for students to attend private schools. But he has consistently implied that they were needed to help low-income families provide better opportunities for their children, especially those stuck in failing schools. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

The “choice scholarships” in the Behning-Bosma proposal, House Bill 1003, would be based on per-pupil state funding for the school district where a student lives, which ranges from $5,500 to almost $12,000. Families could receive 90 percent of the per-pupil amount if their kids qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. They would get 50 percent of the amount if their income is double the reduced-price lunch limit and 25 percent if their income is two and a half times the limit.

As Elliott writes, a family of four with an income of $105,000 a year would qualify for the 25 percent subsidy. Similar vouchers would go to a family of five with an income of about $120,000, or a family of six that makes over $136,000.

Daniels, in an interview with the Star’s Mary Beth Schneider, said it was a matter of “simple justice” to help “families of modest incomes who believe that a non-government school is best for their child.” Maybe $100,000-plus is a “modest income” in the governor’s world. It’s not for most Hoosiers.

‘Dems for Education Reform’ wade into state debates

A new organization called Indiana Democrats for Education Reform says it’s taking a bipartisan approach to the school-reform debate playing out at the Statehouse.

Like Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett, Indiana DFER backs more charter schools, radical turn-around efforts for low-performing public schools, and performance-based evaluation of teachers. But it parts company with Daniels and Bennett in opposing taxpayer-funded private school vouchers and supporting more generous funding for education.

In only a couple of weeks, the group has launched an impressive website, a lively blog and an energetic media campaign. It filed as an Indiana political action committee on Jan. 10.

The public face of Indiana DFER is Larry Grau, president of the Pike Township school board on Indianapolis’ northwest side and an education adviser a decade ago to Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon.

The group is the state-level manifestation of Democrats for Education Reform, an organization aligned with the reform-friendly policies of President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

For a skeptical take, see the DFER Watch blog, where Ken Libby describes Democrats for Education Reform as “a political action committee supported largely by hedge fund managers favoring charter schools, merit-pay tied to test scores, high-stakes testing, school choice (including vouchers and tuition tax credits in some cases), mayoral control, and alternative teacher preparation programs.”

Resistance from Indiana educators

Taking a different approach is the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, a new group that’s being organized by active and retired educators to counter the Daniels-Bennett agenda.

“The education folks in the state of Indiana aren’t necessarily in agreement with a lot of the things coming out of the governor’s office,” Chris McGrew, an organizer of the group and a former consultant with the Indiana Department of Education, tells the Lafayette Journal and Courier. “(They wonder), what methods are you using to determine if schools are failures?”

Members of the group have been quoted in some news media coverage of Statehouse education debates, but it doesn’t yet seem to have a website or a way to get involved.

Vouchers for police protection?

This opinion column in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette is worth sharing with anyone who thinks there’s something wrong with the arguments in favor of charter schools and vouchers.

If schools have “failed,” columnist Tracy Warner suggests, so have police departments – there’s still all this crime, after all. So shouldn’t we be able to opt out of “government” policing and choose to be protected by a charter police force run by, say, a local technical school?

“But that’s not enough,” he writes. “Rich people can hire security guards. Why shouldn’t all Hoosiers have the same access to safety? Let’s give every Hoosier who wants one a voucher financed with our tax dollars to purchase their own security if they choose.”

Charter schools legislation moving through Indiana House

Give some credit to Speaker Brian Bosma for keeping a partially open mind on the charter-schools bill that he’s pushing through the Indiana House of Representatives.

Bosma, R-Indianapolis, is co-author of the legislation, which expands sponsors of charter schools to include private colleges and universities, a statewide charter schools board, and mayors of cities of the second class, such as Bloomington. Under current law, only local school corporations, public universities and the mayor of Indianapolis can sponsor charter schools.

The legislation, House Bill 1002, was the subject of a five-hour hearing Wednesday before the House Education Committee. On Monday at 10:30 a.m., the committee is scheduled to consider amendments and then vote to send the bill to the full House for more debate.

There’s a lot to the bill, and it’s worth a careful read – although there may be significant amendments.

It includes the “parent trigger” provision that Gov. Mitch Daniels has touted: If the parents of 51 percent of students in a low-performing school sign a petition, they can convert it to a charter school.

Another provision requires public school corporations to lease unused or “under-utilized” buildings to local charter schools for $1 a year. Continue reading

Proposed rule would retain third-graders if they fail state reading test?

Last year the Indiana legislature considered a proposal to retain students in third grade if they failed the reading section of the ISTEP-Plus exam. But lawmakers decided not to approve the proposal, citing cost concerns.

Now the State Board of Education is about to adopt the same requirement as an administrative rule. If there are costs, the Department of Education says, they will fall on local schools, which will just have to reallocate funds in order to pay them.

The state board will conduct a public hearing on the rule at 10 a.m. Thursday (Jan. 20) at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis. It could then adopt the rule at any future meeting. The proposed rule can be read online, as can a DOE summary and FAQ.

In addition to retention, the rule requires schools to implement reading plans that spell out goals for student achievement and interventions for students who aren’t on track. Schools will have to provide 90-minute daily uninterrupted blocks of reading instruction in the primary grades, and most will have to use a research-based core reading program certified by the state.

There are logistical issues to implementing these plans, but it’s the hammer of mandatory retention – arguably punishing kids for failing a single test – that causes concern for some educators.

“I totally agree with the goals, and that we need to have students reading by third grade,” said Cameron Rains, director of elementary instruction for the Monroe County Community School Corp. “But looking at retention and what that does, I don’t know why that is the solution you want for students.” Continue reading

Indiana education legislation is available online

The Daniels-Bennett education agenda is showing up in bills posted to the Indiana General Assembly’s website, and so are other school-related measures. Here’s a preliminary look, starting with the proposals backed by the governor and state superintendent:

HB 1337, teacher contracts: rewrites the collective bargaining law; creates a new system for evaluating teachers, including performance-based criteria; lessens seniority protections; limits bargaining to wages and wage-related benefits.

HB 1002, charter schools: establishes a state charter schools board; allows private colleges and mayors of second-class cities to sponsor charter schools; makes other changes to encourage charters.

SB 496 and HB 1250, “parent trigger” law: allows a majority of parents in a low-performing school to have it closed, convert it to a charter school, or use its funding to send their children to private schools.

HB 1249, early graduation: diverts school funding to college scholarships for students who finish high school early; directs the State Board of Education to establish procedures for completing school requirements by the end of 11th grade.

Here are other education-related bills that aren’t part of the official agenda:

HB 1238, referendum gag rule: restricts school corporations, school boards and school employees from advocating a tax increase to support schools.

SB 410, fund transfers: extends through 2012 the option that school corporations can transfer half their capital projects tax levy to support operating expenses.

SB 326, school board elections: requires board members to be chosen in partisan elections, running as representatives of political parties.

SB 171 and HB 1195, school start date: delays the start of the school year until after Labor Day (Senate) or Sept. 1 (House).

You can peruse legislation by category at the General Assembly website, where there are about 20 subcategories under “schools” and more bills are being posted every day. Keep in mind that bills can be debated and amended numerous times, in committees, the House and the Senate. Some of these may not even be considered. But the ones that make up the Daniels-Bennett agenda are likely to spark interesting discussions.

Pre-kindergarten: the missing piece in Indiana education reform

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett have proposed varied and aggressive education reforms for the state legislature to consider. One thing that’s missing: Any mention of early childhood education.

As the Indianapolis Star reported last week, Indiana trails most other states when it comes to including young children in its education system. It’s one of only eight states that provide zero funding for public pre-kindergarten programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“Of all the things you could do, preschool probably has the largest impact on school success,” Steve Barnett, co-director of the Rutgers University-based NIEER, told the Star’s Scott Elliott.

The advocacy group Pre-K Now cites studies that have found high-quality pre-kindergarten programs increase high-school graduation rates, improve scores on standardized tests, reduce crime rates and produce more productive adults. Every dollar invested in high-quality pre-K, it says, saves taxpayers $7.

The problem, of course, is finding that $1 to invest now, when the economy is struggling and state leaders are focused on keeping taxes low. “I think we as a state must do it,” Superintendent Bennett told the Star, referring to investing in early education. “But it is going to be very challenging to have it become part of this legislative agenda on the basis of money.”

The Star article also notes that Indiana doesn’t require kids to start school until the fall term of the school year in which they will turn 7 — later than two-thirds of the states. Schools have to offer kindergarten, but children aren’t required to attend.

Legislation has been introduced that would require students to start school in the year during which they will turn 6. But the bill may not go anywhere if lawmakers determine it will cost the state money.

There he goes again

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels gives an inspirational speech, and you almost want to believe him when he says his call for school reform is rooted in “a love for the children whose very lives and futures depend on the quality of the learning they either do or do not acquire while in our schools.”

The changes he is proposing – performance-based evaluation of teachers, restrictions on the power of teachers’ unions, even vouchers for parents who can’t afford private school tuition – are worth an honest debate. But it doesn’t help when the governor keeps repeating myths and half-truths, as he did in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Once again he made this claim: “Teacher quality has been found to be 20 times more important than any other factor, including poverty, in determining which kids succeed.” As School Matters reported last week, the statement simply isn’t true.

And again he said the following: “Only one in three of our children can pass the national math or reading exam.” The truth is that about one in three Hoosier eighth-graders score “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A proficient score, according to former NAEP advisory board member Diane Ravitch, is “equivalent to an A or a very strong B,” not a minimal passing grade.

We’ll let others fact-check the governor’s claims about taxes and job creation. But when it comes to education, he keeps bending the truth.

Public support for vouchers in Indiana? Look again

The Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice is pulling out the stops to convince the state legislature to approve a school voucher program. The program would provide taxpayer money for parents to send their kids to private schools.

On Monday, the foundation (formerly the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation) released results from a public-opinion survey purporting to show there is strong public support for vouchers in Indiana. In fact, it shows no such thing.

The survey found that 68 percent of Hoosier respondents said they were not familiar with vouchers. In other words, they had no opinion. So the poll-takers helpfully explained: A voucher system allows parents “the option of sending their child to the school of their choice, whether that school is public or private, including both religious and non-religious schools,” with funding re-allocated from the local school district to pay full or partial tuition.

Sounds fairly harmless, doesn’t it? With the explanation, 66 percent said they liked the idea. But what if the question were phrased differently? Or if a few follow-up questions were asked. Should you pay taxes to help wealthy parents send their kids to $30,000-a-year private schools? Should schools that get tax dollars be able to teach religious beliefs? Any religious beliefs?

The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public’s attitudes toward education used to ask about support for vouchers, but it apparently suspended the question in 2009 and 2010. In the 2008 nationwide poll, it asked respondents if they “favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.” Forty-four percent favored the idea; 50 percent opposed.

The Foundation for Educational Choice has conducted surveys since 2005 in states where it has campaigned for voucher programs. The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado reviewed 10 of its state surveys and concluded the results were “suspect” because of low response rates and the public’s lack of familiarity with the voucher issue. “These problems were exacerbated by potentially biased wording of questions, which may have resulted in more responses favorable to vouchers,” authors Anthony Gary Dworkin and Jon Lorence wrote.

The foundation’s campaign is, of course, timed to build support for a proposal by Gov. Mitch Daniels to enact a voucher program in Indiana. Daniels wants to limit vouchers to low-income parents, but folks who responded to the foundation survey thought the system should be open to everyone.

We won’t try to fact-check everything on the foundation’s website, but it might want to pay more attention to its media coverage section. It attributes an editorial praising Daniels’ school voucher campaign to the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. The J-G has a liberal editorial policy and would be unlikely to back Daniels on vouchers. In fact, the editorial cited by the foundation is from the conservative eddy page of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.