Education savings accounts would be costly, wasteful

Hats off to Indiana’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. Thanks to it, we can put a price tag on a proposal for a private-school voucher program open to all students, regardless of family income:

At least $170 million a year.

Statehouse domeHouse Bill 1675, sponsored by Columbus Republican Ryan Lauer, would create what’s called an education savings account program. Students who attend accredited private schools could set up the accounts, and the state would deposit funds that they could use to pay tuition and other expenses.

It would go far beyond Indiana’s existing private-school voucher program, which is already one of the biggest and most generous in the country. It comes close to enacting the “universal voucher” plan that libertarians have fantasized about since Milton Friedman suggested the idea in 1955.

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Bill gives governor unusual power over schools

Legislators are fast-tracking a bill to give Indiana’s governor unusual power over education. If House Bill 1005 becomes law, the governor will soon be one of only five in the United States with total control over who serves as chief state school officer and on the state board of education.

The legislation would move up the effective date for having the governor appoint the chief state school officer. Current law gives the governor the appointment in January 2025; the bill moves the date to 2021.

The measure also changes the name Indiana’s chief state school officer from superintendent of public instruction to secretary of education. It was approved last week by the House and sent on to the Senate.

Historically, Indiana’s state superintendent has been elected by popular vote. Legislators decided last year to shift to an appointed superintendent but postponed the effective date to give the current superintendent, Jennifer McCormick, a chance to serve two terms. But McCormick announced in October that she wouldn’t seek re-election, giving lawmakers an opening to make the change sooner.

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Legislators dealing with virtual charter schools

It should be a no-brainer for Indiana lawmakers to rein in abuses by low-performing virtual charter schools. But there are few sure things in the General Assembly.

As Chalkbeat Indiana reported, virtual charter schools have spent heavily in recent years to lobby legislators. They have also contributed generously to political campaigns. They will be heard.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

Regulation is needed because virtual charter schools, which provide all or most of their instruction online, have some of the worst academic performance in the state. Most have consistently received Fs in the state’s school grading system, and their test scores and graduation rates tend to be low.

A Chalkbeat investigation found questionable business practices at one such school, Indiana Virtual School. Its more recently opened sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy, had a 2018 graduation rate of 2.2 percent. Yet it didn’t receive a school grade because too few of its tenth-graders took required tests – even though, with over 6,000 students, it is the largest school in the state.

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Reading tips for MLK Day weekend

Snowed in for a three-day weekend? It’s a good time to re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s unflinching expression of faith in the power of love and nonviolent direct action.

Ella Baker

Ella Baker

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in 1963, in a message that’s as timeless as it is powerful. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

But readings on race, justice and civil rights shouldn’t stop there. Here are a few other suggestions – a list based on books that I’ve had a chance to read:

  • “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” by Barbara Ransby. This book belongs at the top of the list. It changed my understanding of the civil rights movement. Yes, King’s leadership was important, but even more essential was the patient, fearless behind-the-scenes work done by Baker and others like her over decades.
  • “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. Six million African-Americans left the rural South for the Northeast, Midwest and West in the early 20th century, fundamentally reshaping America. Wilkerson tells the story with grace and intimacy, weaving it around the experiences of three individuals who made the journey to freedom and opportunity.
  • “The Wall Between,” by Anne Braden. Braden and her husband, Carl, acted as intermediaries in 1954 to help a black couple buy a house in an all-white Louisville suburb. The house was bombed and Carl Braden was imprisoned for sedition. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Louisville couldn’t desegregate its schools, because the school segregation reflected housing segregation that was voluntary. This book shows the court was wrong.
  • “On the Laps of Gods,” by Robert Whitaker. In 1919, black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas, met at a church to organize a union. White authorities showed up, shots were fired, and white militias and federal troops hunted down and killed over 100 African-Americans, including women and children. Over 200 local blacks were jailed; 12 were sentenced to death but were saved from execution by the heroic work of black attorney Scipio Jones. It’s one of the real tragedies of American history, and a continuing tragedy that so few know about it.
  • “Stamped from the Beginning,” by Ibram X. Kendi. The American University historian traces attitudes toward race from the first white settlement, framing them as segregationist, assimilationist or antiracist. It’s a wide sweep of American history seen through a critical, unsparing lens.
  • “The Negro in Indiana before 1900,” by Emma Lou Thornbrough. This 1957 book by the late Butler University historian and activist may seem dated, but it’s eye-opening for folks like me who have lived for decades in Indiana without knowing a lot about the state’s racial past.

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Teacher pay proposal a surprise

Gov. Eric Holcomb dropped a surprise Tuesday in his State of the State address, and it was a good one. He called for tapping Indiana’s budget surplus to add $70 million to funding for K-12 schools each of the next two years.

That’s a little less than a 1 percent increase, but it’s something. And it’s on top of a 2-percent-per-year school funding hike in Holcomb’s budget proposal.

Gov. Eric Holcomb

Gov. Eric Holcomb

It was a surprise because the Republicans who control both the House and Senate had signaled that Indiana’s $1.8 billion surplus was off the table in this budget-writing session. If the GOP governor says it’s not off the table, then it’s not.

The $70 million per year would help pay teacher pension costs that schools currently bear. That would free money for schools to use for other purposes. Holcomb said they should use it all to increase pay for teachers.

The funding will offset some of what school districts and charter schools pay into the Teacher Retirement Fund for teachers who joined the fund after 1996, a spokesperson for the Indiana Public Retirement System told me. Teachers who joined prior to 1996 are in a pay-as-you-go system that’s funded by the state.

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Lawmaker tries again to protect student journalists

Will the third time be the charm for legislation to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists in Indiana? It’s a long shot, but we can hope.

Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, has again introduced a bill to prohibit school officials from censoring student publications produced under the guidance of teachers who serve as media advisers. The measure almost became law two years ago, but opponents managed to block it.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle this year, probably the most uphill it’s been in three years,” said Ryan Gunterman, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association and a supporter of the bill.

The legislation, House Bill 1213, calls for school corporations and charter schools to adopt policies to protect the rights of student journalists. It says high school and middle school officials can’t block the production and distribution of student media unless it’s libelous, illegal or would disrupt school activity.

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Lawmakers: Raise teacher pay by cutting elsewhere

Indiana legislators want to give educators a raise, but they don’t want to pay for it. Their plan: Shame school districts into cutting spending elsewhere so they can target dollars to teachers.

Their tool for doing this is House Bill 1003, unveiled this week by House Republicans and presented Wednesday to the House Education Committee. It would “strongly encourage” districts to spend at least 85 percent of their state funds on instruction; it would subject them to public scrutiny if they don’t.

Indiana StatehouseThe assumption behind the bill is that schools have plenty of money, but they waste it on bloated administrative expenses and frills. But the data don’t support that claim.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said in a news release that many school districts are spending as much as 20 percent of their state revenue on “overhead and operations.” That includes central administration as well as building maintenance, insurance, technology and other costs that districts can’t always control.

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