Three reasons Ritz made the right call

Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz announced last week that she’s dropping her short-lived campaign for governor and throwing her support to John Gregg. That’s good news for Indiana Democrats: It means Ritz and Gregg can campaign together instead of spending the nine months until the May 2016 primary tearing each other down.

Abandoning the bid for the governor’s office and instead seeking re-election to her current position is also the right decision for Ritz to make. Here are three reasons:

Superintendent is an important office. Ritz has been the most vocal and consistent advocate in state government for public education, for students and for teachers. She’s been a voice of sanity when it comes to testing, school grading, and teacher licensing and accountability. She has put a welcome focus on reading and literacy, and her frequent visits to schools around the state – while they may serve a political purpose – put a spotlight on education and its importance to Indiana.

She can do better. True, she has been hamstrung by feuding with Gov. Mike Pence and the State Board of Education and by efforts by Republican legislators to reduce her authority. I’ve been reluctant to blame Ritz, but board members’ complaints about communication may have some substance, based on my interactions with Department of Education staff. Now, however, the board has several new members, and two of Ritz’s most vocal critics are no longer part of the mix. It’s a chance to start fresh and an opportunity show herself to be an effective leader who can work across the aisle, a necessity for a Democrat in Indiana.

She wasn’t going to win. Ritz’s campaign for governor got off to a rocky start with disclosures that it accepted contributions during the 2015 legislative session, a violation of state law. But the real problem was the lack of contributions before and after the session. Ritz raised $30,529 in the first half of this year; Gregg raised $1.76 million. Campaign money isn’t everything – Ritz proved that when she beat Tony Bennett in 2012 – but you need a well-financed campaign to beat Pence, who will be rolling in election cash.

Gregg still faces a contest for the Democratic nomination with state Sen. Karen Tallian, who is courting the party’s progressive wing. Gregg, a former speaker of the Indiana House, had a reputation as something of a conservative in 16 years as a legislator. But lately he has been going after Pence over religious discrimination and other social issues.

And it’s possible for a politician’s views to evolve. After all, according to an Indianapolis Monthly profile, Glenda Ritz often voted Republican until 2008.

Still the problem we live with

Look at Will Counts’ iconic photo of a white mob taunting Elizabeth Eckford, a black teenager who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Then listen to audio of the white parents expressing their alarm about black students coming to their local school in 2013, included in Nicole Hannah-Jones’ remarkable piece on school segregation that aired last week on “This American Life.”

Not much difference, is there?

The hour-long radio story tells what happened when the mostly black, mostly poor Normandy School District lost its accreditation. Under Missouri Law, Normandy students could transfer to the high-achieving Francis Howell district across town.

About one-fourth of the Normandy students opted to move, surprising school officials who thought the inconvenience would deter them. But the Francis Howell parents had no say in the matter, and they aired their displeasure at a town hall meeting. (The audio starts at 23:20 on the broadcast).

These are middle-class suburbanites in 2013, not poor Southerners in 1957. They don’t use the N-word, and they insist their concerns aren’t about race. But the coded language they use – and the boisterous cheers that greet the most over-the-top statements – belie that claim.

“My question is, when a child who is coming from an underperforming school comes into a math class at Francis Howell, how will they possibly cope?” one parent asks. “Once Normandy comes here, will that lower our accreditation?”

Another wonders why Francis Howell parents won’t get to vote down accepting Normandy students like residents were able to reject an expansion of public transit. And yet another insists Francis Howell will need metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs to protect her children from the Normandy invaders.

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Indiana’s teacher shortage

The social contract for becoming a teacher used to be simple. You knew you’d never make a lot of money. And there wouldn’t be many opportunities for advancement.

On the other hand, you could make a middle-class living, there would be annual raises, you’d have several weeks off in the summer, and the job security was good. The work was sometimes lonely, spent in the company of children. But you wouldn’t have a boss looking over your shoulder, telling you how to do your job.

Well, those days are gone. The money is no better, but the expectations are higher. You will be evaluated on the basis of your students’ test scores, and there will be intense pressure to ensure that all kids succeed. Politicians are coming after your job security.

So it’s probably not surprising that fewer young people are going into education – and that school administrators in Indiana and across the country are complaining about not finding qualified teachers. The number of first-year teachers getting licensed in Indiana has dropped nearly 20 percent in the past five years, and education programs at state universities have seen big declines in enrollment.

The situation has received enough media attention that Rep. Bob Behning and Sen. Dennis Kruse, the chairmen of the Indiana House and Senate education committees, called last week for a legislative study committee to investigate why fewer Hoosiers are entering the teaching profession.

“It would be helpful to receive testimony from experts and the field on why teacher enrollment and licensing are dwindling,” they wrote. “We believe it is important to have a plan … prior to the 2016 legislative session, and studying it during the interim could be a key component in crafting that plan.”

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New school grading system produces little change

The new school grading system that Indiana will adopt in 2016 is supposed to give more weight to student growth on standardized tests and less to straight-up test performance, making it more likely that high-poverty schools can earn high grades.

But that may not happen. In a comparison of the grades that schools received in 2014 with the grades that they would have received if the new system had been in effect, there’s not much difference.

A majority of schools would have received the same grade under the new system as under the old. Almost no schools would have seen their scores rise or fall by more than one letter grade.

The Indiana Department of Education calculated grades that schools would have received, based on their 2014 test scores, if the proposed new system had been in place. The department provided the grades in spreadsheet format in response to a public records request. Continue reading

More data that suggest vouchers cost Indiana

Here’s more evidence the Indiana school voucher program is costing the state money: The number of families attending private schools without vouchers has dropped dramatically since the state expanded the program, while the number of voucher students has exploded.

This suggests that many families who are receiving vouchers never intended to send their kids to public schools – they had or would have chosen private schools regardless, and they’re merely taking advantage of the voucher program to get free or reduced-cost tuition.

According to a report on the program released in June by the Indiana Department of Education, there were 71,415 non-voucher students enrolled in Indiana private schools in 2012-13. By last year, the number had dropped to 55,385.

That’s a 22 percent drop in paying customers in only two years. Either an awful lot of families who could afford private school are deciding it’s not such a good deal and they’re sending their children to public schools. Or a lot of families who had already chosen private schools are getting vouchers.

Meanwhile, the two-year decline of 16,030 in the number of students who are paying full freight for private schools corresponded with a 20,008 increase in the number of students receiving vouchers. Over one-third of Indiana private-school students received vouchers in 2014-15, according to the DOE report.

If voucher students would otherwise be attending Indiana public schools, the program would save the state money, because vouchers are for less than the full cost of educating a student at a public school. But if the students would be attending private schools with or without vouchers, the program costs the state money, because it increases the number of students receiving a state-funded education. Continue reading

Pence’s big donors include charter, voucher advocates

As the Indianapolis Star reported last week, Gov. Mike Pence raked in more than $800,000 in large campaign contributions in the weeks leading up to a July 1 fundraising deadline.

The bulk of the money came from wealthy business officials, many of them with ties to the coal, utility, road construction and nursing home industries. But some big donations came from supporters of education policies that Pence has championed. They include:

  • $25,000 from Fred Klipsch of Carmel, founder and chairman of Hoosiers for Quality Education, a leading pro-voucher organization. Klipsch boasted in 2012 that he had put together the campaign funding to overcome teacher opposition and push through legislative approval of the Mitch Daniels-Tony Bennett education agenda, including vouchers and charter schools.
  • $25,000 from John D. Bryan of Lake Oswego, Ore., a retired business executive known as a major donor to national conservative PACs like Freedom Works and the Club for Growth. He is founder and director of Challenge Foundation, which operators several charter schools, including the Indianapolis Academy of Excellence. He has given nearly $600,000 to Republican campaigns in Indiana, including $145,000 to Pence’s campaigns for governor.
  • $10,000 from Roger Hertog of New York, former chairman of the Manhattan Institute and a donor to national conservative causes. Hertog has contributed to Success Academy and other charter schools and commissioned a study of benefits of New York charter schools.
  • $10,000 from Robert L. Luddy of Raleigh, N.C., who runs a group of private schools and who provided much of the campaign financing for school board candidates who overturned a model school desegregation program in Wake County, N.C., schools.

Three Democrats, former House Speaker John Gregg, Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and state Sen. Karen Tallian, are seeking to challenge Pence. Gregg raised over $400,000 in large contributions in the weeks leading up to July 1. Tallian listed only a $20,000 transfer from her state senate campaign fund. Ritz reported no large contributions.

Candidates are required to file reports of their complete campaign fund-raising and spending for the first half of 2015 by July 15. Large donations – those of $10,000 or more – must be reported within a week of when they are received.

Charter movement leaders: We ‘were naïve’

Chester E. Finn Jr. and Bruno V. Manno have been two of the most faithful cheerleaders for America’s charter school experiment since it started 24 years ago. But in a recent article for National Affairs, they look critically at where the movement has gone wrong.

“It’s a little embarrassing to acknowledge,” they write, “with the benefit of hindsight, that putting a charter sign on a school building actually reveals surprisingly little other than that it’s a ‘school of choice’ with some freedom to be different. Early advocates, ourselves included, were naive about some key things.”

Charter boosters, they admit, didn’t pay enough attention to issues of authorizing and governance of the schools. They pushed quantity, wrongly assuming a free market would lead to high quality. They “wanted the infusions of capital and entrepreneurialism that accompany the profit motive, but … didn’t take seriously enough the risk of profiteering.”

Finn is president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a school-reform organization that authorizes charter schools in Ohio, and was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. Manno is a senior adviser with the Walton Family Foundation, which spends over $200 million a year on education initiatives, much of it to promote school choice and support charter schools.

Their article brings to mind a recent piece in the Indiana Policy Review by Timothy P. Ehrgott, a charter-school pioneer who wrote that charter schools haven’t fulfilled their promise. But while Ehrgott seemed almost ready to pull the plug, Finn and Manno want to double down on the bet – as long as charter supporters learn from their mistakes.

Charter schools, they write, have five positive attributes that position them for success: They have strong public support (even though much of the public doesn’t know what charter schools are); many of them do well in school rankings; they largely serve poor and minority students; they are popular, as shown by long waiting lists; and they play a big role in some cities, like New Orleans.

“Turning to academic performance, however, our praise must be more muted, as the charter track record is, in a word, mixed,” Finn and Manno write. “Some of the country’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of the worst.” Continue reading