More on the money behind the Indiana school-voucher law

Hoosiers for Economic Growth chairman Fred Klipsch explained recently how his organization and several affiliated groups spent $4.4 million to push through the education policies that Indiana adopted in 2011, including a huge voucher program, expansion of charter schools and anti-union measures.

Klipsch spoke in May at a national policy summit in Jersey City, N.J., hosted by the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, organizations that promote taxpayer funding of private schools.

You can download a PowerPoint of Klipsch’s presentation from the website of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. You can also watch a video of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett receiving the John T. Walton Champion of School Choice Award at the summit.

Hoosiers for Economic Growth spent almost $1.3 million during Indiana’s 2010 election cycle, most of it targeted to producing a Republican majority in the Indiana House. Organizations like School Choice Indiana and Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Aiming Higher also contributed to the effort, according to Klipsch’s presentation.

The goal was to overcome what Klipsch referred to as “the problem” – the Indiana State Teachers Association, which his presentation calls “the most powerful political force at the Statehouse and at the ballot box” and “the biggest spender by far” in Indiana politics.

The ISTA’s political action committee, the Indiana PAC for Education or I-PACE, spent $792,683 in 2010, Continue reading

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Study of absenteeism points to opportunity for helping students

Schools can’t be effective if students don’t show up. That was the conclusion of a study of the impact of chronic absenteeism released this week by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University and the Indiana Partnerships Center.

The idea makes sense: The less often students are in class, the less they will learn. But the correlation between attendance and student achievement that the study found was striking. Students who were chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days, scored much lower on state tests than those with solid attendance records. And students who missed a lot of school were far less likely to graduate from high school.

“Whether a student’s absences are excused or unexcused, whether the student is cutting classes without his parents’ knowledge or going on vacation with his parents, his chronic absence negatively affects his academic performance in profound ways,” Indiana Partnerships Center director Jacqueline Garvey said in a news release.

The study looked at school-level data for a six-year period. It also tracked individual records for two cohorts of Indiana students: kindergartners and sixth-graders in 2003-04. Findings included:

— By third grade, attendance was associated with big gaps in ISTEP-Plus test scores. Students with exemplary attendance had average scores of 437 in math and 447 in English; students who were chronically absent scored 390 in math and 409 in English.
— Average eighth-grade scores for students with exemplary attendance were 571 in math and 548 in English; for chronically absent students, 507 in math and 513 in English.
— In an even more striking finding, 88 percent of students with exemplary attendance graduated from high school on time, while just 24 percent of chronically absent students Continue reading

Choice vs. standards at the Indianapolis Project School

The flap over Mayor Greg Ballard’s decision to shut down the Indianapolis Project School raises a fundamental question about how schools are held accountable.

Should we set high standards, pressure schools to meet them and impose consequences when they don’t? Or should we focus on creating more options, trust parents to know what’s best for their children and let the market decide which schools stay open and which schools close.

Adam Baker, spokesman for Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett made the case recently for the market. If a school doesn’t perform, students will leave, he told the Indianapolis Star’s Kate Jacobson for a story about Indiana’s laissez-faire approach to online charter schools.

“If they start losing students, they start losing funding,” he said. “ … Ultimately, (we will) provide that transparency to allow parents to make that decision.”

But as the Star’s Scott Elliott blogged, the idea that the market will force schools to perform better hasn’t always worked. “The problem is schools are not like stocks or commodities,” Elliott wrote. “’Buying’ a school is a complex and emotional decision … Choosing a school also means joining a community of people who become your friends and your children’s friends. Deciding to leave is more akin to breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend than it is to selling a stock.”

Elliott was responding to Baker’s statement in the story about virtual charter schools, but the sentiment was probably even more applicable to the Indianapolis Project School, a real charter school.

Ballard announced Tuesday that he will revoke the school’s charter. He pointed out that only 29 percent of the school’s students passed both the math and English ISTEP-Plus exams last year. Perhaps more troubling, just 43.5 percent of third-graders passed IREAD-3, the new third-grade promotion test.

It may be that the “recently discovered serious financial problems” referenced by the mayor were a bigger factor in the decision to revoke. Note too that David Harris, CEO of the Mind Trust and a key player in the state’s charter-school movement, recently named the Indianapolis Project Schools as one of four Indiana charter schools that should close because they weren’t measuring up. Parent participation in the movement to opt out of standardized testing may not have helped politically.

Supporters have rallied around the Indianapolis Project School, insisting that test scores paint an inaccurate picture and students are thriving at the school, with its focus on project-based learning and community service. School leaders dispute the allegation that there were financial irregularities.

Parents clearly want to keep sending their children to the school – as Star columnist Dan Carpenter writes, “The entrepreneurial model has produced satisfied customers.” The market would keep it open.

But the public, not the parents, is paying for the school’s operation. And publicly funded education is arguably a public good that benefits us all, not a private good that helps only students. We shouldn’t rely on the market to make sure our education tax dollars are well spent.

Another hedge-fund manager for Bennett

What is the deal with rich hedge-fund managers wanting to dictate how schools should be run for other people’s children? Can someone please explain this?

Today’s example: A campaign donation of $25,000 to Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett from Anne Griffin of Chicago. Who’s she? Anne Dias Griffin is the French-born head of Aragon Global Management, reportedly one of the largest hedge funds run by a woman. Her husband, Kenneth Griffin, is a hedge-fund manager who is said to be the second-richest person in Chicago.

Anne Griffin is also starting a digital media company that will focus on “political, educational and fiscal reform in Illinois and the Midwest,” the Chicago Tribune reports. The Tribune says the Griffins are among the biggest contributors to the Illinois Republican Party and have given more than $1.5 million to Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing PAC established by David and Charles Koch.

New York hedge-fund managers Daniel Loeb and Paul Singer, both big-time supporters of Republican candidates and causes, were previously on board for Bennett, who is running for re-election against Democrat Glenda Ritz.

But it’s not just Republican hedge-funders who buy into the ideology of charter schools, vouchers, merit pay for teachers, etc. Democrats for Education Reform, Ken Libby writes on his DFER Watch blog, is “supported largely by hedge-fund managers Continue reading

What to do with Indiana’s budget surplus – if it’s real

The words “structural surplus” should raise a red flag for anyone who has followed the history of Indiana state government finances. But more on that later.

Let’s assume that Gov. Mitch Daniels knew what he was talking about when he said Indiana is running a structural surplus of more than $500 million – in other words, the budget is structured so that the state takes in at least a half-billion dollars more than it spends per year.

As a result of the state’s having spent less than it took in for several years, Indiana’s budget reserves reached $2.155 billion at the end of the 2011-12 fiscal year, state Auditor Tim Berry said this week.

Under a law approved by Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature and signed by the governor, some of the excess will go to taxpayers in the form of a tax refund of about $100 per individual or $200 per couple, to be handed out next year. But there could be alternatives.

First, Daniels claims that implementing the federal Affordable Care Act could cost the state $50 million to $65 million a year to set up health insurance exchanges and another $200 million a year to expand Medicaid to cover the working poor. Those figures are likely to be worst-case estimates. But even if they’re accurate, implementing the law would take only half the structural surplus.

But this is an education blog, so let’s suggest a couple more options:

// Create a state-funded pre-kindergarten program at least for poor and at-risk children, something that 39 other states have already done. Continue reading

ISTEP lessons

At first glance, the 2012 ISTEP-Plus test results that Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett released Tuesday look depressingly familiar.

At the school district level, there’s the usual correlation between poverty and low test scores. Districts with the highest percentage of students passing the exams tend to be those where poor people don’t live: West Lafayette, Carmel, Zionsville, etc. Districts with the lowest numbers passing the tests are those with most poor students: Gary, East Chicago, IPS and Hammond.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of variation within schools in the ISTEP-Plus passing rates – variation from year to year, from grade to grade, and between English/language arts and math.

Look at the results for Bloomington’s Monroe County Community School Corp., for example. In one school, the percentage of third-graders who passed both the English and math exams is well above the state average; but the percentage of fourth-graders who passed both exams is below average. In another school, significantly more fourth-graders pass the English test than the math test; but fifth-graders do much better in math than in English.

And as the Bloomington Herald-Times (subscription required) reports, several local schools improved their passing rates quite a bit from last year. Clear Creek Elementary School had some of the biggest gains in the state. Fairview Elementary had a double-digit increase in the percentage of students who passed the English/language arts exam.

All this suggests that students’ test scores aren’t immutable and that teachers and schools do have an impact – maybe not as much as family and socio-economic factors, but a significant impact nonetheless.

“Hoosiers from all walks of life should greet this news with a standing ovation,” Bennett said, referring to the improvement in scores. That may be stretching things a bit, but for students and teachers and schools that improved their numbers, yes, it’s something to celebrate.

Why is the ISTA supporting a Republican culture warrior?

Here’s a question with no clear answer: Why has the Indiana State Teachers Association endorsed a conservative Republican with a weak record on education for re-election to the Indiana Senate?

The decision, to back Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, over Democratic challenger Mary Ann Sullivan of Indianapolis, has politics watchers scratching their heads — and in some cases venting their outrage.

Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star calls it “truly a shocker.” IUPUI professor and former Indiana Civil Liberties Union director Sheila Kennedy calls it “inexplicable.” Larry Grau of Indiana Democrats for Education Reform accuses the ISTA of acting out of spite and turning its back on public education. Star columnist Matt Tully insists the endorsement demonstrates “just how morally bankrupt it (the ISTA) is.”

As Elliott and Kennedy point out, it’s not surprising that the ISTA didn’t endorse Sullivan. As a member of the Indiana House, she has taken positions that are anathema to the group. In 2011, she voted for expansion of charter schools, limits on collective bargaining for school employees and test-based evaluation and merit pay for teachers – policies that Gov. Mitch Daniels, Superintendent Tony Bennett and the Republican majority pushed through the legislature. She co-authored the charter-schools bill and co-sponsored the teacher evaluation legislation.

But Waltz also voted for the 2011 education bills that Sullivan supported. And he backed the most questionable of that year’s education measures: taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for private schools. Sullivan voted no on vouchers. So why wouldn’t the ISTA at least sit this contest out? Continue reading