The problem with ‘public charter school’

Can we please banish the term “public charter school” from the education-writing lexicon? The language implies a value judgment about charter schools. To use it is to take sides. Journalists shouldn’t do that.

The obvious problem is that “public charter school” is either redundant or false. If charter schools are public schools, you don’t need to call them public. If they aren’t, calling them that won’t make it so.

The question is open to debate. Advocates insist charter schools are public schools, but critics argue otherwise, sometimes casting them as part of a movement to privatize education. Yet news media, from The New York Times on down, refer to “public charter schools” as if the question were settled.

The argument used to be that charter schools were public because they were publicly funded. But with the rise of tuition voucher programs, that’s also true of many private schools. In Indiana, some private religious schools rely almost exclusively on public funding via vouchers.

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Private schools that got voucher waivers were losing state funding

Four schools jumped to the front of the line when the Indiana legislature offered to waive accountability requirements for low-performing private schools that benefit from state-funded tuition vouchers.

And no wonder. Those four religious schools had seen their voucher funding drop by over $1.2 million in two years after being sanctioned for persistently low marks on the state’s A-to-F school grading system.

The law that legislators approved this spring says private schools can have the sanctions waived if a majority of their students demonstrated “academic improvement” in the preceding year. It doesn’t spell out what academic improvement means, leaving it to the State Board of Education to decide.

The board voted 6-2 last week to approve one-year waivers for the schools that requested them: Central Christian Academy, Trinity Lutheran and Turning Point School in Indianapolis and Lutheran South Unity School in Fort Wayne. As a result, the schools can resume adding voucher-funded students this fall.

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New law trusts charter schools on teacher hiring

Indiana lawmakers intended to clear up confusion about charter-school teacher licensing when they approved House Enrolled Act 1382. They did that, but they also opened the door for charter schools to hire some teachers with no requirements whatsoever.

The new law says 90 percent of the teachers employed by a charter school must have or be in the process of obtaining any Indiana teaching license or permit. That includes a so-called charter school license, a lower bar than the standard license required to teach in a regular public school. It could also include a substitute teaching permit; you can get one if you’re at least 18 and have finished high school.

For up to 10 percent of teachers in a charter school, however, the legislation did away with any requirements at all. They don’t need a teaching license, a college degree or even a high school diploma.

Rep. Robert Behning, author of HEA 1382 and chair of the House Education Committee, said it’s appropriate to give charter schools more hiring flexibility in exchange for being held to higher expectations. He doesn’t think they will hire unqualified teachers.

“The 10 percent of teachers could be qualified professionals who might be considered experts in their field, and who are able to work in a classroom, but who do not currently have a license to teach,” he said in an email response to questions. “Ultimately, staffing decisions fall on the school administrators, who I believe will hire an educator they believe best fits the needs of their students.”

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Hoosiers push back against DeVos

Education advocates in Indiana have a unique perspective on the radical school-choice policies that Betsy DeVos is promoting as U.S. secretary of education, said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Hoosiers have seen how a school voucher program that was sold as a way to help poor children escape “failing” schools can evolve into something quite different: an entitlement for middle-class parents to send their children to religious schools at public expense.

Teresa Meredith

Teresa Meredith

“In Indiana, the voucher program has really changed,” Meredith said in a phone interview. “There is now no cap on the number of vouchers. Families with a really decent income can qualify. And the data are telling us that most kids getting vouchers are already in private schools, or that was the family’s plan all along.”

DeVos came to Indianapolis Monday to speak at a policy summit of the American Federation of Children, the pro-voucher advocacy group that she formerly chaired. She was expected to unveil the Trump administration’s school-choice proposal but offered few details.

She did say it would be “the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.” She said states would be able to opt out of the expansion, but it would be “a terrible mistake” to do so. She derided voucher opponents as “flat-earthers” who are trying to keep education in “the Stone Age.”

Across the street from the hotel where DeVos spoke, public-school advocates organized by Indiana teachers’ unions rallied in opposition. (You can watch a video of the rally/news conference posted at 5:31 p.m. Monday on the ISTA Facebook page). They argued that vouchers divert money from public schools to private schools that aren’t accountable to the public and can refuse to enroll children they don’t want. Continue reading

Tax credit scheme ‘more like money laundering’

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will reportedly unveil a proposal for federal private-school scholarship tax credits Monday in Indianapolis. That makes a recent report on the topic especially timely.

The report, “Public Loss, Private Gain: How School Voucher Tax Shelters Undermine Public Education,” was released last week by AASA the School Superintendents Association and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. It describes how 17 states, including Indiana, divert $1 billion to tax credits for contributions to private K-12 schools, including religious schools.

Remarkably, nine states provide a 100 percent tax credit for the scholarship donations. Taxpayers who make such donations get back every penny from the state, tax-free. Some can even make a profit on their contribution by claiming an additional deduction on their federal taxes.

Report co-author Carl Davis said that, in those states, donors may not even have a charitable interest in private schools or their students. It’s simply a risk-free scheme to make money while, in some cases, getting around prohibitions on public funding of religious schools.

“I don’t see how you can help but draw the parallel to money laundering,” Davis told Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider in an episode of the “Have You Heard” podcast devoted to the tax credits. “It’s certainly more like money laundering than charitable giving. There’s no charity involved.”

Indiana’s scholarship tax credit is 50 percent; in other words, a taxpayer who donates $1,000 gets back $500, plus any savings from a federal deduction. There is no limit on the size of an individual’s state credit. There is an annual cap on the total tax credits the state will award, but the legislature voted last month to increase it: from $9.5 million this year to $12.5 million next year and $14 million the year after. Continue reading

McCormick: “irresponsible” not to review voucher program

Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, is showing herself to be a principled advocate for public schools, even if it means defying Republican orthodoxy on private school vouchers.

After six years of experience with a fast-growing and largely unregulated voucher system, she told National Public Radio reporters, it’s time for Indiana to take a serious look at the program.

“You know, we’re spending roughly $146 million on a program and not really reviewing it. That is irresponsible,” said McCormick, a Republican who took office in January.

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Charter-school authorizing by private colleges not the norm

Indiana is in a small club when it comes to having charter schools authorized by private colleges and universities. And the state’s hands-off approach to letting certain faith-based colleges authorize charter schools … well, that seems to be in a category by itself.

This topic came up last month when the Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County sued over the state’s charter-school law. The lawsuit raised a question: Is Indiana the only state that delegates the power to open a public school – an essential government function — to religious institutions with no state oversight.

Each of the 44 states with charter-school laws has its own approach to authorizing the schools. Fifteen states permit colleges and universities to authorize, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But seven of those states restrict authorizing to public colleges and universities.

That means there are presumably eight states in which private colleges could authorize charter schools. But in practice, there are only three states where they have done so: Minnesota, Missouri and Indiana.

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