‘Hoosier School Heist’ follows money in Indiana school politics

The mantra of investigative reporters everywhere is “follow the money.” And no one else follows the money in Indiana education politics as doggedly – some might say obsessively — as Doug Martin.

His new book, “Hoosier School Heist,” draws on campaign finance records, foundation tax documents and muckraking reporting to paint a picture of a big-money push to privatize Indiana education with an agenda of vouchers, charter schools and anti-teacher policies.

“School privatization diminishes teachers, parents, students and education to something one can sell and make money from, and it eliminates any quest for knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” Martin writes. “… Sadly, only a fundamental overhaul of American society is going to turn the school bus around, as it did in the years leading up to the New Deal, after the robber barons stole everything.”

HoosierSchoolHeistAs the title makes clear, this is advocacy journalism. Martin doesn’t make any pretense of being “fair and balanced,” whatever that means. He writes in a tone of sustained outrage, which may be a bit strong for some readers. He would no doubt say that, if we aren’t outraged, we aren’t paying attention.

Parts of his narrative are familiar: The role of the Mind Trust and Friedman Foundation in promoting school choice, the East Coast hedge-fund money funneled through the American Federation for Children and Hoosiers for Economic Growth to Republican politicians, the rise and fall of Tony Bennett.  Continue reading

State Board of Education member visiting schools

State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry is doing a good thing by traveling around Indiana and meeting with teachers, administrators and school board members. Is he hearing what people say?

Friday he visited Bloomington High School North, from which he graduated in 1988. He met with administrators and a school board member, and talked with social studies teachers. Later, we spoke by phone about three big education issues facing the state.

Teacher evaluations

Hendry said much of the discussion at North involved state-mandated evaluations that require all teachers to be rated highly effective, effective, needs improvement or ineffective. He said the trick will be to craft evaluations that are accurate but don’t discourage teachers from collaborating.

“I don’t think I heard anyone say we don’t believe we should be accountable,” he said. “They want evaluations to be fair and to measure the right things. To me that makes sense.”

The 2011 law that required the evaluations says teachers rated needs improvement or ineffective can’t get a raise. With successive low ratings, they can be fired.

“It’s not only to identify teachers who need help,” Hendry said. “Just as important, it’s to identify teachers who are really doing an outstanding job.” Continue reading

Indiana voters back school funding

This blog specializes in bad news. But here’s some good news for public education from this month’s elections: Nine of the 10 Indiana school districts that asked voters for permission to raise local property taxes to support education were successful.

Prior to this year, fewer than half the referendums that took place since Indiana’s current school-funding laws went into effect in 2008 won public approval. With the May 2014 results, schools have finally topped the .500 mark: 52 of 102 have succeeded.

School-funding referendums in Indiana come in two varieties: They can raise taxes to build schools; or they can augment state funding for a district’s general fund, which pays teacher and staff salaries and other operating expenses. Over the years, the mix has been about half-and-half between construction and general-fund referendums. But this year, eight of 10 were to boost general-fund spending. All those proposals passed. Some were close, though; three passed with 51 percent or less of the vote.

In at least two – White River Valley in Greene County and Eminence in Morgan County – local officials said losing would force the district to close and consolidate with a nearby school district. Voters didn’t want that to happen. The Eminence measure passed with 87 percent of the vote; WRV with 54 percent. Continue reading

Brown v. Board of Education at 60: ‘Separate but equal’ lives on

Comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory used to tweak northern liberal hypocrisy on race with a routine that went something like this: “In the South, they don’t care how close I get, as long as I don’t get too big. In the North, they don’t care how big I get, as long as I don’t get too close.”

It’s an appropriate thought as the nation marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation of schools. We can congratulate ourselves on the fact that minorities have made substantial legal and economic progress. But in our schools, white children and children of color – and rich kids and poor kids – still don’t get too close.

After a few years of progress, schools across America have become more segregated, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford have documented. Schools in the South have re-segregated; but the most flagrant racial separation is in New York.

As Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute has shown, school integration worked for the short time we tried it. But we abandoned the idea for compensatory education: “separate but equal” redux.

Schools that are mostly white, black or Hispanic are the norm in most of America, Lesli A. Maxwell reports in Education Week. It’s rare for a white child to attend a school where more than 25 percent of the students are nonwhite. But Maxwell also notes that schools are segregated by wealth. She quotes Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sylvester James Jr.: “Access to high-quality education is tied just as hard, and just as fast, to poverty and socioeconomics as it was to race.” Continue reading

School voucher backers help oust pro-union Republican

State Sen. John Waterman is as solid a conservative as you’ll find: a former sheriff who is tough on crime, 100 percent pro-gun, stingy with money and endorsed by Indiana Right to Life. He has just one flaw, and for a Republican politician, it’s fatal. He supports unions, including teachers’ unions that back public schools.

That was enough to get him taken out in last week’s GOP primary after representing his rural Western Indiana district since 1994. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce put a target on his back, ostensibly because he voted against the so-called right-to-work law that Indiana adopted in 2012. The Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity threw in with undisclosed funding for ads.

But key money – big, late contributions that may have helped push his opponent, Eric Bassler, over the top – came from forces whose agenda is promoting private school vouchers. Bassler won with 51.3 percent of the vote, even though the Senate Republican caucus backed Waterman.

Bassler got $15,230 in the week before the election from Hoosiers for Economic Growth, which is not funded by Hoosiers and doesn’t focus on economic growth. It functions as the Indiana arm of American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher group led by mega-donor Betsy DeVos.

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Indiana’s NCLB waiver mess may not be as bad as it looks

Indiana’s rejection of Common Core standards and its foot-dragging over creating a new testing system earned it a stern rebuke from the U.S. Department of Education. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s about to lose its waiver from requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

New American Foundation policy analyst Anne Hyslop, who tracks NCLB waiver developments, said Indiana may be able to meet the conditions for keeping and extending its waiver. It depends on whether the feds want to play hardball. And there are some indications they may not.

For Indiana, the biggest hurdle may be a requirement that it administer tests aligned with “college and career ready” standards by 2015. State law says Indiana must continue to use the ISTEP exam next year, and ISTEP isn’t considered a measure of college and career readiness.

“This could be a problem, but it’s really anyone’s guess how the department will work with the states and what the next steps will be,” Hyslop told me.

The Education Department awarded Indiana an NCLB waiver in 2012 based on the state’s adoption of Common Core and its participation in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, a consortium developing tests aligned with the new standards. But state lawmakers turned against Common Core and this year repealed their adoption. Indiana withdrew from PARCC to create its own tests.

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On charter schools, the ‘story is in the variation’

Macke Raymond tends to have a favorable view of charter schools, but she’s quick to point out the sector includes effective schools and others that are not so good.

“The story is in the variation,” Raymond, director of Stanford’s CREDO and the author of the best-known studies of charter schools, told an Indiana University audience recently.

That’s true in Indiana, where a lot of variation seems tied to who authorized the schools. A 2012 CREDO study found that schools authorized by the mayor of Indianapolis did better than other charter schools, most of them authorized by Ball State University.

A look at high-poverty schools – where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – shows the pattern held for ISTEP results in 2013, the last year for which scores are available. Over 70 percent of students in mayor-sponsored schools passed the tests, compared with less than 60 percent in other charters.

charter-schools-by-authorizer

This slicing of the data follows a post last month that found high-poverty district schools had better test results than high-poverty charter schools. Someone suggested comparing high-poverty charter schools with urban district schools, because most high-poverty charter schools are in cities. So I did; with Indianapolis Public Schools. Continue reading

Listening to teachers

Teachers are passionate about their work. They love their daily interactions with students, value collaborating with each other and feel strongly about the importance of public schools. They’re also frustrated by accountability mandates that make it harder to do their jobs. But they see value in some required tests, and they aren’t letting the annoyances keep them from doing their jobs.

Those are a few take-away messages from a panel discussion this week by seven Bloomington teachers: Sheila McDermott-Sipe and Kathleen Mills from Bloomington High School South, Kathy Loser and Greg Chaffin of Bloomington High School North, Megan Somers-Glenn of Marlin Elementary and Erika Peek and Ben Strawn of Summit Elementary. Some highlights:

      • Support is important. McDermott-Sipe said the local district’s adopting of Professional Learning Communities to facilitate collaboration was “a wonderful, wonderful development.” Mills said reading intervention staff, funded by a 2010 tax referendum, have been “life changing in high school.”
      • Panelists feel strongly about public education and fear it’s threatened by forces that, as Somers-Glenn said, “want to make money from our children.” Loser urged people in the audience to read Diane Ravitch’s book “Reign of Error” and vote for candidates who support public schools.
      • Strawn, who teaches third grade, said rounds of standardized tests and a state-required 90-minute block of uninterrupted reading instruction don’t leave enough time and flexibility for creative teaching. He said IREAD-3, the state’s third-grade retention test, puts “incredible stress on teachers.”
      • At the high school level, high-stakes assessments for sophomore English and algebra produce stress. But McDermott-Sipe said NWEA tests help tailor teaching to student’s needs. Mills said standardized tests don’t drive her teaching. “I definitely don’t feel I’m living a life of test prep,” she said.
      • Loser and Chaffin highlighted the fact that schools are about more than academics. Both talked about the importance of clubs, activities and informal relationships in keeping high-school students engaged – and not just sports and band but book clubs, groups for LGBT youth and international students, counseling groups, etc.
      • Teachers like talking about why they love their jobs and how much they enjoy their students. In an anecdote that could only happen in a public school, Mills said she overheard two students talking about their parents. One’s father went to Harvard; the other’s mother went to hairdressing school. The students, she said, were genuinely curious about each other’s families and their experiences.

The Monroe County Coalition for Public Education sponsored the discussion because teachers’ voices are often missing from public debates over education policy. Teachers are busy and many don’t have time for politics and public advocacy. They won’t all agree with each other. But when they talk about their work and their schools, those of us who claim to care about education should listen.