School vouchers and the Indiana Constitution: What would the framers say?

Article 1, Section 6 of the Indiana Constitution says, simply, “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.”

Supporters of Indiana’s school voucher program insist that doesn’t mean the state can’t fund religion. Vouchers are state funds, after all; and most of the schools getting them are religious institutions. Some law professors and school-law experts say the Indiana Supreme Court is likely to declare the voucher program acceptable.

But it seems unlikely that the men who drafted and approved Indiana’s constitution would agree. Here’s their explanation for what they were trying to do, as recorded in the journal of the 1850-51 constitutional convention:

“ … to secure the rights of conscience and prevent the imposition, on the citizen, of any tax to support any ministry Continue reading

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More on Indiana and pre-K; more on Bennett and Florida

A new study from Texas adds weight to the argument that Indiana should find a way to provide state support for pre-kindergarten programs. The study finds that children who attended state-funded preschools scored better on standardized tests and were less likely to be retained in grade.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas, Rutgers-Camden and the Communities Foundation of Texas carried out the study, which was posted as a working paper by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Educational Research, or CALDER.

This is hardly the first research to find benefits from preschool programs. (See Nobel laureate James Heckman’s site for a bunch of information). But the authors note that many previous studies examined small, intensive programs, such as Perry Preschool in Michigan and the Carolina Abcedarian Project. The CALDER study looks instead at the state preschool program for at-risk children that Texas started in the 1980s. It finds that taking part in the program was associated with increased scores on the math and reading sections of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills and with a decreased likelihood of being retained or being identified as needing special education.

This is just one study, but a key point is that Texas’ program is far from a model program. The National Institute for Early Education Research gives it low marks for funding, class size and staffing ratios. Continue reading

Indiana voucher law is in the Supreme Court’s court

Attorney John West ran into a buzz saw of questions and interruptions today when he tried to persuade the Indiana Supreme Court that the state’s school voucher program is unconstitutional.

Sure, the Indiana Constitution prohibits using state money for the “benefit of any religious or theological institution,” and many schools receiving vouchers are religious institutions. But haven’t the courts already decided that state support for churches and church schools can be OK?

If vouchers for students to attend K-12 parochial schools are unconstitutional, the justices asked, what about state scholarships for students who go to church-affiliated colleges like Notre Dame? What about tax breaks for religious donations? Or using public funds to pave the street in front of a church?

The aggressive questioning, although common in constitutional cases, may suggest it’s a long shot for voucher opponents to win in court. You also have to wonder if it’s pertinent that Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed three of the five current justices; and the voucher program was a key part of the education program pushed by Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett. (Justice Mark Massa was Daniels’ general counsel until the year before the voucher law was enacted).

Still, the justices didn’t exactly give a free pass to Solicitor General Thomas Fisher, who defended the voucher law. They quizzed him about the fact that vouchers fund religious instruction and asked if there’s a point at which they undermine public education. Continue reading

Indiana teacher licensing issue a test for compromise

Indiana Superintendent-elect of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz has been reaching out for post-election compromise. A Democrat, she says she looks forward to working with Republicans who control the legislature and the State Board of Education. Now there’s a chance for the other side to reciprocate.

On Dec. 5, the state board may take up Indiana’s Rules for Educator Preparation and Accountability, or REPA II, a major policy changed pushed by Superintendent Tony Bennett, who lost to Ritz on Nov. 6. The board could approve REPA II; or it could hold off and let Ritz make a case for what she wants to do.

The proposed rules would ease requirements for getting a teaching license in Indiana. Under one provision, college graduates could get a license by passing a standardized test, without taking courses in education. Under another, a licensed teacher could become certified to teach in other areas — special education, for example — by passing a test, without specialized training.

State officials say the proposal, which mirrors model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, will give schools flexibility to hire teachers who can be effective even if they haven’t studied education. Opponents say it makes no sense to lower standards for the teaching profession at a time when Indiana and other states are raising expectations for students and schools.

Department of Education spokeswoman Stephanie Sample said the board’s Dec. 5 agenda won’t be posted until a couple of days before the meeting, as is customary. “At this point, we aren’t certain what the discussion and action items will be,” she told School Matters.

Ritz, who takes office in January, spoke against REPA II this summer to the state legislature’s Select Commission on Education, calling it “degrading” to the teaching profession. Gerardo Gonzalez, dean of the Indiana University School of Education, noted in a letter to the Indianapolis Star that nearly everyone who testified at a June 21 public hearing thought REPA II was a bad idea. He called on the board to delay action until Ritz is inaugurated. “Then, under her leadership, it should table REPA II for good,” he wrote.

So many people spoke at the June 21 hearing that it lasted well over two hours, even though witnesses were limited to three minutes each. Opposing REPA II were representatives of teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, school nurses, teacher-education programs and, especially, special-education teachers and parents of special-needs children.

Only one State Board of Education member, Mike Pettibone, was at the hearing. Bennett, who, as superintendent, chairs the board, didn’t take part.

Indiana’s grading curve runs uphill for high-poverty schools

NOTE: This post was written before Glenda Ritz upset Tony Bennett in last week’s election for Indiana superintendent of public instruction. Ritz has been critical of the state’s school-grading system. As superintendent, she can’t change the law that requires the rating of schools or the rule that sets the grading rubric. She argues that she can influence how the system is implemented.

The school grades that the Indiana Department of Education released recently may tell us a little about which schools are effective. But they also reinforce a false and ugly stereotype: “Good” schools enroll students from families that are well off financially; schools that serve poor kids are likely to be “bad.”

This would be obvious to anyone who scanned the results. In Indiana’s wealthiest school districts, most if not all the schools get As. Most of the schools with Fs are clustered in urban districts with high poverty, especially Indianapolis, Gary, Hammond, Evansville and South Bend.

Matt DiCarlo shows what’s going on in this post at Shanker Blog. He breaks down the Indiana data and demonstrates clearly that there’s a high likelihood low-poverty schools will get good grades and high-poverty schools will fare poorly with the grading metrics that Indiana adopted this year.

The problem, DiCarlo explains, is that Indiana’s system relies heavily on absolute performance – the percentage of students who pass ISTEP-Plus exams in math and English. And those percentages are highly correlated with family demographics. Schools can improve their grades a bit if many of their students show “high growth” on the tests from year to year. But with a few striking exceptions, most high-poverty schools are starting in too big a hole to dig out.

The bias, DiCarlo writes, “is a feature of the system, not a bug – Continue reading

Ritz reaches out … Republicans, not yet

Indiana Superintendent-Elect of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz sounded ready to compromise during a brief interview Friday for WFIU public radio’s “Noon Edition” program. The Democrat said she’s not worried about how hard it will be to work with Republicans who control the Statehouse.

“I’m going to work with all legislators,” she said. “That’s what I’ve always done.”

And while Ritz has criticized the education policies that the legislature and State Board of Education have adopted – school vouchers, test-based teacher evaluations, A-to-F grades for schools – she didn’t call for undoing the changes.

“I’m really not looking to repeal all kinds of things … I think it’s all about implementation of what’s in place already,” she said.

But compromise takes two sides. And Indiana Republicans have been dismissive of Ritz’s upset win over incumbent Superintendent Tony Bennett.

Gov.-elect Mike Pence said, “We ran on a platform of continuing a bold agenda of education reform … and we’ve been given the opportunity to lead based on those ideas.”

Outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels vowed that none of the policies he and Bennett supported would be rolled back. Continue reading

Ritz over Bennett: the grass roots prevail

Glenda Ritz’s upset of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett sent shock waves across the country. Bennett, after all, is a national figure in education circles – the head of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, able to bring in big money from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chicago hedge-fund managers and a Wal-Mart heiress. He raised 10 times as much campaign cash as Ritz.

What happened? In a word, teachers. In fact, if you talk to teachers, retired teachers or people who hang out with teachers, you may hear they aren’t the least bit surprised that Bennett lost.

His policies, and the way he advocated for them, angered and threatened Indiana educators. There are more than 68,000 public elementary and second teachers in Indiana. They have brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children, cousins and friends. And they vote. Many parents talk to their children’s teachers and know whether and why they’re unhappy. Quite a few school administrators and school board members didn’t like what they perceived as Bennett’s heavy-handed ways.

“It really did boil down to a grass-roots effort by the teachers, the teachers’ union and the administrators,” said Terry Spradlin, director of education policy with the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Ritz also may have caught a break from the fact that Gov. Mitch Daniels sidelined himself from politics after being named president of Purdue University. He and Bennett worked hand-in-hand on education, and a little strategic campaigning by the governor could have made a difference.

Bennett, a Republican, said this about the election to State Impact Indiana: “I don’t think it’s a message on reform. I believe it was a referendum on Tony Bennett.”

There’s probably some truth to that. Continue reading