Let’s take back the Fourth of July

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.”

Frederick Douglass spoke those words 170 years ago, in his great speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” They seem appropriate today.

Two American flags on front porch.

I’m thinking, of course, of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ignoring a whole lot of convincing argument, the court’s far-right majority upended decades of settled law with breathtaking speed and arrogance. In a week’s time, it:

And we’re supposed to be celebrating freedom?

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Indiana voucher cost nears quarter billion dollars

Indiana awarded $241.4 million in the 2021-22 school year to pay tuition and fees for students to attend private schools. That’s 44% more than the state spent on vouchers the previous year.

The increase, detailed in a Department of Education report, isn’t surprising. The Indiana General Assembly in 2021 vastly expanded the voucher program, opening it to families near the top of the state’s income scale and making the vouchers significantly more generous.

Cover of 2021-22 Indiana voucher report.

Nearly all the 330 private schools that received voucher funding are religious schools. Some discriminate against students, families and employees because of their religion, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity. Indiana is bankrolling bigotry.

And many of the families receiving vouchers could pay private school tuition without public assistance. Some 20% of voucher households last year had an income of $100,000 or more, well above Indiana’s median household income of about $58,000.

The voucher program, created in 2011, was sold as a way to help children from poor families opt out of “failing” public schools. Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s governor at the time and a leading voucher advocate, said students should attend a public school for two semesters to qualify, giving public schools a chance to show what they could do.

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Court rules for religious schools

It’s no surprise that the Supreme Court has taken another step to support public funding of religion. It had already been moving that direction with rulings in 2017 and 2020. But today’s decision, in Carson v. Makin, is still a big deal, and it leaves open several questions for the court to address.

The court ruled today that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a small program that provides tuition vouchers for students in isolated rural areas to attend private secondary schools. Doing so, it said, violates the First Amendments requirement of religious freedom.

“The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious,” Chief Justice John Roberts writes for the 6-3 majority. “That is discrimina­tion against religion.”

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Court may open door for vouchers, religious charter schools

It was a big deal when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled just 20 years ago that states could legally provide tuition vouchers for students to attend private, religious schools. Now the court is poised to take a more radical step.

It’s likely to rule that denying public funding to religious schools is unconstitutional, at least in some circumstances. The question is, how far will the ruling go? Experts expect the court to overturn a Maine program that pays for student tuition at some private schools but excludes religious schools. But the decision could be written to apply more broadly.

Supreme Court Building

The case, Carson v. Makin, involves a program that affects a handful of rural Maine school districts that are too small to support a local high school. The state pays for students in those areas to attend a nearby public school or private school. In 1980, citing concerns about separation of church and state, Maine barred religious schools from participating.

Parents eventually sued, arguing that denying them funding to attend a religious school was discriminatory and violated the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. The court heard oral arguments in December 2021 and is expected to issue its decision this month.

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Bad news, good news in Louisville

I can’t decide whether to be disappointed or encouraged by the big education news out of Louisville this month. Both reactions seem appropriate.

It’s disappointing, certainly, that Jefferson County Public Schools have thrown in the towel on a nearly 50-year effort to desegregate schools in Louisville and the surrounding area. But it’s encouraging that the district’s new student assignment plan claims to prioritize helping Black and low-income students.

JCPS logo

In case you missed it – and the development inexplicably got almost zero news coverage outside of Louisville – the JCPS board voted unanimously to end an assignment system that bused some of the district’s 96,000 students away from their neighborhoods to promote socioeconomic diversity.

In its place, the board adopted a plan that will let all students – Black as well as white, poor as well as privileged – attend schools near where they live. The plan, created with guidance and eventual approval from the Black community, including the NAACP and an association of retired Black educators, also devotes more resources to schools in the city’s predominantly Black West End.

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With gun violence, schools are not ‘the problem’

This has been a horrific month. On May 14, a white supremacist walked into a supermarket in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo and murdered 10 people. Then, on Monday, a shooter entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and massacred 19 young children and two teachers.

Both shooters were 18-year-olds who were able to legally buy AR-15 style semiautomatic rifles. They weren’t even close to being old enough to buy alcohol, but they could buy deadly weapons meant for use by the military, along with lots of ammunition, no questions asked.

It’s no wonder the United States is an outlier when it comes to gun violence. We have had over 2,000 school shootings since 1970, according to Sandy Hook Promise. And as horrifying as they are, school shootings are the tip of the iceberg. Guns are now the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens.

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Charter schools and ‘educational blackmail’

Are charter schools like polluting industries? That’s a provocative analogy, but two University of Connecticut researchers explore it in a recent paper. They contend that, while some charter schools may help students, the sector needs stronger regulation to prevent harm to students and school districts.

“I would argue that, even if there are benefits, that does not give you carte blanche to not regulate or mitigate the harms that occur,” Preston C. Green III, the paper’s lead author, told me.

The paper, “Beware of Educational Blackmail: How Can We Apply Lessons from Environmental Justice to Urban Charter School Growth?,” is pending publication in South Carolina Law Review and is online at the Social Science Research Network. Authors are Green, the university’s John and Maria Neag professor of urban education, and doctoral student Chelsea Connery.

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Indiana lags in education. Don’t blame history.

James Briggs of the Indianapolis Star convincingly connects Indiana’s economic malaise with its status as “one of the worst states in American for educational attainment” in an excellent column published this month.

But I think the column oversimplifies when it suggests Indiana’s current failings are embedded in the state’s history. “The story is always more complicated when we move to history,” the Indiana historian James Madison told me.

Caleb Mills advocated for public education in a series of influential essays in the 1800s. (Digital image © 2005 Indiana Historical Society. All Rights Reserved. Source: W. H. Bass Photo Company Collection).

I reached out to Madison to ask about the claim, attributed to the writer and consultant Aaron Renn, that Indiana “has always been poorly educated” due to “the cultural influences of large Quaker and southern-born populations at the time of Indiana’s founding.”

The Quakers? “I don’t know any basis for that statement,” said Madison, the Thomas and Kathryn Miller professor emeritus of history at Indiana University.Quite the contrary, Quakers tended to be more enthusiastic about education.”

Quakers also were pioneer Indiana’s most active abolitionists and operated some of the first schools open to African American children. “That’s indicative of the Quaker commitment to the general welfare,” Madison said.

Renn is right that much of Indiana’s early population was southern-born. All but nine of the 43 delegates to the state’s first constitutional convention previously lived in the South, Madison writes in “Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana.” And formal education was plain scarce in backwoods Indiana. Abraham Lincoln, who lived in the state from age 7 to 21, attended school for less than 12 months. In 1840, Indiana recorded the highest rate of illiteracy north of the Ohio River, Madison said.

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Pro-charter money bankrolls Indiana GOP

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has given another $700,000 to a pro-charter-school Indiana PAC, which has funneled a big chunk of the money to supporting Republican legislative candidates.

The PAC – called, without apparent irony, Hoosiers for Great Public Schools – reported only one contribution in its 2022 pre-primary campaign finance report, covering Jan. 1 to April 8: the one from Hastings, a California resident with a net worth estimated between $4 billion and $6 billion.

Hoosiers for Great Public Schools then gave $100,000 to another PAC, Hoosiers for Quality Education, which favors school choice in all its forms, including private school vouchers. Hoosiers for Quality Education has made over $600,000 in contributions this year, all to Republicans. Most has gone to GOP House candidates who are favored by caucus leaders and are in contested primaries.

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A legislator, a university and school vouchers

No one has done more than Rep. Bob Behning to shape Indiana’s wide-open system of school choice, including what’s arguably the most generous private-school voucher program in the country. Now Behning’s employer is tapping into that system as it launches an online private school.

Marian University Preperatory Academy will open in the fall of 2022, according to a news release from Marian University, a private, Catholic institution in Indianapolis. The school, described as “flexible” and “faith-focused,” will operate in a partnership with for-profit Stride Inc.

Tuition will be $9,500 a year for the school’s hybrid program, which will include in-person and online instruction; and $7,500 for its fully virtual program. The school’s FAQ section provides guidance for applying for Indiana’s voucher program, which can help pay tuition for families at most income levels.

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