Voucher decision sad but no surprise

The Indiana Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday upholding the state’s school voucher law was disheartening but not surprising. Three of the five justices, after all, were appointed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who championed the 2011 law along with then state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

And as the court’s decision emphasizes, the citizens who challenged the law had a steep hill to climb. In Indiana, anyone contesting the constitutionality of a state law must meet an overwhelming burden of proof. The court defers to the legislature in all but the most egregious violations of the constitution.

Still, the 5-0 decision, written by Chief Justice Brent Dickson, has to leave supporters of public education feeling a bit devastated – especially coming as lawmakers are weighing further expansion of vouchers.

And the program is expansive already. After this year, there will be no limit on the number of students who can participate. It’s open to children from middle-income families, not just poor families. And there’s no requirement that students first attend a low-performing public school in order to qualify.

As Indiana University School of Education school law expert Suzanne Eckes suggests, the program flies in the face of conceptions of freedom of religion and fair access that we’ve come to expect under the federal and state constitutions.

For example, Indiana’s law is unusual in that it lets parochial schools compel voucher students to take part in religious activities. “Interestingly, no other voucher program in the country includes this type of requirement,” Eckes says. And voucher schools get a pass from the usual state rules against discrimination. They can’t bar students because of “race, color or national origin.” But they are free to discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, test scores, IQ, family income, parental politics or just about any other criteria Continue reading

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Indianapolis schools study: Less than meets the eye?

A study of Indianapolis schools released last week seeks to quantify the need for “high-performing seats” in the city – with high-performing defined as seats in schools that earn an A or B on Indiana’s grading system.

But the study, by the Illinois Facilities Fund, ends up providing more evidence of what we already knew: School grades correlate with school poverty, and there’s not much evidence A and B schools have cornered the market on successful educational practices.

The study, funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, was done in support of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s Neighborhoods of Educational Opportunity plan. Indy hoped to win $1 million from Michael Bloomberg’s Mayor’s Challenge, but fell short. IFF, which specializes in arranging loans and financing for charter schools (including 14 in Indiana), has done similar studies in Washington, D.C., and other cities, with similar results.

You know how reformers are always saying a child’s zip code shouldn’t dictate the quality of his or her education? IFF takes the idea literally. It identifies 11 “priority areas” – Indianapolis zip codes where, it says, there is a gap between school-age children and high-performing seats.

The study identifies 80 Indianapolis schools, including public, charter and private schools, that earned As or Bs from the state in both 2011 and 2012. In a “close analysis,” the authors find 17 that, they say, serve an above-average percentage of poor children.

“In light of the increase in low-income households in Indianapolis and the higher percent of children from low-income households in the Priority Areas, these local schools and districts are an important resource for improving schools across the city,” the study says.

But a close analysis should raise questions about whether these schools can serve as models:

// Lutheran High School, one of the schools, charges tuition of $8,700 for church members and $9,500 for non-members. IFF says 91 percent of its students qualify for free lunches, data that comes from the Indiana Department of Education. But head of school Michael Brandt said by email the figure is “not accurate.” Continue reading

Statehouse rally to support public schools

Organizers of this week’s Indiana Statehouse rally in support of public education are touting an “all star” list of speakers. And it’s true: Whoever put together the program did a good job.

The line-up includes parents, retired educators, a school superintendent, a school board member and the president of the Indiana PTA. Many are affiliated with the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, an organization of ordinary citizens who believe in public schools.

In a key gesture of bipartisanship, the legislators on the program represent both parties: Republican Sen. Vaneta Becker and Rep. Randy Truitt and Democratic Sen. Tim Skinner and Rep. Vernon Smith. Might Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz join the fun? Her office, after all, is right next door.

And the timing for the rally, at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday in the South Atrium, could hardly be better. House Bill 1003, which expands Indiana’s private-school voucher program and is arguably the most serious threat to public education this session, goes before a Senate committee the next morning.

Unlike the “Ed Reform Rocks” rally staged last week in support of vouchers and charter schools, this event won’t feature 1,000 or more school-age children. As Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts wrote last week on Twitter, “Love to send 16,000 in shirts holding signs but they’re in class.” Continue reading

Could Hinckley’s instructional focus be what IPS needs?

Peggy Hinckley, the new interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, doesn’t much sound like she plans to be a caretaker. Could that present a dilemma for advocates of big-idea education reform in Indy?

Hinckley takes over from Eugene White, who accepted a buyout after he lost school board support. She retired last year after 11 years as superintendent of Warren Township schools.

The Indianapolis Star’s Scott Elliott recently pointed to reasons that Hinckley and IPS may not be a good match even for the short term. Her approach is “laser focused on standardizing instruction,” he writes. The dominant vision of reform in Indianapolis, by contrast, involves choices for parents and autonomy for schools. It’s modeled on the Mind Trust’s “opportunity schools” plan and the Center for the Reinvention of Public Education’s portfolio schools concept.

This approach seems to go hand-in-hand with a yearning for visionary, “cage-busting” leaders. Mind Trust founder and CEO David Harris argues in a recent Star op-ed that IPS should be free to hire non-educators as superintendents. Star opinion editor Tim Swarens adds that the district’s new leader should be a “reformer.”

But Hinckley suggests that meaningful reform involves what happens in the classroom. Continue reading