IPS candidates spent big to win

Winning candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools board positions spent over a half million dollars on their 2020 campaigns, with most of the money coming from advocacy groups that back school choice.

At-large candidate Kenneth Allen spent half that total — $255,742 — to be elected to an office that pays about $6,000 a year, including per-diem payments for meetings and events. The winning candidates outspent their opponents by 10-to-1 on the November 2020 election, according to campaign finance reports filed this month with the Marion County clerk’s office.

The four ran as a slate in favor of continuing the district’s policy of promoting “innovation network schools,” which include charter schools and district schools that operate with charter-like autonomy.

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Governor unclear on school choice

Gov. Eric Holcomb made a vague nod in both directions of the school choice divide in his State of the State address Tuesday. As usual, he’s playing his cards close to the vest.

“Parents not only deserve to have options about where they send their child to be educated – after all, they pay for it,” he said. “But at the same time, those options shouldn’t come at the expense of the public school system, which educates 90% of Hoosier children.”

Both parts of that statement could use clarification. When the governor says parents “deserve to have options,” it sounds like he might support expanding access to private school vouchers or adding other choice options, which are likely to be debated in the 2021 legislative session.

It’s not clear what he means that “they pay for it,” however. It’s true that parents pay taxes to support schools, but so does everyone else. If he’s talking about parents who pay their own money for private school tuition, they already have that option, regardless of what the state does.

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Legislators propose expanded vouchers, ESA’s

Indiana legislators are proposing a huge expansion of the state’s private school voucher program, extending eligibility to families that make well over $100,000 a year.

The legislation, House Bill 1005, would also create state-funded Education Savings Accounts that certain K-12 students could use for various educational services, including private school tuition.

Indiana Statehouse

House Republican leaders listed the bill among their top legislative priorities last week, but details were not available until Thursday. The lead author is Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee and the primary architect of Indiana school-choice policies for the past 10 years.

Under HB 1005, families that make up to three times the limit to qualify for reduced-price school meals – which is over five times the federal poverty level — would become eligible for vouchers in 2022-23. For a family of five, that’s $170,274 a year, more than three times the median household income in Indiana.

Families would also receive more generous voucher funding under the legislation. Currently, only the lowest-income families receive a full voucher, worth 90% of the per-pupil funding that their local school district gets from the state. Higher-income recipients get 50% or 70% of that amount.

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I will miss Jennifer McCormick

Today marks the end of the Jennifer McCormick era in Indiana education. I have a feeling we will appreciate her more and more now that she has left her job as the state’s education leader.

McCormick is the last person to hold the title superintendent of public instruction, a position that dates from the 1800s. Effective today, Indiana’s chief education officer will be called secretary of education.

Jennifer McCormick

Also, she is the last person elected to the job. The law was changed so the governor now appoints the secretary of education, just as he appoints nearly all members of the State Board of Education.

McCormick has been a tireless and outspoken advocate for public schools and for their students and teachers. Those schools enroll 88% of Hoosier K-12 students, yet they are often an afterthought for lawmakers and policy elites who promote charter and private schools.

I was skeptical when McCormick, a Republican, was elected in 2016. Her campaign received considerable support from advocates for school privatization, and she was part of a GOP ticket that didn’t seem to make public education a high priority. She turned out to be a pleasant surprise. In four years as superintendent of public instruction, she:

  • Pushed back against efforts by the legislature to expand Indiana’s private school voucher program and shift funding from traditional public schools to charter schools.
  • Tried to implement a more meaningful school accountability system despite state laws and policies that tie accountability to test scores and require A-to-F grades for schools.
  • Championed better pay and more professional treatment for teachers, including speaking at the November 2019 “Red for Ed” rally at the Statehouse.
  • Objected to discrimination – against LGBTQ students and families, students with disabilities and others – practiced by private schools that receive state funding through the voucher program.
  • Stood up to Betsy DeVos when the U.S. secretary of education tried to divert federal CARES Act funding intended for public schools to private schools. And won.
  • Cast off her party affiliation and endorsed Democrats in 2020 state elections.

In October, she looked ahead to the 2021 legislative session and called on lawmakers to protect funding for public schools, expand internet connectivity for schools and families, protect students from discrimination and check the growth of charter schools and the voucher program.

Like her predecessor, McCormick was often at odds with Republican legislators and State Board of Education members. Many advocates for vouchers and for charter schools didn’t like her focus on traditional public schools. Critics suggested she could have done more to prevent abuses by virtual charter schools, although McCormick blamed GOP-promoted policies for those problems.

I’ve focused on McCormick’s advocacy, but arguably her more important work was providing leadership for a state Department of Education that schools could rely on for day-to-day guidance and support. On her next-to-last day on the job, for example, she announced a partnership with Purdue University to help science educators teach about climate change.

The new Indiana secretary of education, starting today, is Katie Jenner, a former Madison, Indiana, school administrator who was senior education adviser to the governor. I’m hopeful that she will do a good job, but she won’t have the independence that McCormick enjoyed as an elected officeholder.

Sounding the alarm on threats to public schools

It’s no secret that public education is under attack, in Indiana and in other states. But it’s easy to miss just how radical and well organized the assault is – and how it is part of a longstanding political drive to undermine the very concept of the common good.

Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain in their new book, “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.” They show how free-market ideologues, driven by hostility to government and fueled by deep-pocketed donors, are endangering a cornerstone of American democracy.

“The threat to public education … is grave,” they write. “A radical vision for unmaking the very idea of public schools has moved from the realm of ideological pipe dream to legitimate policy.”

Berkshire, a journalist, and Schneider, an education historian, make their case in a clear, readable style that echoes their casual give-and-take on the education podcast “Have You Heard?” They draw from U.S. education history, studies and policy briefs, and recent news stories to make their case.

“A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” focuses on a fundamental debate on the nature of schools. Education, the authors argue, is best treated as a public good that belongs to everyone.

“Like clean air, a well-educated populace is something with wide-reaching benefits,” Berkshire and Schneider write. “That’s why we treat public education more like a park than a country club. We tax ourselves to pay for it, and we open it to everyone.”

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