IPS voters favored Kennedy over Ballard for Indy mayor

Melina Kennedy outpolled Greg Ballard by a hefty margin among Indianapolis Public Schools district voters in the Nov. 8 race for mayor of Indianapolis.

Of course, Kennedy, a Democrat, didn’t win. Ballard, the Republican incumbent, was re-elected and will serve another four-year term. He won despite being beaten soundly among voters within the IPS boundaries, roughly the pre-1970 city limits.

And that highlights one issue with the recent proposal by the Mind Trust to redesign Indianapolis Public Schools. A key factor in the plan is turning governance of the schools over to the mayor of Indianapolis. The mayor would appoint three members of a new IPS school board, while the Democratic and Republican leaders of the city-county council would appoint one member each.

But the mayor and city-county council are elected by voters from throughout Marion County; that’s been the case since city and county government were consolidated via “UniGov” in 1970. IPS is only one of 11 school districts in the county, and its residents are a minority among the voters who choose Indianapolis city-county officials.

It’s a little tricky to figure out exactly what the results of a Ballard-Kennedy contest within IPS would have been. The Marion County clerk’s office does a good job of making precinct-by-precinct results available. But some voting precincts are apparently split between IPS and other school districts Continue reading

The Mind Trust’s plan to redesign IPS

The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that promotes education reform, released an ambitious proposal Sunday for remaking Indianapolis Public Schools. It certainly has people talking.

Here are some initial thoughts:

— A key feature of the plan involves killing off the IPS school board and turning control of the district over to the Indianapolis mayor and city-county council. Whether this is a good or bad idea, it’s certainly undemocratic. As Heather Gillers points out in the Indianapolis Star, it means “telling voters who live in IPS that they are the only ones in the state who will not be allowed to elect their school board.”

More significantly, the city of Indianapolis and IPS cover very different geographical areas –- the mayor of Indy isn’t the mayor of IPS. The mayor and city-county council are elected by voters from throughout Marion County, but IPS is only one of 11 school districts in the county. About three-fourths of public-school students in Marion County attend non-IPS schools.

The argument for mayoral control is that the mayor will be “politically accountable” for the schools. But even if the mayor screws up, IPS residents may not have the votes to punish him at the polls.

— More than 80 percent of IPS students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. No other public school district in Indiana comes close to that level of poverty, except for some districts in Lake County (Gary, East Chicago). The Mind Trust plan barely mentions this fact Continue reading

Indiana’s $320 million mistake is an opportunity

Indiana Democrats were absolutely right to call for an investigation of how the Daniels administration managed to misplace $320 million in tax revenue. As the Indianapolis Star editorialized, without a reliable audit, how do we know that other funding streams are being accounted for properly? Republicans on the State Budget Committee didn’t seem too concerned, though — they rejected the idea on a party-line vote.

But going forward, the situation should be about more than finger-pointing. A report by Tom Lobianco of the Associated Press makes clear that this isn’t just the “bank error in your favor” that Gov. Mitch Daniels joked about. It’s a gift that keeps giving, to the tune of $120 million a year that the state wasn’t expecting.

What should we do with the money? Republicans seem enamored of two options: padding the state’s bank account or triggering automatic tax refunds that kick in if state budget reserves top 10 percent of expenditures – maybe $50 per taxpayer.

Here’s another idea: Let’s at least consider using the money to establish a state-funded pre-kindergarten program, something that 40 other states already have.

Democrats were pushing this idea before the accounting error was revealed. House Democrats, in their “Helping Hoosiers Now” agenda, called for a voucher program to help low-income Hoosiers pay for pre-school. Senate Democrats proposed creating an Office of Child Development and Early Learning and providing preschool grants to middle-income families.

These are modest proposals, but Democrats are minorities in both houses; they can’t do anything without Republican support. Continue reading

ALEC model bill provided the framework for Indiana voucher measure

Take a look at this legislation that describes how a state will provide “choice scholarships” to help pay tuition for students who transfer from public schools to private schools, including religious schools.

Is it the voucher bill that the Indiana legislature passed in 2011? It almost could be – the two are remarkably similar. But in fact it’s model legislation, last revised in 2009 and produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded organization for conservative state legislators.

Why have virtually identical teachers’ union-bashing, education-privatizing measures appeared in state after Republican-controlled state, including Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Louisiana and Pennsylvania? ALEC and its model bills are part of the answer.

Founded in 1973, ALEC has made itself the go-to source for right-wing lawmakers who share its agenda of unfettered capitalism and states’ rights. It’s not surprising that Republicans in Indiana, with the state’s limited legislative support staff, would turn to a well-funded outfit like ALEC for guidance and support.

Indiana State Rep. David Frizzell, R-Indianapolis, was installed two weeks ago as ALEC board chairman. Continue reading

On saving education reform from the reformers (and from abandonment)

“How to Rescue Education Reform,” a guest column in the New York Times written by Rick Hess and Linda Darling-Hammond, should be required reading for anyone who thinks top-down reforms will be the salvation of American schools, and also for those who think schools don’t merit national attention.

Writing from opposite sides of the political spectrum, Hess and Darling-Hammond decry the current gridlock between Republicans who reject any federal role in education and Democrats who think effective policy can be dictated from Washington.

“We sorely need a smarter, more coherent vision of the federal role in K-12 education,” they write. “Yet both parties find themselves hemmed in. Republicans are stuck debating whether, rather than how, the federal government ought to be involved in education, while Democrats are squeezed between superintendents, school boards and teachers’ unions that want money with no strings, and activists with little patience for concerns about federal overreach.”

They argue the federal government should focus on what it can do well:

— Encourage transparency in state-level measurement and reporting of educational effectiveness.
— Ensure students’ constitutional rights, enforce civil rights regulations and make certain that funds for low-income and special-needs students are spent appropriately.
— Support basic research.
— Use competitive grants to leverage innovation. (The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program tried to do this, they write, but it became overly prescriptive and stifled original thinking).

“Since decades of research make it clear that what matters for evaluating employees or turning around schools is how well you do it — rather than whether you do it a certain way — it’s not surprising that well-intentioned demands for ‘bold’ federal action on school improvement have a history of misfiring,” they write. Arguably the same could be said of some “bold” state actions: e.g., Indiana’s prescriptions for how schools are to evaluate, retain and compensate teachers.

Indiana’s missing millions

The news that Indiana state government misplaced $300 million over the past five years because of a computer software error would be comical if the effects weren’t so serious. That’s almost exactly the amount of money, after all, that Gov. Mitch Daniels cut from state funding for public schools in 2010.

While state Senate Democratic Leader Vi Simpson called for an investigation, Daniels brushed off the mistake, according to the Indianapolis Star, joking that “Christmas came early” and the state’s finances are in better shape than anyone realized. “Governor: Indiana in stronger fiscal condition” was the headline on the state news release announcing the discovery.

Sorry, Governor, but the state treasury isn’t your private bank account. And your humor may be lost on the teachers and other school employees who lost their jobs as a result of state budget cuts, along with the parents whose children are attending schools with fewer programs and larger classes.

Indiana charter school proposals: local issues and national expansions

Most of the initial proposals for new charter schools being considered this month by the new Indiana Charter School Board fall into one of two categories.

One the one hand, there are groups of Indiana residents who have decided to create a charter school as an end-run around local school board decisions or practices. On the other, ambitious and politically connected school operators are seeking to expand into Indiana.

The state charter school board, established by the legislature this year as part of an effort to expand the number of charter schools in Indiana, will conduct public hearings this week and next week on the proposals for nine new schools.

In the first category are Canaan Community Academy, Central Indiana Academy and Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy. In the second are BASIS Indianapolis, Carpe Diem Collegiate High School, STEAM Academy of Hammond and East and South Indianapolis Charter Academies.

The ninth proposal, for Anderson Excel Academy, designed by Goodwill Industries primarily for students with disabilities, doesn’t seem to fit in either group.

Canaan Community Academy is being organized by teachers and parents in a small town in southeastern Indiana where the local elementary school was closed by the Madison Consolidated Schools board. Continue reading

Indiana Democrats look to score points on education

Kudos to Indiana House Democrats for making education a big part of their agenda for 2012. Not that their proposals are likely to pass – Democrats are a minority in the House and even more so in the Senate. And their ideas cost money, which the Republican majority won’t agree to spend.

But sometimes you introduce legislation to make a point, or to generate debate, or to set the stage for progress in future years. And the Democratic proposals make sense on all three of those counts.

While Indiana Republicans boast of enacting the most far-reaching educational reforms in the nation last year, they left important business unfinished. Indiana is one of only 10 states that don’t provide public funding for pre-kindergarten programs. And the state doesn’t fully fund all-day kindergarten, so parents in many school districts must pay tuition for their kids to attend kindergarten for more than half-days.

House Democrats propose providing full state funding for full-day kindergarten and creating a voucher program to help low-income parents send their children to preschool.

The centerpiece of the Dems’ education platform is a proposal to cap class sizes at levels as low as 18 for kindergarten and 22 for upper elementary grades. Small classes are popular with parents and teachers, but this absolutely will not happen – it is way too expensive. Florida voters adopted similar class-size caps with a constitutional amendment in 2002, but the state has struggled to pay for the initiative.

Class size does matter, at least at the levels of reductions that Indiana Democrats are suggesting. But debate continues on whether small classes are the best use of educational dollars.

Indiana among the leaders in free-lunch numbers

A New York Times report on the increasing number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches suggests the recent economic downturn has hit Indiana children particularly hard.

Indiana is one of only four states in the nation where the share of fourth-graders who qualify for subsidized lunches increased by at least 10 percentage points between 2007 and 2011, the report says. (Florida, Nevada and Ohio are the others). And it’s the only state in the Great Lakes region where more than half of all fourth-grade students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Some 51.1 percent of fourth-graders in Indiana qualify for subsidized lunches, according to interactive maps included with the article.