Indiana General Assembly to public schools: Drop dead

OK, so it’s not original and it’s not even our idea. But that play on the famous New York Daily News headline from 1975 pretty well sums up what the Indiana House did today.

It was Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, who, in an impassioned debate today on the school voucher bill, recalled the Daily News headline over President Gerald Ford’s threat to veto a financial bailout of New York City: “Ford to City: Drop dead.”

“This says, ‘Indiana General Assembly to public schools: Drop dead,” Delaney said.

The House had already given final approval today to House Bill 1002, which greatly expands the number of entities that can sponsor charter schools. Then it approved House Bill 1003, creating the most extensive private-school voucher program in the country.

The votes were 61-34 for the charter-schools bill and 56-43 for the voucher bill. You have to wonder what was said behind closed doors in a House GOP caucus to persuade sensible, moderate Republicans – and there are a few – to vote for the voucher bill. (Four Republicans did vote no).

You can watch the April 27 floor debate on the House video archives.

HB 1002 expands sponsorship of charter schools to private colleges and universities and a state charter board, while adding some accountability measures. It also provides mechanisms for charter schools to take over unused or under-used facilities that were built for students of traditional public schools.

On the plus side, it may create more choices for some parents. It won support from one House Democrat, the thoughtful Mary Ann Sullivan of Indianapolis. But with the doors opening for many more charter schools, someone will have to keep an eye out for operators looking to make a fast buck. Is the Department of Education up to the task?

HB 1003, the voucher bill, on the other hand, is pure politics Continue reading


We’re down to crunch time for voucher and charter-school bills

The Indiana voucher and charter school bills could get final approval from the state legislature as early as today.

The bills had been expected to go to conference committees to work out differences between the versions passed by the House and Senate. But the House authors decided to concur with changes made by the Senate. The House could vote on the concurrences in a session that starts today at 10 a.m.

Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education says this is an encouraging sign for voucher opponents. “It suggests that the sponsors of the voucher bill were not sure they could get a revised bill back through the Senate,” he writes. “We must focus now on the House.”

The Senate vote for the voucher bill was 28-22, in a body that Republicans control 37-13. And some of the support was pretty soft. As Smith wrote last week, several GOP senators said they were against the bill but may have been strong-armed or seduced into voting for it.

Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, voted yes after the Senate approved his amendment to impose patriotic practices and curriculum on private schools that accept voucher students. He had worried that vouchers could go to Muslim madrassas or religious schools that teach hatred.

But the Senate also rejected some provisions that helped get the voucher bill passed by a 56-42 vote in the House: e.g., a requirement that voucher schools comply with ADA, fire safety and health regulations and follow state law on teacher evaluations. Will House members care?

And in a bizarre bit of legislative schizophrenia, the Senate version of the bill – the one that’s about to become law – includes both a new list of heavy-handed regulations for voucher schools and a broad statement that the state “may not in any way regulate the educational program” of the schools.

In other words, whatever it takes to get a majority to vote yes.

Performance pay for teachers is here: Some reflections

The Indiana General Assembly, to no one’s surprise, passed Senate Bill 1 Monday and sent it to the governor to sign into law. The legislation upends how teachers are compensated in Indiana, replacing a system based on experience and education with one based on measures of effectiveness.

The old system has been in place for decades. And while it served important purposes – reducing discrimination, providing job security, creating a career path in which a person could count on making a decent living in a relatively low-paying profession – it couldn’t hold up to the new political reality.

So now Indiana will have a system in which teachers undergo yearly evaluations, which must be “significantly informed” by student test scores and test-score improvement, and are placed in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, needs improvement and ineffective.

Give some credit to state lawmakers for amending the SB 1 to make clear that teachers won’t face salary cuts from the change; early versions of the bill weren’t clear about that. Also, the Department of Education seems to be doing the right thing by asking school corporations to try out new teacher assessment systems in 2011-12 before they’re implemented statewide in 2012-13.

Here are a few concerns:

– SB 1 says “objective measures of student achievement and growth” will “significantly inform” teacher evaluations, and ISTEP exams will be used to rate teachers whose effectiveness can be measured that way: i.e., classroom teachers in grades 3-6, middle-school English and math teachers, Continue reading

Public schools, private schools and tin-eared reformers

Michael Winerip of the New York Times created quite a stir recently with a column in which he pointed out that many prominent advocates of public-school reform are graduates of private schools. Actually, the most revealing thing wasn’t the column but the way Winerip’s critics responded.

Andrew Rotherham at Eduwonk called it “a pointless exercise in rhetoric and divisiveness that’s beneath the New York Times.” Kris Amundson listed Education Sector people who consider themselves reformers and who went to public schools. (But then, aside from obsessive policy wonks, who’s heard of Education Sector?).

Democrats for Education Reform founder Whitney Tilson mocked the column as exposing the fact that “a handful of people associated with efforts to reform our K-12 public education system went to – I hope you’re sitting down – PRIVATE high schools! Oh, what a high crime! How indefensible!”

Quite a reaction. And all Winerip did was take note that many of the most influential figures in the reform movement – including Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Jeb Bush, Barack Obama and Davis Guggenheim — went to private schools.

He undercut his credibility by getting the name wrong for the organization that Rhee founded. But the column was still informative, if only for pointing out that, while Bill Gates argues that public schools should increase class size, his alma mater boasts on its website that the school “promotes relationships between teachers and students through small class sizes.”

Regarding the reformers’ reactions, blogger Alexander Russo tells it like it is:

“ … the fact that reformers don’t like having the private school issue raised and respond to it so angrily suggests (a) some sensitivity, (b)a bit of a tin ear on issues of class, and (c) a corrosive sense of entitlement when it comes to media coverage and commentary. Even the most occasional criticism or skepticism is cause for an attack. It’s an alienating, and amateurish response given how credulous and complimentary the media (including the New York Times) have generally been towards reform efforts.”

Mattos to give public talk in Bloomington on PLCs

Let’s take a break from depressing posts about the Indiana legislature and focus for a minute on reform efforts driven by schools.

Anyone who’s been to a Monroe County Community School Corp. board meeting in the past year or so has heard the buzz about Professional Learning Communities, the collaboration model that MCCSC leaders have embraced. But what exactly are Professional Learning Communities? How do they work? Will they make a difference or are they just another fad?

Here’s a chance to learn more. Mike Mattos, a PLC expert, author and former high-school principal, will give a public presentation on Professional Learning Communities Thursday (April 28) from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Bloomington High School South auditorium. (See: Mike Mattos April28 flyer-April 28 2011 ).

Mattos, who is affiliated with Solution Tree, the Bloomington education publishing and professional-development company, spoke to MCCSC teachers and staff last fall. He gives a lively and inspirational presentation.

‘Community school’ model implemented in Evansville

An article this week in Education Week focuses on the “community school” model of reform as practiced in Evansville, Ind., specifically in the K-8 Lincoln School.

The school “relies on ties between its district … and churches, social service agencies, nonprofit community groups, and other local organizations that have built a web of support to nurture schoolchildren across the entire district from ‘diaper to diploma,’” Mary Ann Zehr writes.

A $2.5 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Full-Service Community Schools Program is making the program possible for the 23,000-student Evansville Vanderburgh school district.

Education Week says Evansville Vanderburgh has made significant academic gains since implementing the program. But data on the state Department of Education website suggest the jury is still out on whether the approach is turning around low-performing schools.

Still, if the Evansville community is pitching in to meet the social and physical needs of kids at Lincoln School — where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches — that’s unquestionably a good thing.

Late legislative surprises: Outsourcing custodians, tax breaks for home schoolers

Nearly a year ago, the Monroe County Community School Corp. made and then dropped plans to outsource custodial services. School officials thought – mistakenly, it turned out – they could pay for contracted cleaning services from the capital projects fund, thus leaving more of the general fund to spend on instruction.

If they had waited a year, they may have gotten away with it. A little-noticed amendment to Senate Bill 575 lets Indiana school corporations pay for custodial services from their capital projects funds – but only if they are outsourced to a private company.

Why? Who knows. School boards and administrators are always looking for more flexibility in how they spend school funds. But why provide the flexibility only if custodial services are outsourced? Why not let schools use their capital projects funds to pay the custodians that they employ?

Maybe the goal is to provide an incentive for outsourcing. It could provide a windfall for companies that stand to win contracts for custodial services – such as Sodexo, which will be paid $7 million over three years by Fort Wayne Community Schools. Or maybe it’s just a reflexive Republican slap at the public employee unions that, in some communities, represent school custodians and service workers.

SB 575, the primary purpose of which is to limit collective bargaining for teachers, has been approved by the Senate and House and is headed to Gov. Mitch Daniels to be signed into law.

Tax deduction for home-school families breaks new ground

Another late legislative surprise is a provision, approved this week by the Senate, to grant a state income-tax deduction of up to $1,000 for parents who home-school their children.

As Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education reports, the deduction was added as an amendment to House Bill 1003, the school voucher bill. The deduction, which also applies to private-school expenses, will cost the state $3 million. The maximum tax break would be about $44.

“This is a small savings for home school and private school parents,” Smith writes, “but it is a ‘foot in the door’ to bigger deductions after the precedent is set.”

Once again, there has been little to no discussion about whether this is good public policy — or good fiscal policy at a time when the state is pinching pennies.

Full-day kindergarten funding: Good news, not nirvana

No question, let’s give credit to Gov. Mitch Daniels and Republican legislators for proposing to use some of a projected bump in state revenue to increase education funding and expand access to full-day kindergarten.

But let’s stop short of canonizing the governor just yet. Remember that:

— The proposed increase in full-day kindergarten funding – from $58.5 million a year to $81.9 million a year — doesn’t mean the state will cover the entire cost of the program. In some districts, parents will still pay fees.

— The governor and Republican leaders propose increasing total K-12 spending by $150 million over two years. But that’s less than one-fourth of the more than $300 million per year that the governor cut from education spending in December 2009.

— Indiana school corporations will lose tens of millions of dollars as a result of legislation to expand charter schools and implement private-school vouchers. Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Ellettsville, told the New York Times that that the voucher bill alone will cost public schools $92 million.

— Changes being made in the school funding formula mean that growing school districts will see modest increases in state funding, but schools that are losing students may see additional cuts.

Daniels made full-day kindergarten a priority back in 2006, but budget problems kept him from following through. Now, he says, the current proposal will “complete the extension of full day kindergarten (FDK) to every school district in the state.” State Superintendent Tony Bennett says the money will expand FDK to the 25 percent of kindergartners who now don’t have access to it.

But if the task is being completed, that suggests Daniels never intended to fully fund the program.

This year, the state provides $1,030 per student to support full-day kindergarten. Next year that will increase to $1,050 per student, according to an analysis by the Indiana Association of School Business Officials of the proposed Senate budget – which includes the increased full-day kindergarten funding.

That doesn’t come close to covering the difference in cost between half-day and full-day kindergarten – which is why the Monroe County Community School Corp., for example, charges a $1,300 fee for full-day kindergarten to parents who are not low-income.

Finally, even with broadened access to full-day kindergarten, Indiana will remain one of eight states that don’t provide funding for public pre-kindergarten programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Diane Ravitch speaking at Indiana University

Mark your calendar for Tuesday, April 26, if you’re going to be in or near Bloomington, Ind. That’s the day that Diane Ravitch will give a public lecture at Indiana University, titled “Will Today’s Education Reforms Improve Our Public Schools?”

The timing could hardly be better. The Indiana General Assembly will be wrapping up its 2011 session, which is fairly certain to include approval of the laundry list of “today’s education reforms”: charter schools, vouchers, performance-based pay for teachers, and weakening teachers’ unions.

Ravitch is probably the nation’s foremost critic of those approaches. And what makes her story interesting is that she spent much of her policy career advocating conservative and Republican positions on public education. Has Ravitch changed, or have the reformers? Probably some of both.

A historian of education and a professor at New York University, Ravitch was assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration and supported the No Child Left Behind Act. But she turned against testing-based accountability and, especially, the market-based reforms advocated by what she calls the “Billionaire Boys’ Club” of the Gates, Walton and Broad foundations.

Ravitch’s essential book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is part memoir and part policy analysis but primarily a history of the education policy debates of the past 30-odd years. It is decidedly not a polemic – which may come as a surprise to fans who follow Ravitch on Twitter, where she polemicizes with the best of them.

She advocates high standards and a rich curriculum in the book, but cautions, “If there is one thing all educators know, and that many studies have confirmed for decades, it is that there is no single answer to educational improvement. There is no silver bullet, no magic feather, no panacea that will miraculously improve student achievement.”

For a taste of Ravitch’s writing, read “The Myth of Charter Schools,” her devastating review of the film Waiting for “Superman” in the New York Review of Books.

Ravitch’s talk at IU will be at 5 p.m. on April 26 in Whittenberger Auditorium in the Indiana Memorial Union. It’s part of the Branigin Lecture series sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study.

On April 27 at 10 a.m., Ravitch and Deborah Meier, the well-known progessive educator and founder of Central Park Elementary School in New York, will have a public discussion of education issues in IU’s Willkie Auditorium. It’s billed as a live version of their popular “Bridging Differences” blog in Education Week.

Senate Bill 1 amendments are introduced, but we’re still waiting to see them

Apparently it was wishful thinking for School Matters to believe that Indiana legislators would let us all know Monday exactly how they are reshaping Senate Bill 1, which changes teacher evaluations and tenure protections and institutes merit pay.

Amendments were introduced when the House Education Committee considered the bill on Monday. But they haven’t been posted to the legislature’s website; the version of SB 1 that appears on the site hasn’t been updated since Feb. 16.

According to Tosha Salyers, director of educator outreach with the Indiana Department of Education, the amendments may not be posted until the end of this week. But the Indianapolis Star reports the committee is expected to vote on the amended bill today.

The Star’s Scott Elliott does provide an account of Monday’s committee meeting in today’s paper, so it’s not as if we have to be totally in the dark. And Salyers of the DOE offers a summary of what some of the amendments will do. For example, they clarify that teacher salaries won’t be cut, let school corporations count experience and advanced degrees as the basis for 33 percent of a teacher’s raise, and end “last in, first out” criteria for teacher layoffs.

Some of the changes appear to be positive steps made in response to concerns about the version of the bill passed by the Senate. But it would still be helpful to see the actual language of the amendments.

Putting a dollar value on teacher effectiveness

School Matters has cited Stanford researcher Eric Hanushek several times to debunk the claim – made by Gov. Mitch Daniels, state Superintendent Tony Bennett and the Indiana office of Stand for Children – that teachers have 20 times more impact on student learning than any other factor, including poverty.

So it’s only fair to point out that Hanushek advocates the thrust of Senate Bill 1: rewarding good teachers and making bad teachers improve or get out.

In an Education Week article, Hanushek puts the teacher effect in economic terms. “By conservative estimates, the teacher in the top 15 percent of quality can, in one year, add more than $20,000 to a student’s lifetime earnings, my research found,” he writes. “ … For a class of 20 students, we see that this very good teacher is adding some $400,000 in value to the economy each year.”

Skeptics would point to studies that suggest a teacher who is in the top 15 percent of quality this year may be in the middle next year, and a teacher who’s at the bottom this year may do much better next year. Tweak the formula for measuring quality and you get very different results.

Indiana merit-pay bill: Still waiting for details

Forget vouchers and charter schools for the moment. Senate Bill 1, a merit-pay bill that establishes new procedures for evaluating, compensating, hiring and firing teachers, is arguably the most far-reaching education legislation being considered this year by the Indiana General Assembly.

But what exactly will it do? Maybe we’ll have a more complete picture Monday, when the House Education Committee considers the bill and long-promised amendments may be made public.

We know the bill is a big deal because of the effort that’s going into passing it. Stand for Children, an organization based in Oregon, was brought to Indiana to lobby for SB 1. Aiming Higher, which advocates for Gov. Mitch Daniels’ initiatives, is running TV ads supporting it. The ads urge viewers to ““Tell legislators to pass reforms to pay teachers for their excellence and results, not seniority.”

Paying for excellence and results sounds obvious. But it gets messy when you try to define excellence and implement a fair system to measure and encourage it. And recent studies of merit pay in Tennessee and New York have raised questions about whether it will produce better results. The biggest challenge may be scaling up the resources and personnel to implement this system in 2012.

The SB 1 centerpiece is a mandate for annual evaluations that place teachers in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement necessary and ineffective. Teachers in the two lower categories wouldn’t get raises. If rated ineffective or improvement necessary multiple times, they could be fired.

The bill says that “objective measures of student achievement and growth” must “significantly inform the evaluation.” That means results or improvement on ISTEP-Plus tests for teachers who teach subjects that are covered by the exams, and other measures for teachers who don’t. Continue reading