Tax credits for private-school scholarship donations: Yes, Indiana has them

The New York Times reported this week on abuses in state programs that provide generous tax breaks for donations that fund scholarships for private K-12 schools.

The article, which focused on Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, said the programs were created to “help needy students escape struggling public schools.” Instead, they’ve turned into a way for religious schools to milk the public treasury, often to benefit families who could afford tuition without help.

“This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization,” the Times says.

The article says eight states have programs that provide tax credits for donations that are funneled to private schools through nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations.” And yes, Indiana is one of them.

Indiana’s tax-credit scholarship program is small and limited to low- or middle-income families. On the other hand, Indiana last year enacted the nation’s most extensive voucher program, in which the state – not private donors – gives money to parents to send their children to private schools.

Some of the Christian schools that receive voucher funding in Indiana provide the same A Beka and Bob Jones curricula as the sectarian schools described by the Times, rejecting evolution, teaching that God created the world in six days and presenting a politically biased picture of American history. Continue reading

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Reporting project raises questions about ‘school turnaround’

Monday’s meeting of the Indiana Select Commission on Education spotlighted the “school turnaround” efforts that the state Department of Education has been applying to low-performing schools.

But a recent article in Education Week raises questions about the approach that Indiana has adopted at the urging of the U.S. Department of Education. Written by Alyson Klein, the article was produced with help from the Hechinger Report and 18 news organizations, including the Indianapolis Star.

Klein writes that there have been mixed results from school turnaround since the Obama Administration “supercharged” the effort with $3 billion in School Improvement Grants targeted to schools that had failed for years to improve test scores. Some schools that have implemented turnaround approaches have seen improvement, while others have gotten worse.

“They mandated these models before they even researched them,” complains Keith Rheault, retired Nevada superintendent of public instruction. “We’re testing it out.”

As a condition for getting SIG money, the feds require schools to adopt one of four models:

// Transformation – replace the principal, implement a research-based instructional program, extend learning time, change governance structure.
// Turnaround – replace the principal, get rid of at least half the school staff, implement research-based instruction, extend learning time, changing governance structure.
// Restart – turn the school over to a charter-school operator or education management organization.
// Closure – close the school and send the students elsewhere. Continue reading

Select Commission on Education meeting today

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and his staff will give a presentation on “turnaround academies” today to the Indiana Select Commission on Education, according to an agenda for the meeting.

The commission, made up of members of the Indiana House and Senate education committees, was created this year by the legislature to review some of the reforms that have been implemented by Bennett and the State Board of Education.

Turnaround academies are schools that, because of a history of poor performance, are taken over by the state and turned over to outside charter-school operators or school-management teams. So far, they include six schools in Indianapolis and one in Gary.

According to the agenda, there will also be time at today’s meeting for public comment on the state’s new A-to-F system for grading schools. Bennett and his team made a presentation on that topic last month and fielded a few questions from legislators, but there was no input from the public.

The meeting starts at 1 p.m. It’s scheduled to be webcast at www.in.gov/legislative/2441.htm.

Indiana third-grade reading results: big splash, bad data

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett made a splash Tuesday with the release of 2012 IREAD-3 test results for the state’s third-graders. But maybe he should have waited a bit longer to leap into the pool.

No sooner had Bennett announced the numbers than his Department of Education sent out a notice that some of the numbers were being corrected. And two days later, there are apparently still inaccuracies in the data the state has made available.

It’s impossible to know how far off the reported data are from the actual test results. It’s probably not a lot, but it’s enough to matter to the affected schools.

“It’s unfortunate the data was not right before the state sent it out,” said Cameron Rains, director of elementary education for the Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington.

IREAD-3 is the new reading test that Indiana third-graders must pass to be promoted to fourth grade. Three categories of students can be promoted if they don’t pass: special-needs students, English language learners and students who have already been retained two or more times.

Third-graders who didn’t pass in March can try again in July. In the MCCSC, those students have been receiving intervention and will be asked to take part in a seven-week summer reading camp, Rains said.

Part of the data problem involved students who attend private schools or are home-schooled but receive special-education services from public schools. Initially, those students were mistakenly coded as attending public schools. Continue reading

State releases IREAD-3 results

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett took a glass-is-84-percent-full approach when he released IREAD-3 test results today. And, yes, it’s a credit to Indiana teachers and students that 84 percent of the state’s third-graders passed the test.

But the fact remains that 12,000 children didn’t pass. And many of them will be retained in third grade, whether their parents and teachers think it’s the right thing to do or not.

Students who didn’t pass will get one more chance. Also, we don’t know how many will qualify for good-cause exemptions from being retained, because they are in special education, are English language learners, or have already been held back twice.

Bennett highlighted one charter school and three traditional public schools where 90 percent or more of third-graders passed IREAD-3 even though the schools have high percentages of poor or ELL students. That’s impressive.

But the fact remains that there’s a strong correlation between poverty and high rates of failure on standardized tests, including IREAD-3. Most of the school districts where more than 25 percent of students didn’t pass the test are those with high percentages of poor and minority students – including East Chicago, Indianapolis, Gary, Elkhart, Michigan City, South Bend and Marion.

National Public Radio’s StateImpact Indiana posted IREAD-3 results in a searchable database, along with a good quick report on the highlights. But one has to question the insistence by state officials that the good-cause exemptions are “broad enough that districts can determine which students truly need retention.” The exemptions are very specific and narrowly tailored – more so than those in Florida, which was Indiana’s model for the third-grade retention rule.

It’s also clear that test-based retention of third-graders isn’t what the Indiana General Assembly wanted when it passed legislation in 2010 calling for a plan to improve reading achievement. Yes, we should celebrate students who did well on IREAD-3 – and schools that pulled out the stops to help their students pass. But legislators, parents and educators should continue to question this policy.

Dick Lugar, school board member

Sen. Dick Lugar got his start in politics as a member of the Indianapolis school board in the 1960s. So it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of language about education on both his Senate and campaign websites.

Or that much of it is eminently reasonable.

Sure, there’s the usual conservative rhetoric about how parents and local school officials know best and we need to eliminate federal red tape and regulation. But most of the Indiana Republican’s positions on education are pragmatic and civic-minded.

He supports “innovative and evidence-based” practices, like making effective use of technology and collaborating with businesses and community organizations. He argues that a “strong K-12 system with high standards, full accountability, and a rigorous curriculum” should be a national priority. He calls for emphasizing math and science education.

He even sponsors awards for schools and educators and touts partnerships with the Indiana State Teachers Association to recognize favorite teachers and distribute books to needy children.

Partly because he has been too moderate for the Republican base, Lugar faces an uphill battle in Tuesday’s primary Continue reading

Senator agrees: Indiana education board overreached with reading retention rule

Sen. Luke Kenley has affirmed that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and the Indiana State Board of Education went beyond the bounds of state law when they adopted a rule that requires third-graders to pass a reading test or face grade-level retention.

“I would just put the Department of Education and the State Board on notice that they’re clearly not in line with the words in the statute so they’re opening themselves up perhaps to a lawsuit or a complaint by somebody on those grounds,” the Noblesville Republican tells NPR’s StateImpact Indiana.

Kenley’s words echo what Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, told School Matters last month: that Bennett and the state board “essentially usurped” what lawmakers put in the 2010 legislation that called for ensuring children develop strong reading skills.

Both Kenley and Porter were members of the House-Senate conference committee that agreed to a compromise version of the bill, so if anyone knows what it was supposed to mean, they should. Kenley’s words could arguably carry even more weight because, like Bennett, he is a Republican, a member of the party that controls both the House and Senate.

And not just any Republican. He chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee as well as serving on the Education and Career Development Committee. By virtue of the latter appointment, he’s also part of the Select Commission on Education that the legislature created to review policies adopted by the state board and the Indiana Department of Education. Continue reading