‘Cash for test scores’ scheme would favor the usual suspects

Indiana Sen. Brandt Hershman’s plan to reward school districts for high test scores looks a lot like a scheme to steal from the poor and give to the rich — or, more accurately, to steal a little from almost everyone and give it to the rich.

Hershman, a Republican who represents a rural district near Lafayette, is proposing to give extra money to public school corporations at which more than 85 percent of students pass both the math and English ISTEP-Plus exams. The bonus would be $500 for each student who passes.

That’s arguably “giving to the rich” because, predictably, the school districts that would qualify are districts that serve few poor students. Most are suburban districts; many are located in the “doughnut counties” that surround Indianapolis.

Based on last year’s test scores, 15 school corporations would get the money. At only a couple of them do more than a quarter of students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Statewide, nearly half of all students qualify for lunch subsidies.

It’s estimated the program would cost $17 million a year. The biggest chunk would likely to go Carmel-Clay schools, one of the state’s wealthiest districts, where fewer than 10 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Hershman doesn’t identify a funding source, saying only that, if the economy improves, “there will be some new money available for K through 12,” Continue reading

Just say no to the term ‘education reform’

Years ago, editors and reporters at a mid-sized Indiana newspaper sat around a conference table and talked about what to do about two words that had entered the political lexicon: pro-life and pro-choice.

We decided not to use them, except in direct quotes or if they were part of the names of organizations. Instead we would refer to “abortion opponents” and “supporters of abortion rights,” or something like that – an approach that now aligns with Associated Press style used by most newspapers.

Our rationale was straightforward. Both pro-life and pro-choice were simplistic, inaccurate and designed to demonize the opposition. People who opposed abortion didn’t have a monopoly on supporting “life,” whatever that meant. And people who opposed abortion did so because they believed it ended a life that was precious to God, not because they opposed anyone’s “right to choose.”

Both terms were, at best, misleading. Politicians can mislead. Advocates can mislead. Journalists should just tell the truth.

The issue comes to mind with the current use of the word reform for a menu of approaches to education policy – typically including giving parents more choices through charter schools and/or vouchers; using student test results to evaluate teachers and make decisions about compensating, promoting and firing them; and limiting the power of teachers’ unions and the authority of elected school boards.

The problem is that reform isn’t a neutral word. It doesn’t just mean change; it means change for the better. According to Merriam-Webster, it can mean “a) to put or change into an improved form or condition; b) to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.”

So people who oppose, or are skeptical of, the policies characterized as education reform are by implication the champions of faults and abuses. Or they are “defenders of the (abusive) status quote.” Even if, for example, they rage against the educational status quo, with its segregated schools, savage inequalities and inattention to poverty. Continue reading

A year at an urban middle school: Not much cause for hope

Anyone interested in urban schools and education reform should read Robert King’s account of a year at Emma Donnan Middle School in Indianapolis – not because it provides answers, but because it shows that answers won’t be easy.

Writing in Sunday’s Indianapolis Star, King describes a school where students struggle every day against overwhelming odds, including extreme poverty, neglectful parents, violence, sexual abuse, mental illness and homelessness.

Part of the Indianapolis Public Schools system, Emma Donnan started the school year on an optimistic note: It had a new, energetic principal, Brian Burke, and two-thirds of the teachers were new. Then Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett announced that the school was being taken over by the state and would be run, starting in 2012-13, by Florida-based Charter Schools USA.

The news seemed to throw the school into a tailspin, with Burke possibly looking ahead to opening a new IPS magnet school and teachers worried about their jobs. “Whatever the reason, Emma Donnan went through a rough patch that lasted six months,” King writes.

Let’s hope that CPUSA turns Emma Donnan into a great school. But the Star story makes clear that this kind of “school turnaround,” even if eventually successful, isn’t without its costs. Continue reading

Indiana lawmakers to hear from public on A-to-F grading standards

The Select Commission on Education of the Indiana General Assembly will have another meeting Friday. On the agenda: public testimony on the rules that the State Board of Education adopted earlier this year for grading schools on an A-to-F scale.

Of course, the state board had a public hearing back in January, before it adopted the A-to-F rules. What’s the difference? For one thing, several of the legislators who sit on the Select Committee are likely to actually attend Friday’s meeting.

At the January hearing, the Indy Star’s Scott Elliott reported, only one state board member was present, and state Superintendent Tony Bennett wasn’t there either. Apparently it’s standard procedures for board members to skip rule hearings and rely on staff to tell them what they missed. Even so, when the board is fundamentally remaking the state’s accountability system for schools, you would think members could show up and listen to what the public says.

Pretty much every person and group that weighed in at the January hearing – from the Indiana Urban Schools Association to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, from public school superintendents to charter-school advocates – urged the board to hold off on adopting the grading metrics. Continue reading

Vouchers, takeovers – updates on ‘reform’

School’s out for the summer, but the news marches on concerning what’s euphemistically referred to as education reform.

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story last week about school voucher programs helping reverse enrollment declines at Catholic schools. Reporters Stephanie Banchero and Jennifer Levitz focus, naturally, on Indiana.

In particular, the story centers on St. Stanislaus, the only Catholic school left in East Chicago, Ind., whose enrollment grew by 38 percent last year due to vouchers. “God has been good to us,” says principal Kathleen Lowry, neglecting, apparently, to give thanks to Gov. Mitch Daniels, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, who sprung the voucher program on an unsuspecting public in the 2011 legislative session.

“The most impressive gains for Catholic education have happened in Indiana, where the nation’s largest voucher system rolled out last year,” the WSJ says. “More than 2,400 children used state-issued vouchers to transfer from public to Catholic schools. Another 1,500 used vouchers to move to other religious or private schools.”

One rationale for vouchers is that they offset the damage to Catholic education done by the expansion of charter schools. Some parents send their kids to Catholic schools not for religion, but for an alternative to the local public schools. If that’s all you want, why not opt for a charter school, where taxpayers pay the freight.

A recent analysis by the consulting firm Praxis Insights found that charter schools were a “significant and growing factor” behind the decline in Catholic school enrollment in New York. Continue reading

Are charter schools public schools?

Is a charter school a public school or a private school? Both education historian Diane Ravitch and Rutgers professor Bruce Baker have discussed the question in recent blog posts.

The conventional answer is, of course a charter school is a public school; it just operates under a different set of rules than so-called traditional public schools. But as Ravitch and Baker point out, it’s a little more complicated than that.

“Those who casually (belligerently & ignorantly) toss around the rhetoric that ‘charters are public schools’ need to stop,” Baker argues. “This rhetoric misinforms parents, teachers and taxpayers regarding their rights, assumptions and expectations.”

The argument that charter schools are public schools rests largely on two factors: 1) they are funded primarily by the public through state and/or local taxes, and 2) they are established by public agencies.

In Indiana, the adoption of the nation’s most extensive education voucher program makes factor No. 1 less of a bright line. Private schools get considerable public funding through vouchers awarded to students. Is that so different from the per-pupil funding given to charter schools?

Regarding factor No. 2, it used to be that Indiana charter schools were sponsored only by public entities, answerable either directly or indirectly to the voters: local school boards, state universities and the mayor of Indianapolis.

But the Indiana legislature expanded sponsorship in 2011 to include 30 private colleges and universities Continue reading