Roncalli flap could prompt debate on vouchers and discrimination

Hats off to State Rep. Dan Forestal. Responding to a flap over Roncalli High School’s threat to fire a popular guidance counselor, the Indianapolis Democrat said Wednesday that he will introduce legislation to outlaw discrimination by private schools that receive voucher funding from the state.

There’s not much chance the proposal will become law, but it could spark debate about one of the most offensive aspect of Indiana’s voucher program: Schools that receive millions of dollars in state funding are free to discriminate in employment and in the enrollment of students.

The controversy at Roncalli, a Catholic high school in Indianapolis, involves Shelly Fitzgerald, a longtime counselor who was placed on paid leave after school and church officials learned she had been married to a woman since 2014. She told news media that school officials said she could dissolve her marriage, resign, be fired or keep quiet and leave her job at the end of the year.

Roncalli students have received almost $6 million in state tuition vouchers in the past four years, according to reports from the Indiana Department of Education.

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Study: Learning loss persists for voucher students

Indiana students who used vouchers to transfer to private schools fell behind their public-school peers academically, according to a study by researchers at the universities of Kentucky and Notre Dame.

And the loss of learning persisted for several years. That’s significant, because a preliminary version of the study, made public a year ago, suggested voucher students might catch up if they stayed in private schools for three or four years.

“We don’t see that rebound effect” in the published results, co-author and University of Kentucky professor Joseph Waddington told me. “The test scores remained where they were.”

The study, by Waddington and Notre Dame’s Mark Berends, was published last week in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. It found voucher students saw their scores on the state’s ISTEP-plus mathematics tests fall 0.15 standard deviation behind their peers the year they moved to a private school. They stayed that far behind for their second, third and fourth years in private schools.

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Virtual schools should be more accountable, not less

Leaders of Indiana’s virtual charter schools say they shouldn’t be evaluated as other schools are, on test scores and graduation rates. That’s not surprising: Their test scores and graduation rates are abysmal.

One the one hand, they may have a point. Schools that deliver instruction online are different from so-called brick-and-mortar schools, and arguably they should be judged by different criteria. But accountability for virtual schools should be stronger, not weaker, than for conventional schools.

These statewide schools enroll over 12,000 students and are funded by Hoosier taxpayers to the tune of $80 million a year. Unlike public schools, they aren’t responsive to elected officials or to local communities that they serve. If the state doesn’t hold them accountable, no one will.

All the virtual charter schools received an F from the state in 2017. How bad was their performance? Continue reading

Book examines opportunity hoarding in the classroom

It’s widely accepted that schools segregated by race and socioeconomic status create unequal opportunities. But a new book by sociologist Jessica Calarco shows there’s more to the story – and suggests that giving all students a fair shot may be more challenging than we thought.

The book, “Negotiating Opportunities” describes how middle-class students – typically those with college-educated professionals for parents – advocate for themselves in the classroom, securing more attention and assistance than their classmates. Working-class students, meanwhile, defer to their teachers, accept consequences when they mess up and often don’t get the help they need.

“These students are getting very different opportunities in school,” Calarco, an assistant professor at Indiana University, told me. “The middle-class kids are getting out of trouble. They’re getting help on tests and extensions on assignments. They’re getting more time and support from teachers. Ultimately, they get better grades, and they’re more likely to end up in advanced classes.”

Calarco conducted extensive classroom observations of a cohort of students as they moved from third through fifth grade in a socioeconomically diverse elementary school, then followed up when they were in seventh grade. She also surveyed parents and interviewed students, teachers and parents.

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IPS tax request in line with what other districts have approved

The Indianapolis Public Schools board decided this week to ask voters to approve $315 million in increased property taxes to help fund school operations. That may sound like a lot, but spread over eight years and for a district of IPS’ size, it’s a reasonable request.

It’s right in line with what school boards have been asking for in other districts around the state. And voters have increasingly approved those school-funding referendums.

The IPS operating referendum boils down to $39.4 million per year — about $1,300 per IPS student. Some districts, including West Lafayette, Tri-County and Munster, have won approval for more than that, per pupil. Other districts, including MSD Warren Township and Crown Point, have settled for less.

The IPS referendum would increase local property taxes by up to 28 cents per $100 assessed property value. That’s right in the middle of the 16 school operating referendums approved in the past year.

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Closing schools could lead to ‘death spiral’ for IPS

Indianapolis Public Schools just went through the difficult and excruciatingly painful process of closing three of the district’s seven high schools. Now the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce wants it to close more schools as a condition for getting business support for an upcoming school-funding referendum.

The chamber made the demand in an analysis of IPS finances that it released last week. The group said it is willing to support a modest tax increase to help fix aging buildings and give teachers and principals a raise, but only if the district agrees to cut nearly $500 million in spending over the next eight years.

That’s a huge amount — it’s more than a 15-percent reduction in spending, by my calculation. The chamber report never actually refers to closing schools (except in a footnote); it calls for reducing “excess seats.” But it’s clear that closing schools would produce the bulk of the savings. IPS officials say they would have to close at least 10 elementary or middle schools to make the cuts.

“At the end of the day, there are only a few ways to save money,” IPS school board member Kelly Bentley told me. “That’s closing schools and letting go of teachers.”

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Power prevails in Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last week that it is unconstitutional for public-employee unions to collect fair-share fees — fees charged to non-members to cover the cost of representing them in collective bargaining and other matters. The decision in Janus v. AFSCME was expected but bizarre.

The court’s majority, after all, are supposed to be originalists who insist the Constitution means what the framers wrote over 200 years ago. Conservative legal critics are likely to mock the idea, expressed by the late liberal justice William O. Douglas, that “emanations” from the text of the Constitution form a “penumbra” in which other rights – such as a right to privacy – can be found.

Yet the five conservative justices looked at the First Amendment, with its five freedoms – of speech, religion, the press, assembly and to petition of the government — and found a sixth in its penumbra:

The freedom to free-ride on union members who willingly pay dues for what they get. Continue reading