Segregated schools in a progressive town

The Monroe County, Ind., school board thought it was doing the right thing nearly 20 years ago by approving a redistricting plan that clustered many of the community’s neediest children in a single elementary school.

But times have changed, and maybe it’s time to revisit that decision.

The 1997 redistricting did a number of things, but the biggest was moving students from a large public housing complex to Fairview Elementary, which was already a high-poverty school. The plan prioritized “neighborhood schools.” The housing complex was near Fairview, so that was where the kids would go.

My two younger children were Fairview students at the time, and along with most teachers and parents, I thought the plan made sense. Fairview was a good school, with dedicated staff and engaged families. Those kids needed to be taught somewhere.

But the decision failed to anticipate a couple of trends. One is the way schools with high poverty have been increasingly labeled and stigmatized as “failing.” The other is the way parents with means have been able to use school choice to opt out of neighborhood schools.

At Fairview, 71 percent of Fairview students qualified for free school lunch after redistricting. Today the figure is 84 percent. That’s in spite of the fact that neighborhoods near the school have gentrified. And in spite of the Artful Learning the school board approved in hopes of retaining middle-class families.

Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and we entered a new era of school accountability. Publicly reported test scores and, eventually, school grades bolstered the idea that Fairview was a “bad” school. Some middle-class families in the neighborhood transferred their kids to private schools or a local charter school. Or they simply moved when their children reached school age. Continue reading

New State Board of Education member asked board for patience

Early this year, Byron Ernest asked the Indiana State Board of Education for more time to improve the performance of Hoosier Academy Virtual Charter School.

The board agreed, so Hoosier Academy could return to the board in 2016. But next time Ernest will be on the other side of the table; or possibly on both sides of the table. House Speaker Brian Bosma on Wednesday appointed the Hoosier Academy head of school to serve on the state education board.

Hoosier Academy appealed to the board because it had received an F for four straight years under the state accountability system. If a charter school gets four straight Fs, the board may close it, transfer it to a different authorizer or reduce payments to the authorizer (Ball State University, in this case).

Ernest started working for Hoosier Academy in 2014, so he’s not responsible for those Fs. Before that, he spent two years as principal of Indianapolis Manual High School, which the state had turned over to Florida for-profit company Charter Schools USA. It got an F his first year, a D his second.

Before that, Ernest taught agricultural science at Lebanon, Ind, schools. He was Indiana Teacher of the Year in 2010. Continue reading

Indiana moving ahead on school grading changes

Indiana education officials appear to have turned the corner on creating a new system for awarding A-to-F grades to schools. But some key decisions still need to be made.

The State Board of Education voted 8-1 this month to approve the new grading system rule, which now must be approved by the state attorney general and then the governor. Board members made two significant changes from the proposal they had discussed at earlier meetings.

  • Student growth on test scores will count the same as student proficiency on test scores. That’s what a state panel on accountability had recommended; but the board had leaned toward weighting the factors 60-40 in favor of proficiency.
  • Schools won’t be awarded an A unless they show reasonable performance or growth by “subgroups” of students: racial and ethnic groups, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, special needs students and English language learners.

Still to be decided is exactly how the state will award points for student growth. In a new approach, points will be awarded on the basis of a “growth to proficiency table,” and several versions are being considered.

The change that says schools can’t get an A unless their subgroups do reasonably well was apparently something the U.S. Department of Education wanted. It’s a throwback to the old system that lowered grades for schools that didn’t make “adequate yearly progress,” which included progress by all the subgroups. Many schools hated the rule, and it went away when the feds gave Indiana a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

Continue reading

School funding formula takes complex path to simpler focus

If you followed the legislature’s recent school funding debate, you may have noticed that Indiana will be allocating money to schools based in part on the number of students who receive food stamps or welfare benefits or who are in foster case.

That’s the latest revision of the Complexity Index, the part of the school funding formula that gives more money to schools facing bigger challenges. It’s a change from the way Indiana has distributed the money in the past, but not as big a change as it might appear.

Here’s the story.

A complexity story

Indiana’s Complexity Index dates from 1993 – it was originally called the At-Risk Index – and it has unquestionably been a good thing. An attempt to level the playing field by offering more resources to needy schools, it’s the reason Indiana gets credit for a funding system that’s fairer than most.

The index has been revised several times, but in recent years it was based on the percentage of students who qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches. Students qualify for free lunches if their family income is no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level; they qualify for reduced-price lunches if income is no more than 185 percent of the poverty level.

But some lawmakers grew uncomfortable with using the federal lunch program to calculate the index. They were concerned that families couldn’t be made to show proof of income to qualify. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study found significant error rates in the program.

“There’s very little verification of who is eligible,” Sen. Luke Kenley, the chief Senate budget writer, told Franklin College’s Statehouse File. “And in recent years the number of kids on free and reduced lunch have been going up dramatically.”

So the legislature initially voted to shift the basis of the Complexity Index to the number of students who participate in the state’s free textbook program, effective this year.

Hoosier students qualify for free textbooks if they meet the income guidelines for free or reduced-price school lunch. Unlike the lunch program, however, the state-funded textbook program could be subject to extensive audits. Families could be required to prove they qualified.

But an unexpected issue arose, thanks to a change in the federal lunch program.

Community Eligibility

Starting last fall, high-poverty schools in Indiana could participate in the lunch program through Community Eligibility, which means all students in the school get free lunch, regardless of family income. The idea is that it’s less costly, more efficient and fairer than tracking who qualifies and who doesn’t.

Indianapolis Public Schools implemented Community Eligibility in all of its schools, and 13 other districts adopted the approach in some schools. Nineteen charter schools also participate. Continue reading

Charter school proposal still about ideology

Last fall the Indiana Charter School Board voted unanimously to reject a charter application from organizers of the proposed Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County. Now Seven Oaks is back with another request for the charter. But it’s hard to see what has changed that would lead to a different outcome this time around.

Organizers say the school will offer a “classical” education with heavy emphasis on Latin, character education and “civic virtue.” They hope to open in the fall of 2016 at the former site of Ellettsville Elementary School, which closed 13 years ago.

The Charter School Board cited the Seven Oaks board members’ lack of background in education and finance when they rejected the first proposal last year. Apparently in response, the school added to its board local accountant Fred Prall and former Fort Wayne charter-school official Guy Platter.

Prall may be a good accountant, but he is best known as a conservative political activist. He headed the Monroe County Taxpayers Association, a local government watchdog group active in the 1990s. He was the Republican candidate for mayor of Bloomington in 2003.

At a Charter School Board public hearing on the Seven Oaks proposal Monday, he said nothing about classical education but outlined his vision for a universal voucher system in which money would “follow the child” regardless of where the child’s parents choose to send him or her to school.

Platter, according to his resume, was founding principal of Imagine MASTer Academy, a charter school in Fort Wayne, and regional director of Imagine Schools in Indiana and Ohio. MASTer Academy and its sister school, Imagine School on Broadway, consistently got Ds and Fs from their performance. Continue reading

Report: Indiana vouchers a bad deal for students, public

A report released this week by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability puts 28 pages of research and data behind what public education advocates have been saying for years: Indiana’s school voucher program is a bad deal for the public and it’s not providing academic benefits to students.

Drawing on published studies and details about the Indiana program, the report addresses the question of whether private school choice in Indiana is leading to better educational outcomes for children and whether it’s an efficient use of public funds at a time when state budgets are constrained.

“As it turns out, the answer is no, when ideology is put aside and evidence of what has worked to enhance student achievement is used as a barometer,” it says.

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability is a Chicago-based think tank that generally supports progressive policies. Ralph Martire, the center’s executive director, and Indiana legislators who have opposed vouchers presented the findings in a Statehouse news conference.

Jason Bedrick, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, attacked the report in an article posted later Tuesday, accusing it of using data selectively and misrepresenting school-choice studies.

The CTBA report relies heavily on a large nationwide study of public, charter and private schools by University of Illinois professors Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, published in 2006. The research “clearly shows that students who attend traditional, K-12 public schools outperform students who attend both charter schools and private religious schools,” it says. Continue reading

Harsh penalties for Atlanta educators convicted of cheating

The world is filled with injustices. But today my sense of outrage is reserved for the prison sentences handed down for Atlanta educators convicted of altering student test scores.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter ordered 20-year sentences Tuesday for three of them, with the expectation that they will spend seven years in prison. Five others were sentenced to shorter prison terms and two got probation or home detention.

That’s right, 20-year sentences, with seven to serve. It’s what you might have gotten for killing someone in a slightly gentler and more forgiving era.

The teachers were found guilty of racketeering, an offense normally associated with organized crime. Baxter pronounced the maximum sentence even though the defendants had clean records and are clearly not a threat to cause violence to anyone.

Yes, cheating is wrong, even criminal. Atlanta parents deserve accurate information about whether their children are learning what they should. And it’s true that some educators may have benefited financially and by reputation – especially former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was charged but died from cancer before she went to trial.

But as a New Yorker article last summer made heartbreakingly clear, teachers weren’t motivated solely by greed. They worried about losing their jobs if test scores were too low. And they worried most about their students, who faced the prospect of having their neighborhood schools shut down. Continue reading