What’s the hurry on Indiana voucher vote?

It looks like the Indiana General Assembly is racing to finish its work by midnight – even though, by law, it could wrap up next Monday. That means there will be a vote by tonight on House Bill 1003, which greatly expands Indiana’s controversial and almost uniquely generous private-school voucher program.

The final version of the bill hasn’t yet been posted on the legislature’s website. But Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education says a House-Senate conference committee approved it Thursday, apparently after Democratic members were removed from the panel and replaced by Republicans.

The conference committee bill, Smith says, expands the voucher program to include income-qualified students who live in the attendance area of a school that gets a D or F on the state’s A-to-F grading system. That’s almost 400 schools – nearly one in every five public schools in the state.

When the Senate approved HB 1003 two weeks ago, the expansion included only F schools. And the vote then was close, 27-23. By rights it should be close again today.

Here’s key question for lawmakers: Why be in such a hurry? Continue reading

Indiana voucher expansion ‘ain’t over till it’s over’

A legislative conference committee on the bill that would expand Indiana’s school voucher program is scheduled to meet this afternoon. But don’t expect much news – or much progress at resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Typically these initial committee meetings are a chance for members to stake out their public positions and posture a bit. Then deals get done behind closed doors.

In this case, the House approved a version of the bill, House Bill 1003, that would make private-school vouchers available to children of military personnel, veterans and foster parents, without regard to family income. For those families, the House would drop the current requirement that students first spend a year in public school to qualify.

Under the less expansive Senate version, the year-in-public-school rule would be eliminated for students with disabilities, siblings of current voucher recipients, and private-school students who live in the attendance area of a public school that gets an F on the state’s grading system.

Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s original sponsor, balked at the Senate amendments. That sent the measure to a conference committee, ostensibly to work out a compromise.

Each conference committee starts with one Democrat and one Republican from each chamber. Continue reading

Common sense prevails on guns

Indiana House members applauded Thursday after they removed a loaded-gun-in-every-school mandate from Senate Bill 1, according to news reports. And why not? Arguably they had just stood up to the National Rifle Association.

Not on the record. There was no roll call on the amendment to disarm the bill, so no one was recorded casting an anti-gun vote. Deniability was maintained.

SB 1 is Attorney General Greg Zoeller’s proposal to help schools hire school resource officers, law enforcement officers stationed in schools to help maintain security. But in the House Education Committee, Rep. Jim Lucas got it amended to require that someone in every public and charter school in the state – if not a security guard, then a teacher – carry a loaded firearm at all times. The amendment mirrored recommendations from the NRA, which urged members to tell their representatives to vote for the amended bill.

Lucas said his intent was to prevent mass school shootings. “With Sandy Hook, with Virginia Tech, with Columbine — those were places that were gun-free zones, and we see the results of that,” he told Indiana Public Media. “This bill is trying to prevent that.” In fact, two armed officers were at Columbine High School but weren’t able to prevent the 1999 tragedy at that school. Virginia Tech had 34 police officers on duty Continue reading

Voucher foes fall short

The bad news for Indiana supporters of public education is that the state Senate voted Wednesday to expand the state’s already generous school voucher program.

The good news: At least the vote was close.

Ten Republicans joined all 13 Democrats in the Senate to vote against House Bill 1003. The tally was 27-23. Bucking party leadership and standing with public schools were GOP Sens. Sue Landske, Jim Tomes, John Waterman, Vaneta Becker, Ronnie Alting, Ed Charbonneau, Susan Glick, Randy Head, Ryan Mishler and Ron Grooms.

Indiana gives private-school tuition vouchers to students whose families make up to 277 percent of the federal poverty level: $65,000 for a family of four. Until now, students have had to spend at least a year in a public or charter school to qualify. The bill passed by the Senate would lift that requirement for:

// Students who live in the attendance area of a school that gets an F on the state’s grading system.
// Siblings of students who currently receive vouchers.
// Students in special education. (And in their case, the income limit is 370 percent of the poverty level: $87,000 for a family of four).

Leaving aside questions about the appropriateness of handing over taxpayer money to unaccountable private schools – almost all of which are religious schools – the bill raises serious questions. How much will it cost? There’s no way to know how many more students will qualify for vouchers, or how many will take advantage. Continue reading

Do low school grades drive away good teachers?

Grading schools on student performance is supposed to improve education by giving teachers and administrators an incentive to do better. But it could be having the opposite effect.

That’s one conclusion to draw from research by education economists Tim Sass, Lin Feng and David Figlio. Looking at data for Florida schools, they found teachers were more likely to leave schools that received Fs in the state’s grading system. And effective teachers were especially likely to leave.

Sass, a professor in Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, talked about the research last week at an Economics of Education Seminar at Indiana University Bloomington. “It’s really that scarlet letter F for a school that seems to impact teacher decisions,” Sass said.

Florida was the first state to adopt the now common practice of giving schools letter grades based on student performance and/or improvement on standardized tests. It started in 1999, when Jeb Bush was governor. Indiana got on board with letter grades a couple of years ago. Continue reading

Indiana school vouchers: House proposes, Senate disposes

They say the Senate is the “deliberative body,” as opposed to the impulsive, anything-goes House – and it’s proving true at the Indiana Statehouse, at least where education policy is concerned.

So far, the Senate has held back the wave of support for a nearly universal school voucher system pushed by the Friedman Foundation, Gov. Mike Pence and House leaders. The House passed a bill, HB 1003, that provided multiple add-ons to the state’s already generous voucher program. The Senate Education Committee scaled back the expansion.

As it stands now, HB 1003 would extend vouchers to:

// Students in special education whose families make up to 370 percent of the federal poverty level.
// Siblings of students who are already receiving vouchers.
// Students who live in the attendance area of a school that gets an F on the state’s grading system for one year, or a D for two years, and whose families make up to 277 percent of the poverty level.

The current system, created by a 2011 law, provides state tuition subsidies for students who attend private and religious schools if 1) the students first attended a public school for at least a year, and 2) their family income isn’t more than 277 percent of the poverty level. About 60 percent of Indiana families with children meet that income threshold.

Rep. Robert Behning, who authored HB 1003, wants to extend vouchers further: to special-needs students and children of veterans, military personnel and foster parents, without regard to income. He also wants to give vouchers to all income-eligible students who sign up in kindergarten, with no requirement that they first attend public schools.

That didn’t fly with Sen. Luke Kenley and others on the Senate Education Committee. Continue reading