Polls shows faith in public schools

If ever there was a time for parents and the American public to turn against public schools, you’d think this would be it. But two recent polls show it hasn’t happened.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted schooling for a year and a half, forcing children to learn online. Schools have been under relentless attack for requiring masks and teaching about racism. State legislators have bashed public schools as they pushed to expand school choice.

But the polls, by PDK International and Education Next, show continued strong support for and satisfaction with local public schools, both from parents and the public. This continues a longstanding trend in which respondents are critical of the nation’s schools but give local schools high marks.

PDK International, also known as Phi Delta Kappa, is an organization of educators that tends to favor public schools. Education Next, a journal committed to “bold change,” tends to be critical of public schools. Both polls, conducted in May, June and July, produced similar findings.

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White students are declining in Indiana schools

I wrote this week that Indiana schools have become more racially and ethnically diverse in the past 10 years. One reason is that they enroll more students of color, but it’s also true that the number of white students has decreased – by quite a lot.

White enrollment in the state’s public and charter schools declined by 11% between 2010-11 and 2020-21, according to Indiana Department of Education data. Total enrollment held steady, thanks to increases in Asian, multiracial and, especially, Hispanic students.

Indiana is still a predominantly white state, but its white population is aging. According to census data provided by the Indiana Business Research Center, only 20.6% of the white population was under age 18 in 2020, compared to 32.3% of the nonwhite population.

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Schools reflect demographic change

The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating story last week about America’s increased diversity as revealed by the 2020 census. Focusing on Columbus, Indiana, it showed that “small Midwestern towns” are where the nation is diversifying the fastest.

“One in seven residents in Columbus … was born outside the United States,” the story said. “Public school students collectively speak more than 50 languages and dialects at home. Roughly three dozen foreign companies operate in the area.”

You can also see this trend in enrollment figures for Indiana schools. Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, students in Indiana public and charter schools who identify as a race or ethnicity other than white increased from 26.9% to 34.2%, according to Indiana Department of Education data.

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Enrollment held steady in pandemic year

Indiana public schools saw their enrollment decline a year ago as families wrestled with the idea of sending their kids to school in a pandemic. But once students enrolled, most of them stayed put, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.

Schools in Indiana count their students twice each academic year, once in September and again in February. In 2021, enrollment in public schools dropped by just 0.5% between fall and spring.

There was speculation that families would bail on public schools last year, either because of worries about COVID-19 or because of frustration as districts shifted among in-person, hybrid and remote learning. That doesn’t seem to have happened, according to the data.

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We know just enough history to get it wrong

The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were key episodes in the struggle to win equal rights for all Americans. It hurts to see them used for purposes that seem antithetical to the civil rights movement.

Last week, the Bloomington Herald-Times reported on one of the many fights that have erupted over whether students should wear face coverings to limit the spread of COVID-19. A father told the reporter that he and his fifth-grade daughter were inspired by Rosa Parks to reject wearing masks.

Rosa Parks. (U.S. Courts image)

“On Sunday night, she wanted me to talk to me about Rosa Parks and if that was true that Rosa Parks really just stopped doing something and everyone changed,” he told a reporter. “And I said absolutely it’s true.”

Maybe we should be encouraged that a 10-year-old in a rural school district that’s 95% white would be inspired by the actions of a Black seamstress 65 years ago. The problem is, we’ve learned a mostly false story about Rosa Parks. She wasn’t a simple seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus because she was tired. She was a quiet but committed activist who served as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and traveled to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee for interracial activism training, a radical act at that time.

Letting her arrest be used to challenge segregation was an act of profound courage. “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” her husband told her. He no doubt meant it literally, and with good reason.

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Raising the flag for integrated schools

I like everything about Courtney E. Martin’s new book “Learning in Public,” but what I like most is that it’s full of kid energy. It deals seriously with adult subjects – education, integration, race, class, the challenge of living “the white moral life” – but Martin’s young daughters and their friends fill up the pages, playing and learning together and reminding us of what this is all about.

Learning in Public” centers on the experience of having Martin’s older daughter, Maya, attend a public school in their Oakland, California, neighborhood. The title suggests two themes: Maya is learning in a public school. And Martin is learning the messy role of being a kind and responsible member of a racially integrated school community, with the public – the book’s readers — watching.

"Learning in Public" book cover

The neighborhood is historically Black and working-class, but it’s gentrifying, and Martin’s family is part of that. Her friends are mostly white, affluent and politically progressive, people who drive Priuses, eat organic food and support leftist causes. But in the elementary school down the street, called Emerson, most students are Black and most families are low-income.

Martin’s white neighbors profess to believe in public education, but many enroll their kids in a “progressive” private school where tuition is $29,000 or finagle their way into better-resourced public schools where only a handful of students are Black or poor. (Readers, does this sound familiar, if you live in a self-identified progressive community? Even if you don’t? I suspect it may). Martin and her husband eventually choose Emerson, never mind its low test scores and GreatSchools rating of 1 on a scale to 10.  

Martin feels the universal maternal urge of wanting what’s right for her daughter. But “most of all,” she writes, “I don’t want to live with the hypocrisy of claiming to care about equity but abandoning the kids with the least resources in my own city from day one. I want not that.”

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Tests show COVID impact

Data from the Indiana Department of Education hint at how badly the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted student learning, especially for students of color and students from low-income families.

Students who attended school remotely last year because of the pandemic had lower scores and less improvement on standardized tests than students whose primary mode of instruction was in-person, according to a presentation at Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting.

“In really simple terms, in-person instruction really, really, really matters,” Secretary of Education Katie Jenner told the board. “What our teachers do in the classroom, face to face, really matters.”

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Pandemic reduced kindergarten enrollment

The COVID-19 pandemic produced “a vast exodus from local public schools,” and kindergartners in low-income communities accounted for a disproportionate share of children who didn’t enroll a year ago, according to a New York Times analysis.

Data from Indiana suggest something similar happened here. Enrollment in Indiana public school districts declined by just over 2% in fall 2020 from the previous year, but the number of students in kindergarten fell by about 8%.

The Times analysis – and Stanford University research, reported by Chalkbeat – tied much of the decrease to schools shifting to online learning to protect students and staff from COVID-19. The Stanford study found online learning alone reduced kindergarten enrollment by 3% to 4%.

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‘The Sum of Us’ can be more than our parts

There’s a “solidarity dividend” to be gained when we work across lines of race and class to improve lives for everyone, Heather McGhee writes in her excellent and incisive book “The Sum of Us,” published this year. Everyone gains when we work together and don’t waste our efforts holding others back.

Conversely, she writes, we all pay a penalty when we succumb to racism and to social and economic divisions. The zero-sum myth, which holds that someone else’s gain is necessarily our loss, lets politicians and the powerful divide us into warring, partisan factions.

Book cover of 'The Sum of Us'

One sphere where this plays out is education. The belief that there is a limited supply of “good” schools — and that they are in affluent communities and enroll mostly white students — hurts us all. Schools become more segregated by race and class. Many children attend schools that are stigmatized as failing while the fortunate pay a premium for the schools they want.

“But what if the entire logic is wrong?” McGhee writes. “What if they’re not only paying too high a cost for segregation, but they’re also mistaken about the benefits?”

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Voucher program got smaller

Indiana’s school voucher program got a bit smaller in the 2020-21 school year, according to the annual voucher report from the Indiana Department of Education.

The number of students who received vouchers to pay tuition at private K-12 schools dropped by just over 1,000 to 35,698, a 2.75% decrease. The 10-year-old voucher program grew rapidly in its early years, but its growth stalled more recently.

Of course, everything changes with the school year that’s now getting underway. The legislature voted in the spring to expand the voucher program, opening the door to more middle- and upper-income families. Private schools are eagerly promoting the expansion.

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