PAC spending on legislative races could influence next year’s education debates

They’re back. Hoosiers for Economic Growth, the political action committee that took credit for getting Indiana to enact sweeping education changes in 2011, is spending big money to ensure the Republican Party maintains or extends its majorities in the state House and Senate.

HEG spent three quarters of a million dollars in the pre-election period of April to October, according to its campaign finance report. Virtually all the money went to contributions to Republican legislative candidates. It gave exactly zero to Democrats.

Much of the group’s money, in turn, has come from the American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher organization that shares an address with Terre Haute lawyer Jim Bopp, is run by conservative activists in Michigan and gets its money from East Coast hedge-fund managers and the Walton family.

Recall that HEG chairman Fred Klipsch boasted this summer that it and several affiliated groups spent $4.4 million to push through the 2011 education policies, including school vouchers, an expansion of charter schools, and performance-based evaluation and merit pay for teachers.

What kind of education votes in 2013 will HEG want in exchange for its campaign support? Continue reading

Superintendent debates, urban education forum

The Indiana superintendent of public instruction campaign is finally getting some attention, less than two weeks before the election. A debate will take place tonight (Oct. 26) between Republican incumbent Tony Bennett and Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz. It’s in Fort Wayne and runs from 7-8 p.m., sponsored by Northeast Indiana Public Radio and the Andy Downs Center on Indiana Politics at IPFW.

This event has a standard election debate format: two rounds of questions, posed alternately to each candidate, followed by closing statements. There will be no studio audience, but Northeast Indiana Public Radio will broadcast the debate, and folks can listen online. Kyle Stokes of NPR State Impact Indiana will moderate. As of Thursday, he was taking suggestions for questions.

Bennett and Ritz appeared Wednesday night in a forum at Wabash College. They didn’t debate, though. Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully asked questions, first to Bennett, then to Ritz. You can watch on Wabash’s Youtube channel. Continue reading

Indiana superintendent campaign finance: The rich vs. the many

Tony Bennett’s campaign donors are hedge-fund managers, charter-school developers, Big Tobacco and wealthy supporters of “education reform” and the Republican Party. Glenda Ritz’s are teachers and public-education advocates – hundreds of them – and the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Needless to say, fund-raising for the Indiana superintendent of public instruction race isn’t close. Ritz’s supporters give between $25 and $100 each. Bennett’s financial backers aren’t the 47 percent, or even the 99 percent. They give thousands of dollars apiece, sometimes tens of thousands.

Third-quarter campaign finance reports filed last week show Bennett had more than $1 million in his campaign account as of Oct. 1, which explains why we’re seeing him in TV ads, a first for a state superintendent candidate. Ritz had $42,000.

True, the Indiana State Teachers replenished Ritz’s fund with $65,000 this month. The teachers’ union has given Ritz $173,000, most of what she has raised. But that’s less than Bennett got in one check — $200,000 – from Alice Walton, a Wal-Mart heiress and supporter of school-choice and voucher plans.

Bennett’s other third-quarter contributors include: multi-billionaire home-builder Eli Broad ($50,000); Wisconsin businessman and voucher proponent Robert Kern ($50,000); Hoosiers for Economic Growth, whose money comes from New York and Philadelphia hedge-fund managers ($50,800); and Chicago hedge-fund manager Anne Griffin ($25,000).

He also got $10,000 from Red Apple Development, the real estate partner of Charter Schools USA, which Bennett’s Indiana Department of Education selected to take over three under-performing public schools in Indianapolis. He got $1,000 from the Reynolds American PAC – enough tobacco money to cancel out 20 typical Ritz donors. Continue reading

Republican support for early-childhood education lacks specifics

It’s good news that Indiana House Republicans mentioned early-childhood education when they unveiled their 2013 legislative priorities this week – but not such good news that they provided absolutely no details about what they plan to do about it.

In fact, when Speaker Brian Bosma was questioned about how the caucus would pay to promote more access to preschool, he apparently segued into an argument for expanding Indiana’s school voucher program, which is already one of the most generous in the country.

“He recounted a meeting with a group of low-income families who had ‘very tearfully’ explained how they had scraped together funds to pay for private school only to find that blocked them from getting a voucher,” the Indianapolis Star reported. “‘Unless they send their child back to the classroom that failed them in the first place, they have no opportunity to access what other Hoosiers are accessing through our voucher program,’ Bosma said. ‘Perhaps it’s time to take a look at that.’”

So instead of talking seriously about expanding access to high-quality early-childhood education, we’re looking at turning taxpayer funding for private and religious education into an entitlement?

OK, let’s cut the speaker some slack and assume he wants to do … something. Continue reading

Fact-checking the Indiana State of Education speech

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett mostly told the truth in his State of Education address last week, but not always the whole truth. There were no pants-on-fire whoppers – just the fact-bending you expect in an election year.

A few examples, with Bennett’s claims in italics:

(More students) are taking and passing challenging Advanced Placement exams. In fact, Indiana has the second highest two-year AP pass rate gains in the nation. In four years, the number of Indiana students taking advanced classes and exams has increased by almost 50 percent, and their success rate has jumped by 48 percent. This is news worth celebrating.

It is, but according to the College Board’s AP Report to the Nation, Indiana remains in the middle of the pack for most measures of AP test performance. Indiana’s percentage of graduates who took an AP class and scored 3 or higher on the exam is below the national average. Its rate of improvement in passing scores between 2001 and 2011 is right at the national average.

Beginning this school year, all districts will use locally designed teacher evaluations. These new evaluations must consider students’ academic performance and growth, but local schools have full flexibility to determine the other factors to include in the overall evaluation of teacher effectiveness.

It would be accurate to say that “most school districts” will begin using the new evaluations this year. However, some districts, like the Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington, are operating under multi-year teacher contracts that specify how teachers are to be evaluated. Continue reading