Voucher expansion would undermine public education

Mitch Daniels and Tony Bennett sold Indiana’s voucher program with the argument that children shouldn’t be stuck in failing schools because their parents can’t afford anything better – that children have a right to a good education “regardless of background, income or zip code.”

But the changes now being pushed by Gov. Mike Pence and some legislators suggest the program has nothing to do with social justice. They want to award vouchers to students who have never enrolled in public schools – and in some cases, to families that clearly don’t need help paying private school tuition.

Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education isn’t exaggerating when he writes that these proposals are steps toward a universal voucher system, “a goal that would eventually undermine and marginalize the non-partisan, non-sectarian public schools that for over a hundred years have brought people from all walks of life together in our communities and have undergirded our democracy with citizenship education and our economy with college and career readiness.”

The first test is Senate Bill 184, scheduled for a vote today in the Senate Education and Career Development Committee. It would provide vouchers to siblings of previous voucher students, even if they haven’t met the current requirement of first attending public schools.

The Indiana voucher program, billed as the nation’s most extensive when it was adopted in 2011, provides public funding for low and moderate-income families to send their children to private schools, most of which are religious schools. The family income cutoff is 277 percent of the federal poverty level – about $67,000 for a family of four.

Pence, in his State of the State address, said that’s not enough of a handout and the state should go further. Continue reading


Legislative roundup: Pre-K, vouchers, Common Core and more

The 2013 session of the Indiana General Assembly is in full swing. Here’s a look at some education issues, with help from Terry Spradlin, director for education policy of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.


Pressure has been building to address the fact that Indiana is one of only 11 states that don’t fund pre-K programs. Legislative leaders seem to be on board but Gov. Mike Pence has been lukewarm on the issue. He barely mentioned it in his State of the State address – he again cited the Busy Bees preschool in Columbus as a model, even though Bartholomew County voters rejected a property-tax referendum to fund the program, making it unaffordable for many families.

The bill to watch appears to be House Bill 1004, which establishes a pilot program of state-funded vouchers allowing families to send their children to preschools that earn a Level 3 or 4 in the state’s Pathways to Quality voluntary rating system. Lawmakers have suggested funding the pilot with $7 million. If it’s a full-day program, that would serve about 1,000 of the 81,150 Indiana 3- and 4-year-olds in low-income families.

Many of us would prefer state support for public schools to provide free, high-quality preschool for needy children. But given political reality, that’s probably not in the cards.

The state is looking at pre-K after finally implementing full-day kindergarten. Spradlin noted that Gov. Frank O’Bannon and Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed made a big push for FDK in 1999. The first grants were awarded to schools in 2001, but it wasn’t until last year that the program was fully funded.

“Hopefully it will not take 13 years” to fund pre-K, Spradlin said. “The evidence is there – 39 other states are doing it and we know from those states what’s working and what’s not working.”


Indiana has one of the most expansive private-school voucher programs in the country, but Pence and House Republican leaders want to be even more liberal in directing taxpayer dollars to private schools. Continue reading

Pence’s school funding plan: Them that’s got shall get

In Mike Pence’s world, affluence is a virtue, worthy of being rewarded by the state. How else can one explain the governor’s education funding plan, included in the budget proposal he put forward last week?

Initial details were sketchy; maybe Pence will reveal more in his State of the State address tonight. But according to State Impact Indiana and the Indianapolis Star, he wants to increase funding for K-12 schools by only 1 percent each of the next two years – this when the state has more than $2 billion in the bank and he also wants to cut income taxes by 10 percent.

In the second year, the increase would only go to “high-achieving” schools: those that get an A or a B or improve by at least one letter grade in state ratings, and those where at least 90 percent of students graduate or pass the third-grade reading test. If you accept the thesis that funding should be an incentive for improvement, it could make sense to direct money to schools that raise their grades. But rewarding schools that get As and Bs is like giving a handout to those that need it least.

As of now, anyway, Indiana’s school grading metrics are based primarily on test scores and only secondarily on students’ academic growth. And research has consistently shown that family wealth is strongly correlated with test scores. Continue reading

In education, not much to celebrate on MLK Day

On this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it’s good to remember that education was at the center of the many key battles of the 20th century civil rights movement. From Little Rock to New Orleans to the campuses of Southern state universities, the brave struggle of African-American students and parents to secure a decent education inspired the nation a half century ago.

John Lewis, later a hero of the movement and now a Georgia congressman, was a high-school freshman in 1954, when the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.

“I remember the feeling of jubilation I had reading the newspaper story – all the newspaper stories – that day,” he wrote in his autobiography. “No longer would I have to ride a broken-down bus almost 40 miles each day to attend classes at a ‘training’ school with hand-me-down books and supplies. Come fall I’d be riding a state-of-the-art bus to a state-of-the-art school, an integrated school.”

We all know what happened. Southern officials resisted – 50 years ago this month George Wallace took office as governor of Georgia declaring “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” White parents moved their students to private “academies.” When the courts ordered busing to desegregate schools, riots ensued in Boston, Louisville and elsewhere.

Arguably, though, blatant resistance did less damage to the promise of the Brown decision than white flight from cities to suburbs and urban middle-class flight from public to private schools, Continue reading

Bennett outspent Ritz 5-to-1

The results are in: Tony Bennett outspent Glenda Ritz by more than 5-to-1 in the 2012 campaign for Indiana superintendent of public instruction.

Ritz, of course, won the election: a shocking upset that got noticed around the country. The Democratic challenger polled 1,332,755 votes to 1,190,716 for Bennett, the Republican incumbent and darling of advocates for market-based education reform.

According to campaign finance reports filed this week, Bennett spent $1,866,741 on his campaign during 2012, an unheard-of sum for a down-ticket race. Ritz spent $341,873, which is closer to what you’d expect for this office.

Bennett has been telling news media that he knew he might lose, because the changes he implemented were difficult but necessary. And it’s true – you don’t raise and spend the kind of money that he did unless you think you’re in a race.

But the outcome was still startling. Candidates just don’t win statewide elections when they are outspent 5-to-1. Ritz pulled it off with an extraordinary grass-roots campaign, unified backing from teachers and their friends and supporters, and innovative use of social media to organize and rally the troops.

Politics watchers will be talking about this one for years.

Pyramids and politics

The New York Times reports that hedge-fund king Daniel S. Loeb is backing the Herbalife company against accusations that it’s a pyramid scheme. That pits him against his friend and rival, William Ackman, in what one source calls a “battle bigger than any sumo pairing.”

Of course, Loeb backed former Indiana Superintendent of Public Education Tony Bennett, too, with a $25,000 campaign contribution. Maybe Herbalife should worry, given the way that turned out.

In defense of Common Core

Indiana is one of 45 states that have joined the Common Core State Standards initiative, an effort to create guidelines for what students should learn at each grade level in math and English. It’s not like we’ve gone out on a limb here.

But some lawmakers want Indiana to become the first state to leave the fold. Senate Bill 193, sponsored by Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, would overturn the State Board of Education’s 2010 endorsement of Common Core and prohibit Indiana from rejoining. The Senate Education and Career Development Committee will consider the bill Wednesday.

The politics of the issue are very odd, bringing together tea-party types and some liberals. Critics on the right – and some are very far to the right — argue that Common Core is a federal takeover of education. They don’t like it because President Obama supports it. Critics on the left conflate the standards with excessive testing and accountability. They are suspicious of anything backed Tony Bennett, Jeb Bush and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

All this makes for a fun side show, but the real question should be: Will students be helped or hurt if Indiana jettisons the standards? This time, Bennett and Bush are on the right side.

First, Common Core isn’t a federal takeover. It has from the start been an initiative of the states, working through the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They came together around the idea that it made little sense, if education is a national priority, to have 50 different sets of standards that vary widely in strength and clarity.

As Terry Spradlin of the Center on Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, told me: “Are the learning needs of children in Indiana really different from what children are learning in Massachusetts or California? With our mobile society, children who moved from state to state often found themselves way behind or way ahead of what was being taught in their new school … Why shouldn’t every state set the bar high with rigorous, clear, concise and jargon-free standards by grade level and subject?” Continue reading

Charter school study: ‘Tiresome’ questions remain

More than three-fourths of Indiana charter schools perform worse or at least no better than local public schools, according to a study released last month by Stanford University researchers.

That’s one way of spinning the results of the study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO – although it’s not the finding that was played up in most news coverage. Nevertheless, there it is:

// In math, 42 percent of charter schools performed worse than traditional public schools, 23 percent performed better, and 35 percent were not statistically different.

// In English, 18 percent of charter schools performed better than traditional public schools, 8 percent performed worse and 74 percent were not statistically different.

Most media reports focused on the study’s finding that charter students, on average, scored better on tests than they would have if they attended their local public schools; or its conclusion that Indiana charter schools are among the best in the nation at improving their students’ test scores.

An Indianapolis Star editorial even argued the study should put an end to the “tiresome debates” over the effectiveness of charter schools. It won’t, and it shouldn’t.

A few issues that deserve continued exploration:

// Are charter-school students representative of the general population? The Star highlighted the surprising finding that Indiana charter schools serve significantly more poor and minority students than traditional public schools. CREDO reaches this conclusion (see Table 1, page 12) by comparing charter students with students in “feeder schools,” which include all public schools where at least one student attends a charter school. CREDO Director Macke Raymond, the author of the study, very patiently tried to explain to me, by phone, why this approach makes sense from an economics standpoint.

But there are charter schools all across Indiana, so the profile of feeder schools whose students attend charters looks similar to the state as a whole. Most Indiana charter schools, however, are in high-poverty urban areas like Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, South Bend and the Calumet region. So a non-economist might expect charter students to look like public-school students in those cities. Continue reading

Indiana legislators are up to their usual mischief

Will Rogers famously said that “it’s better to have termites in your house than the legislature in session,” and the Indiana General Assembly looks to be well on its way to proving him right again, at least when it comes to education. Among the bills that have been posted in advance of the 2013 session:

// SB 102 bans release time for union activity by public employees, including teachers. Like right-to-work and the forthcoming effort by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce effort to bar schools from collecting union dues with paycheck deductions, it’s another attempt by the state to dictate what employers and employees can agree to. Authors are Sens. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, and Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn.

// SB 120 requires public and state-accredited schools to teach cursive handwriting as part of the curriculum. Author is Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg.

// SB 189 allows high-performing schools districts – i.e., those serving mostly students from upper-income families – to be exempt from many state rules and regulations. Lead author is Sen. Mike Delph, R- (where else?) Carmel.

// SB 191 bars schools from starting the academic year before Labor Day or extending it past June 10 (with exceptions for year-round school and balanced calendars). Lead author is Delph.

// SB 193 would force Indiana to withdraw from the national Common Core Standards initiative, which the State Board of Education agreed to join back in 2010. Author is Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis.

The bill that’s been getting a lot of attention is SB 23, which would let schools require students to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the school day. Continue reading