Indiana enrollment holds steady

Indiana K-12 enrollment held steady in this third school year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent data from the Indiana Department of Education. Some 1,124,109 students were attending public, charter and private schools as of the department’s “count day” in September. The figures were released last week.

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Tutoring program: ‘bold and innovative’ or ‘more questions than answers’?

State officials kicked off Indiana Learns, a federally funded tutoring program, in August, declaring it a “bold and innovative” way to help students catch up on learning they missed during the pandemic. They followed up this month with a news release, urging families to enroll.

Seana Murphy, Indiana Learns senior director, said last week that the program was off to a strong start with an initial focus on lining up tutors and getting support from schools. Since Indiana Learns went live Oct. 15, she said, over 200 students have signed up. That’s less than 1% of the eligible 57,000 public, charter and private school students.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Murphy said in a written response to questions. “Families and schools are excited that students have the opportunity to access funds for additional math and English language arts support.”

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Racial backlash in the suburbs

It’s no secret that the backlash against diversity, equity and inclusion has been strongest in suburban school districts that are growing more racially diverse. We’ve seen that across the country, and we saw it this year in Indiana, where some school board candidates campaigned against “critical race theory.”

It probably shouldn’t be surprising. The stereotype of suburbs is that they are largely white, middle-class and comfortable. Some people, certainly, moved there for those qualities. As suburbs become more Black and Brown, it’s reflected in the schools, which may cause some discomfort.

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‘Anti-CRT’ candidates underperform

School board elections are the quintessential local elections. In most states, including Indiana, they are nonpartisan. Voters make their choices based on the pros and cons of candidates, not parties. Issues matter, but candidates with strong networks of friends and supporters are likely to do well.

That makes it hard to draw conclusions from the school board elections that took place across the state last week. But it appears that conservative culture warriors didn’t do as well as they had hoped.

In some school districts, candidates vowed to take on “critical race theory” and “wokeness” in the schools. Those folks won and now have a majority in Hamilton Southeastern, an affluent suburban district north of Indianapolis where white parents protested the hiring of the district’s first Black superintendent last year. In the New Albany-Floyd County district, two candidates backed by Liberty Defense, a PAC that supports Republicans, were among four winners.

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Referendum results show flaws in school funding

Eight Indiana school districts asked their voters to approve more funding for education in Tuesday’s election. Four were successful and four weren’t. A quick look suggests what’s wrong with Indiana’s philosophy of relying on local property tax referendums to give schools the money they need.

The four districts where referendums were approved were Southwest Allen County Schools in the Fort Wayne suburbs; Westfield-Washington Schools in the northside Indianapolis suburbs; Monroe County Community Schools in Bloomington; and Southern Wells Schools in northeastern Indiana.

The districts where referendums failed were rural or small-town districts: Brown County Community Schools, Delphi Community Schools, Medora Community Schools and Wabash County Schools.

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‘California liberal’ bankrolls anti-abortion Indiana GOP

Indiana Republicans are spending several million dollars to protect and extend their supermajority status in the state House and Senate in Tuesday’s election. If they succeed, they may want to thank a California billionaire. One who’s usually described as a liberal Democrat.

Reed Hastings is a CEO of Netflix. Politically, he’s known for donating to Democratic politicians, nationally and in California. Netflix supports liberal causes, like abortion rights. But in Indiana, his campaign contributions go almost entirely to Republicans, who trample on his supposed principles.

It’s possible Hastings has given more money to the Indiana House and Senate GOP campaigns than any other individual in the past couple of years. Not directly. The money is funneled through a political action committee called Hoosiers for Great Public Schools. The PAC, headed by former Democratic Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, was founded in 2020 to promote charter schools.

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Just say yes to school referendum

If you live in an Indiana school district where a school funding referendum is on the ballot … just vote yes. If your school district is asking for your vote, it needs the money. There’s nowhere to get it except through your local property taxes.

It’s never a slam dunk that your neighbors are going to pass a referendum. The question is near the bottom of the ballot, so many voters won’t scroll down far enough to vote. Some will think they don’t know enough to choose wisely; typically, there won’t have been much news coverage. And the wording on the ballot, dictated by the state, is bureaucratic and confusing.

It’s worse than confusing; it’s misleading. In the Monroe County Community Schools district, the ballot tells voters they are approving a 35% increase in their school property taxes. In fact, the increase will be no more than 15%, as I explained in a previous post.

Simplified, school funding in Indiana works like this: The state provides the money for operating expenses, including teacher and staff salaries; and school districts rely on local property taxes for construction, building and transportation costs.

But the state doesn’t provide enough money for schools to operate effectively, so it gives school districts an option: They can ask residents to vote to increase their own property taxes to provide more operating funds. Eight school districts – Brown County, Delphi, Fremont, Medora, Monroe County, Southern Wells, Southwest Allen and Westfield Washington – are doing that in the Nov. 8 election. A ninth district, Wabash County, is asking voters to approve a tax increase to pay for a school construction and renovation project.

I’ve heard several arguments for voting against the referendums. One is that the state, which has a $6 billion budget surplus, should be paying more to fund the schools, not local taxpayers. That may be true, but it’s not going to happen. Indiana legislators have shown clearly that their priority is keeping taxes low, especially for businesses and high-income individuals, not funding services.

Another argument is that local school districts aren’t spending their money wisely, so why give them more? In Monroe County, for example, some voters may quibble with the money that goes to athletic facilities. But facilities and building improvements are paid for from separate property tax funds. Districts couldn’t have used that money in the classroom even if they wanted to. And if you don’t like the district’s priorities, you can vote for different school board members.

Finally, some people will say they’re already paying too much in taxes and can’t afford more. That’s understandable, given the pressure that inflation is putting on family budgets. But Indiana remains a tax-averse state where officials tout low taxes as a reason businesses should locate here. The conservative Tax Foundation, which generally opposes tax increases, ranks Indiana ninth for its tax climate.

This doesn’t mean voters should give their schools a blank check to spend more money. For referendums, we should expect clear and through explanations of how the money will be spent. The Monroe County Community Schools district (where I live) wants voters to extend referendum funding that would otherwise expire Dec. 31. If approved, it will fund salary increases for teachers, hourly wage raises for support staff and programs for students.

The support staff pay increase is crucial. The district pays its paraprofessionals – who do crucial work in the classroom, especially with special-needs students – as little as $12 or $13 an hour.

Fortunately for Monroe County taxpayers, we can approve the referendum and still pay some of the lowest school property taxes in the state. The overall MCCSC property tax rate, if the referendum is approved, will be no more than 84 cents per $100 assessed property value. In the nearby Richland-Bean Blossom school district, which has a reputation for conservatism, the current rate is $1.08.

The problem with school funding referendums – and this is a real problem — is that they aren’t equitable. Only a minority of Indiana districts manage to pass them. Most don’t try, probably because they know they would fail. The system favors districts with a lot of valuable property on the tax rolls.

But that’s a reason to improve the state funding system, not a reason to vote against your local referendum. Voting yes will make life better for teachers, staff and – most importantly – students. That’s the reason to just do it.

Open Door Law and ‘school consolidation’

Did the Indianapolis Public Schools board violate – or misapply — Indiana’s Open Door Law by meeting in closed-door executive sessions to discuss closing schools? I think there’s a good chance it did.

And that should matter. The Open Door Law is there for a reason: to ensure that government bodies do the public’s business in the daylight. As the preface to the law states, “It is the intent of this chapter that the official action of public agencies be conducted and taken openly, unless otherwise expressly provided by statute, in order that the people may be fully informed.”

“Official action,” the law says, includes receiving information and deliberating, not just voting. There are exceptions that allow the public to be excluded from so-called executive sessions, but they are limited.

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School vouchers and ‘learning loss’

Pundits have been wringing their hands over the “learning loss” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the largest decline in decades.

But if people care about what kids are and aren’t learning, they should be every bit as alarmed by the private school voucher programs that are spreading across the country.

That’s according to Joshua Cowen, a Michigan State University education policy professor. He’s been studying vouchers and following the research for two decades, and he says the evidence is crystal clear that voucher programs don’t work when it comes to helping students learn.

In a recent episode of “Have You Heard,” an education podcast, he said thorough evaluations of large-scale voucher programs – in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. – found overwhelmingly negative effects on learning as measured by test scores.

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From school choice to election denial

Patrick Byrne has been back in the news. Remember him? If you’ve followed Indiana politics – especially education politics – for the past decade, you very well may.

Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com, has as a prominent election denier trying to cast doubt on the fact that Donald Trump lost in 2020. He was part of an “unhinged” White House meeting Dec. 18, 2020, where he and others reportedly urged Trump to fight harder to overturn the results.

More recently he has been headlining election-denial events around the country and espousing conspiracy theories. He told a gathering in Omaha that he has spent $20 million of his own money to show that voting machines were manipulated to influence the election. He said China plans to take over the United States by 2030.

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