Prospective Indiana ‘turnaround operator’ plays politics in Florida

Just as the Indiana State Board of Education is about to decide whether to turn over under-achieving schools to Charter Schools USA, the Florida-based school operator is under fire in its home state.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Rep. Dwight Bullard, the ranking Democrat on the Florida House Education Committee, is calling for a state investigation regarding a rally that Charter Schools USA helped stage recently in Orlando.

The for-profit company, which manages 25 Florida charter schools, bused 2,000 teachers, administrators and staff from across the state to the charter-schools rally. Speakers included Florida Gov. Rick Scott and former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Bullard objected that the company appeared to be using taxpayer money to promote a political agenda. A spokesperson for Charter Schools USA said the expenses were paid by the company and didn’t come from the publicly funded budgets of charter schools. But she declined to reveal the cost.

Officials with Florida public school districts said there’s no way, given current funding cuts, that they could afford to bus teachers to a political rally. And imagine the outrage from Republicans and self-styled taxpayer advocates if they did. For certain, they wouldn’t be able to hide what they were spending on such an event the way Charter Schools USA could.

Jonathan Hage, the CEO of Charter Schools USA, is an old hand at Republican politics. He was a speechwriter for the first President George Bush, worked for former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, and served (with Rhee) on Gov. Rick Scott’s education transition team.

Three months ago, Charter Schools USA bused students from some of its charter schools to a budget-signing ceremony and political rally for Scott. “Now, other public schools have all kinds of policies about not participating in political activities, so I guess this is another one of the freedoms that have been granted to taxpayer-financed charter schools,” the Sentinel’s Dave Weber wrote on the newspaper’s education blog, Sentinel School Zone.

A Charter Schools USA representative said the governor invited the students, and they attended to learn about the political process. The lesson for the day, though, was about realpolitik – Democrats who tried to attend the rally were removed by sheriff’s deputies.

The news from Florida brings to mind the March 30 “education reform” rally staged in Indianapolis by a coalition of groups advocating charter schools, vouchers, teacher merit pay, etc. – also with Michelle Rhee as a featured speaker. The rally took place at mid-day on a Wednesday, but kids from charter schools and/or private schools were at the Statehouse to provide the visuals while Rhee and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett declared that the reform agenda is all about students.

Again, imagine the outrage if regular public schools gave their kids a day off to rally at the Statehouse for, say, raising state taxes to fund education or protecting collective bargaining for teachers.

Bennett will announce recommended interventions today for seven Indiana schools that have been stuck on academic probation. One option: turning some or all of the schools over to turnaround operators – Charter Schools USA, EdisonLearning or Indianapolis-based EdPower. The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet Monday to decide which interventions to adopt.


Indiana school vouchers: subsidizing extremism

Back in the spring, when Indiana legislators were about to pass school-voucher legislation, Republican Sen. Brent Steele fretted that public money could fund the teaching of Islamist extremism. “What if you get a school that’s taking vouchers and it’s teaching a particular brand of hate or intolerance?” he asked School Matters.

He was right to worry. But he was worrying about the wrong religion.

Nearly all of the more than 250 private schools approved for vouchers by the Indiana Department of Education are Christian schools. A large majority are Catholic schools; but a sizable minority are evangelical or nondenominational Christian schools, some of which use textbooks that infuse Christian fundamentalism with far-right politics and anti-government extremism.

A number of the schools say on their websites that their curriculum is based on materials from the A Beka or Bob Jones publishing companies, which espouse a narrow form of religion that some describe as “Christian supremacist” and take positions well outside the Christian mainstream.

“The texts’ approach to politics can be summarized this way: Democrats are deluded, liberals are villains, and conservatives are heroes,” wrote Valdosta State University professor Frances Paterson, author of Democracy and Intolerance: Christian School Curricula, School Choice, and Public Policy.

It’s no surprise that the books embrace creationism. Science of the Physical Creation in Christian Perspective, an A Beka science textbook for ninth-graders, includes a 30-page chapter rejecting scientific consensus on evolution, with subtitles like “Effects of the Flood,” “Lack of Transitional Forms: Evidence against Evolution” and “The Evolution of Man: A Mistaken Belief.”

But the same book goes beyond the Bible to reject the idea that chlorofluorocarbons damaged the Earth’s ozone layer and to dismiss evidence that human activity could have a serious impact on climate. “All of the scientific evidence gathered indicates that there is no danger of a global warming disaster,” it says.

A Beka science books demonize environmentalists. The publisher’s history textbooks do the same for anyone to the left of the current Republican Party. Taxes, regulation and government are always portrayed negatively. “We present free-enterprise economics without apology and point out the dangers of Communism, socialism, and liberalism to the well-being of people across the globe,” A Beka says on its website.

Here are a just few examples from the teacher guide to an A Beka 11th-grade history text, United States History in Christian Perspective: Heritage of Freedom:

FDR and the New Deal: “New Deal socialism is but a halfway house to Communism; what Communists seek by violent revolution, socialists seek by legislation, regulation, and taxation … The effects of the New Deal can be seen today in the Social Security system, Medicare, various welfare programs, and the numerous federal regulatory agencies in operation today. Many Americans depend on the government for their daily needs and all suffer from excessive government regulation in one way or another.”

Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s crusade against Communists: “Senator McCarthy’s aggressive manner and his physical appearance – he did not photograph well and often appeared to be scowling – did not play well in front of the television cameras … In addition, the print media and radio roundly castigated McCarthy. The combined effect of this propaganda turned many people against the senator.”

LBJ and the Great Society: “Higher taxes drained money from individuals and business to fund programs that destroyed the work ethic among the poor while eroding the self-sufficiency of the American family.”

Environmentalism: “In 1970, the Environmental Protection Act called for large-scale government interference in the use of private lands and other properties. Often using unscientific studies and citing false statistics, radical environmentalists created a climate of crisis which drove up the cost of business, thwarted exploration for new resources, and encouraged abortion as a means of population control.”

Short-answer questions: “The policies under President Reagan that economically benefited all Americans – lower taxes and less government regulation” … “Two instances in which federal law enforcement officials abused their power in the 1990s – Ruby Ridge and Waco.”

For more examples, including some from Bob Jones textbooks, see Rachel Tabachnick’s May 2011 post on the progressive website AlterNet. She writes, “The textbooks exhibit hostility toward other religions, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and traditional African and Native American religions, and other Christians are also targeted, including non-evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics.”

Frances Paterson, whose 2003 book was published by Bloomington-based Phi Delta Kappa, told School Matters by email that the disparaging of other people on the basis of religion is one of the most disturbing aspects of the Christian textbooks.

“Moreover, asking taxpayers to support the dissemination of negative and/or contemptuous views of their (that is, the taxpayers’) religion is, in my opinion, reprehensible,” she said. “Conservative Christians are and would be outraged if they were asked to contribute to use of such materials in public school.”

The First Amendment gives extremists the right to advocate for their beliefs and to establish schools to teach their children whatever they like. But taxpayer support is another matter.

Lawsuit challenging Indiana voucher program to proceed despite setback

Good for the Indiana State Teachers Association and the plaintiffs in Meredith v. Daniels for deciding to continue their legal challenge to the Indiana private-school voucher program.

The ISTA announced Friday that it would go forward with the lawsuit despite Marion Superior Court Judge Michael D. Keele’s denial of an injunction that would have blocked the program from taking effect.

“This week’s ruling was only the very beginning of the litigation in this case,” said ISTA vice president Teresa Meredith, a Shelbyville teacher. “It’s important to Indiana and its public schools that we continue to pursue this challenge, and we will pursue it before the trial court and higher levels of the court system.”

The plaintiffs, who include teachers, parents, and clergymen, may or may not prevail. But at least we will find out whether Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution means what it says: that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

Keele, in a thorough and clearly written decision, denied the request for an injunction because, he said, the plaintiffs didn’t provide evidence that they were likely to prevail on the merits of the case. He said the voucher program doesn’t provide money directly for religious institutions – parochial schools – because the vouchers go to parents, who decide where to spend the money for tuition.

But as the ISTA points out, the claim that vouchers give parents a choice about their children’s education is bogus when 97 percent of schools participating in the voucher program are religious schools.

As Scott Elliott reported in the Indianapolis Star, all 45 Marion County private schools that signed up for vouchers are religious schools; about three-fourths are Catholic schools. That’s pretty much the pattern across the state – except that Gary, one of the state’s largest cities and home to some of its lowest-performing public schools, has only two voucher schools: a Christian academy and a Seventh-Day Adventist elementary school.

Of the more than 250 schools statewide that will accept vouchers, maybe a half-dozen are not religious institutions. And some of those charge tuition that is far beyond what a low-income family can pay, even with the help of a $4,500 state voucher.

In Indianapolis the choices are St. Barnabas, St. Christopher, St. Pius X, St. Philip Neri, etc. … To paraphrase a well-known conservative, that’s not a choice, it’s an echo.

Catholic schools dominate Indiana’s voucher program

At least by the numbers, the Indiana school voucher law is looking a lot like a government bailout for Catholic education. A quick look at the list of nearly 250 schools approved by the Indiana Department of Education to receive vouchers shows a break-down that looks something like this:

— 177 Catholic schools
— 17 Lutheran schools
— 44 other Christian schools
— 2 Muslim schools
— 5 nonreligious schools

This isn’t surprising. The Indiana Catholic Conference lobbied hard for the voucher law and celebrated when it passed. The conference and Catholic schools have been hustling to sign students up for vouchers.

Across the country, Catholic schools have struggled to attract students for several decades, and maybe taxpayer-funded tuition could help slow, if not reverse, the trend. As Time magazine reported, Catholic education peaked in the 1960s, when more than 5 million students attended almost 13,500 Catholic schools. Since then, both enrollment and the number of schools have declined by more than half.

It’s likely that the recent growth of charter schools has further hurt Catholic schools, which historically were seen as academically superior alternatives to public schools, especially in urban areas. Why pay tuition to escape the neighborhood public school when charter schools are free?

In Indiana, the legislature’s approval this year of House Enrolled Act 1002 will significantly expand the number of charter schools, which could reduce Catholic-school enrollment even more. The voucher bill could soften the blow.

So it’s understandable that Indiana Catholics might think vouchers are a good idea. By supporting the voucher law, however, they aligned themselves with religious fundamentalists whose Christian schools offer a curriculum that demeans other religions – including, by some accounts, Catholicism.

More on that soon.

Education reform idolatry

If this education thing doesn’t work out for Tony Bennett, the Indiana superintendent of public instruction may have a future in reality TV.

Check out his performance at the recent Education Reform Idol competition hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – where Indiana walked away with the title of the “reformiest” state in the nation.

Bennett’s fellow contestants, the chief state education officers of Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin, appear slightly uncomfortable to be taking part in a sort of questionable inside joke about changes that, for better or worse, will affect the lives of millions of students and teachers.

The “celebrity judges,” Jeanne Allen, Bruno Manno, and Richard Lee Colvin, seem never to have heard of American Idol’s Simon Cowell, never mind trying to imitate him. Despite prompting by emcee Michael Petrilli, most of the folks on the stage act like they’re at an education policy symposium.

Not so Bennett. He goes for the gusto, talking trash about his opponents, repeating his mantra of “competition, freedom and accountability” and drawing political lines in the sand.

He sets the tone by claiming he’s like Larry Bird at the first NBA 3-point contest: “I’m just here to see who’s going to finish second.” He scoffs at the notion that Illinois could be reformy: “Illinois is the state where Indiana legislators ran away to get away from education reform legislation,” he says, referring to the Indiana House Democrats’ walkout this session. He says reform in Indiana took off after we – that is, Republicans – seized control of state government.

Tossed a friendly question about helping teachers improve, Bennett takes it as an opportunity to zing education schools. He says Indiana lets teachers earn license-renewal credits through professional development “so no longer are teachers held hostage by the cash cows of higher education.”

“If you want to talk about flashy legislation, and implementing flashy legislation in a streamlined fashion, come to Indiana,” Bennett says.

If the judges won’t be Simon Cowell, leave it to Bennett.

Ohio experience raises concerns about Indiana ‘turnaround school operator’

Another warning has been sounded about the Indiana Department of Education’s proposal to hand management of “failing” schools over to for-profit EdisonLearning – and from an unexpected source.

Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio programs and policy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, writes on Flypaper, the organization’s blog, that Edison hasn’t delivered on improving results at two charter schools that it manages in Dayton.

The Fordham Institute, of course, isn’t some anti-charter, anti-reform organization. It is a longtime supporter of school choice, charter schools, education entrepreneurship and high-stakes accountability. In fact it authorizes charter schools in Ohio, including the Edison schools in Dayton.

“Fordham president Chester E. Finn Jr. helped launch Edison in the early 1990s, and Fordham has served as authorizer of the two Dayton schools operated by Edison since 2005,” Ryan writes. “These two schools have been in operation for nearly a decade, and despite declining enrollment that resembles a ski slope … have received more than $93.5 million in public funding. Yet after all that time and money, one school’s academic performance is middling at best; the other has struggled mightily to deliver students to even basic levels of achievement.”

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett announced last month that the Department of Education had selected Edison, Charter Schools USA, and EdPower as “turnaround operators” to potentially take over seven Indiana schools that have been stuck on academic probation. The department claims the three were selected through a rigorous Request for Proposals process.

You would think a rigorous selection process would include checking out Edison’s record in neighboring Ohio. Or maybe not.

“The only Hoosier who I spoke to about our experience with Edison was Scott Elliott at the Indianapolis Star,” Ryan said in response to an email query.

Ryan said he doesn’t know how Edison’s “weak to mediocre” performance with Dayton charter schools will translate to turnaround efforts in Indiana. “But I’d strongly urge Indiana officials to keep serious pressure on Edison to deliver everything they promise,” he told School Matters. “I’d also urge outside groups to pay close attention to whether or not Edison — and any other groups brought in to turn around schools — actually deliver.”

The State Board of Education is expected to decide Aug. 29-30 which of the schools will be taken over, and by which turnaround operator.

What if you shout SOS and nobody hears?

The timing of last weekend’s Save Our Schools march in Washington, D.C., turned out to be awful. The summer heat was brutal. And the media’s attention was focused almost exclusively on the debt ceiling circus.

Only a few thousand marchers turned out, and news coverage was spotty, with a speech by actor Matt Damon getting most of the attention. The Washington Post covered the event and so did Education Week, of course. The Salt Lake Tribune and Baltimore Sun wrote about local teachers who participated. The New York Times apparently let it pass without notice.

There was quite a bit of after-the-fact analysis, however. Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post devoted several supportive columns to the march. Dana Goldstein, in The Nation, contrasted Damon’s speech with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent address to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. (Near the bottom she links to her extraordinary American Prospect article from April about a Colorado school district that’s using tests to evaluate even gym and art teachers. Read this for a scary look at the future of education reform).

Some SOS supporters were tweeting insults at Kevin Carey’s analysis on the Education Sector website. The heat may have made him a little crankier than usual, but Carey makes good points. March participants risk putting themselves on the margins when they demonize Arne Duncan and Bill Gates and ignore public support for testing and charter schools.

But the U.S. Department of Education appeared equally clueless when it posted a response to the march from a teacher who’s working temporarily at the department. The post reads like a big, sloppy kiss for Duncan – producing a flood of online comments from infuriated teachers and SOS supporters.

So what happens next? According to Education Week, the SOS organizers plan to keep the movement going, and that’s a good thing. This was, after all, a true grass-roots event with a clear set of guiding principles. It was put together on the fly by relatively unknown teachers, activists and bloggers who are passionate supporters of public schools and teachers. Their voices should be heard – somehow.

Turned around? Or still turning?

Last month, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett celebrated gains made by Indiana schools on ISTEP-Plus exams. He singled out for praise Indianapolis’ H.L. Harshman Middle School, where the percentage of students passing state tests in both English and math increased by a remarkable 27.2 points over the previous year.

This week Bennett announced that Indiana was awarding $8.5 million in federal School Improvement Grants to five low-performing schools. “Schools most in need of dramatic improvement were given this opportunity to commit to transformational change for the benefit of their students,” he said.

One of the schools getting a $1.9 million grant to bring about transformational change: H.L. Harshman Middle School.

OK, wait a minute. The number of Harshman students who passed ISTEP in both math and English improved from 33 percent to 60.2 percent between 2010 and 2011. The school has one of the best passing rates in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. Hasn’t it turned around already?

What about the all schools where fewer than half the students passed state math and English tests? About two-thirds of IPS schools are in that category. Wouldn’t these grants be better spent on them?

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron said a School Improvement Grant was awarded to Harshman to ensure it continues on a positive trajectory. He pointed out that the school was on academic probation with the state for four years. A conversion to a magnet school, where parents choose to send their children, helped with the turnaround, IPS officials have said.

“We have always said school turnaround is a multi-year process,” Damron said by email. “The school leaders at Harshman have demonstrated a tremendous commitment to improving academic outcomes for their students. We want to give them the necessary support to continue improving year over year.”

Fair enough. It makes sense to support the improvement that Harshman’s students are making. But 18 schools applied for this round of School Improvement Grants, and only five hit the jackpot. Staff at the other schools may be wondering if the money is going where it will do the most good.

Report: No evidence that vouchers help students

A new report from the Center on Education on Policy finds no research support for the idea that students benefit from taxpayer-funded vouchers allowing them to attend private schools.

The report, “Keeping Informed about School Vouchers: A Review of Major Developments and Research,” examines 27 studies of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C. and Florida.

Authors Alexandra Usher and Nancy Kober write that the studies “have generally found no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools with vouchers.”

They cite some evidence, although it’s inconclusive, that voucher students graduate at higher rates than their public-school peers. And not surprisingly, parents of students who receive vouchers tend to be satisfied with their children’s schools.

Another interesting finding: Many of the studies of voucher programs have been sponsored by pro-voucher organizations — in particular the Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice – raising concern about potential bias.

“This is not to say that individuals or groups with a pro-voucher or anti-voucher stance cannot produce objective and rigorous research,” the report says. “It does speak to a need for the authors of voucher studies to take great care to avoid bias and for other researchers to give close scrutiny to their work.”

It would have been nice if this report had been available in April, when the Indiana legislature was debating and then approving the most extensive school voucher program in the nation. But of course it wouldn’t have made any difference. Republican lawmakers, Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett were determined to enact the voucher program, no matter what.

To the extent they bothered with research, they relied for interpretation on the Foundation for Educational Choice, an advocacy group that says virtually all studies find vouchers to be effective. (For a critique of the foundation’s research claims, see this article by Christopher Lubienski of the University of Illinois, part of the Think Twice series of think-tank reviews produced by the National Education Policy Center, no relation to the Center on Education Policy).

Indiana private schools have been rushing to get on the voucher gravy train before school starts this month. But it’s worth remembering that, regardless of the push for vouchers and charter schools, probably 90 percent of Indiana students still attend traditional public schools.

“If we really cared about improving the education of low-income students,” Center on Education Policy president Jack Jennings writes in the Huffington Post, “we would guarantee them high-quality preschool programs, experienced elementary and secondary teachers, high academic standards and fair funding. That is what research tells us will really help those kids and what we ought to commit to doing.”