Pre-K expansion still faces hurdles

An Indiana University research center released a detailed report last week recommending Indiana expand its pre-kindergarten pilot program and explaining how 10 others states have done just that. But on the same day, a state Senate committee slashed funding for pre-K expansion to almost nothing.

And so it goes here in the 201st year of Indiana statehood. We are determined to pinch pennies as tightly as we can, even if it means depriving our youngest citizens of the education they deserve.

The report, from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU, was produced for the State Board of Education. It describes Indiana’s nascent pre-K program – which serves about 1,600 4-year-olds in five of the state’s 92 counties – and contrasts it with programs in other states that started small and grew.

The programs vary in scope, student eligibility and academic requirements. Not surprisingly, states that spend the most money serve the most students. Georgia, for example, provides pre-K in 100 percent of its school districts. Massachusetts, which got a later start, serves 25 percent of districts. Other states examined are Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Indiana’s pilot pre-K program, On My Way Pre-K, is available only in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. It was created in 2014 and spends $10 million per year.

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Message for legislators: School funding hasn’t kept pace

Indiana schools still haven’t recovered from the financial hit they took from the recession of 2007-09. And schools that serve poor children have fallen furthest behind where they once were.

Those are key findings from an analysis of school funding from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. The report, “Equity Analysis of the 2015-17 Indiana School Funding Formula,” was written by CEEP researcher Thomas Sugimoto for the State Board of Education.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

The findings should be front and center for legislators as they put together a state budget for the next two years, including a funding formula that will allocate about $7 billion a year to schools.

Sugimoto said lawmakers shouldn’t see the report in isolation but should consider it in light of their efforts to create a fair and effective system for funding education. And the report should improve their understanding of the challenges facing schools where funding has declined, he said.

Indiana schools have been digging out of the hole left by the recession, the report shows, but they’ve not reached daylight. Adjusting for inflation, they operate on less money today than eight years ago. State leaders will say there’s only enough money to give schools a modest increase. But the state has $2 billion in reserves, some of which could be tapped. And tax cuts approved in recent years reduced state revenue by $650 million, according to Purdue agricultural economist Larry DeBoer. Investing that money in education would have put schools on much more solid ground.

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Latest voucher gimmick: Education Savings Accounts

Give Indiana Republican legislators points for resourcefulness. They keep finding new ways to undermine public schools by expanding the state’s school voucher program. The latest, and arguably the most egregious, is the creation of Education Savings Accounts, state-funded accounts to pay for private schooling and other expenses.

Senate Bill 534, scheduled to be considered today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, would create ESAs for the families of special-needs students who choose not to attend public school and don’t receive a private-school voucher.

The state would fund the ESAs with money that would otherwise go to the public schools where the students would be eligible to enroll — typically about $6,000 per student but potentially quite a bit more for some special-needs students. Then the students’ families could decide where to spend the money: private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, and other services from providers approved by the State Board of Education.

SB 534 would cost the state between $144 million and $206 million a year, according to a fiscal impact statement from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. This is at a time when legislators are arguing about whether Indiana can afford $10 million to expand a popular  pre-kindergarten program.

Unlike with Indiana’s existing voucher program, there’s no income requirement for qualifying for the proposed Education Savings Accounts. So if Joe Billionaire has a special-needs child and wants to send the child to a private school, we the taxpayers would providing funding.

As Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education writes, the legislation is right out of the late economist Milton Friedman’s plan “to take public schools out of our society and leave education to a marketplace of private schools, all funded by the taxpayers but without government oversight.”

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Pre-K and vouchers: not a good combination

Excuse the language, but Indiana House Republicans served up a classic shit sandwich with House Bill 1004, their legislation to expand Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program. Stuffed inside the bill is language that would provide yet another route for students to become eligible for the state’s school voucher program.

Under the legislation, students who participate in the pre-K program for low-income families would become eligible for a voucher to help pay private school tuition. They would stay eligible as long as their family income continued to meet the program’s requirements.

The House Education Committee approved the bill last week on a party-line vote, sending it to the full House. The lead author is Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the education panel.

Seen as pure politics, HB 1004 of a slick move. Democrats have pushed for years to expand state support for pre-K. But as backers of public schools, they oppose vouchers. They’re in the awkward position of having to vote against one of their long-time priorities.

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