State funding for schools no guarantee of progress

Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy of the Center for American Progress, argues in a recent Education Week commentary that we should stop using local property taxes to fund schools and shift fiscal responsibility for K-12 education to the states.

Indiana’s experience suggests advocates for equitable school funding should be careful what they wish for. Relying on state revenues to fund schools may result in a simpler, fairer system. But it may also mean that schools are less likely to get the money they need.

Brown builds from the work of the U.S. Department of Education’s Commission on Equity and Excellence, of which she was a member. Its report, issued in February, concluded that efforts to improve the schools should start with equity, including equity in funding.

“States should adopt a state-based system of school financing,” she writes, “one in which states provide all nonfederal resources for education, and districts no longer have the power to raise funds from local property taxes.”

Indiana switched to state-based K-12 funding 2009 as part of a larger “property tax reform” initiative. Generally speaking, the state now pays school general fund expenses, including instruction and most salaries. Local property taxes are used to pay for buildings and transportation. (Voters can choose in a referendum to raise their own property taxes to supplement state dollars for the local school district’s general fund).

No sooner had the switch taken place than the economy hit the skids, state tax revenues nose-dived and then-Gov. Mitch Daniels cut school funding by $300 million to keep the state in the black. Schools are still suffering from that cut, Continue reading

Pence on vouchers: strong rhetoric, weak on evidence

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence delivered a passionate speech in support of private-school tuition vouchers Monday at a Washington, D.C., policy summit sponsored by the American Federation for Children. But the data he used to make his case were pretty flimsy.

Pence cited improvement in Indiana public school test scores and high-school graduation rates between 2006-07 and 2011-12 to argue that “competition works,” improving performance across the board. But Indiana didn’t create its voucher program until 2011. Almost all the improvement came before that, when public schools enjoyed a supposed monopoly on taxpayer-funded education.

Passing rates on ISTEP-Plus English and math exams increased from 63.9 percent in 2006-07 to 70.2 percent in 2010-11; then they climbed to 71.5 percent the first year of vouchers. Graduation rates rose from 77.7 in 2006-07 to 86.8 percent in 2010-11, then inched up to 88.4 percent in 2011-12.

Arguing that vouchers caused competition which caused the improvement doesn’t make sense. If anything, the data suggest Indiana schools were doing just fine without vouchers.

Data and logic aside, Pence’s speech had a lot going for it. He made clear he’s no Johnny-come-lately to the cause, giving props to the godparents of the movement, the late Milton and Rose Friedman, Continue reading

Referendum results show caution

Indiana school officials remain cautious and conservative about asking voters to increase local property tax rates to fund schools – even though state funding for education continues to lag. Only seven school districts had school-funding referendums on the ballot last week, and five of them passed.

Terry Spradlin, director for education policy with the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, said the numbers suggest district leaders have become strategic about asking for money. They’re learning when to ask and when not to ask.

Indiana’s current system of relying on voters for some school-funding decisions dates from 2008. School referendums come in two flavors: 1) general fund questions, which levy property taxes to supplement the state funding that’s supposed to pay for school operations; and 2) construction questions, which determine whether schools can borrow for construction or large-scale renovation projects.

Last week, there were four general fund referendums: Barr-Reeve, Munster and Union Township passed, and Boone Township failed (Union Township and Boone Township are small districts in Porter County). There were three construction referendums: Hamilton Southeastern and Noblesville passed and Knox schools in Starke County fell short.

The five-for-seven success beats the state’s historic average by a long shot. Since 2008, there have been 88 school funding referendums in Indiana. Forty-two have passed and 46 failed, according to the detailed scorecard on the CEEP website. Continue reading

Bill signing highlights state support for sectarian schools

The setting was significant Thursday when Gov. Mike Pence signed House Bill 1003, which expands Indiana’s school voucher program. He signed it at Calvary Christian School, a small Pentecostal school on the south side of Indianapolis that enrolls voucher students.

The governor praised the voucher expansion for giving more “choice” to parents and students. However, you can only choose Calvary Christian if it chooses to let you in. “Families expect a higher level of achievement and behavior at CCS,” the school’s handbook says, “and as such the admission process requires that incoming students’ records be carefully reviewed.”

What about children with special needs? “We do not have the staffing to educate children that are in special needs classrooms,” says an FAQ on the school’s website.

And what will students learn? According to the website, the curriculum includes textbooks from fundamentalist Bob Jones University Publishing, which feature creationism based on a literal reading of the Christian Bible and an ideologically slanted view of America’s place in the world. Continue reading

Core confusion

A key question rarely got asked this spring as Indiana legislators debated whether to stick with the Common Core State Standards initiative: What do teachers think?

Now we’ve got an answer. According to the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s teachers overwhelmingly support the standards.

The AFT released results from a nationwide teacher survey on Common Core last weekend at the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association. It found that 75 percent of teachers support their states’ decisions to adopt the standards.

On the other hand, many teachers said their schools aren’t doing enough to help them prepare. And more than four in five back AFT President Randy Weingarten’s call for a one-year moratorium on high-stakes testing based on the standards. Of course, Indiana teachers may or may not agree with teachers in other states.

The AFT survey included 800 teachers in the 45 states that have adopted Common Core and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent. It was conducted in March, around the time Indiana lawmakers were debating whether to put the brakes on the standards.

The legislature finally approved House Bill 1427, which calls for a “pause” implementing the standards Continue reading