State education department won’t disclose school grade data

The Indiana Department of Education is refusing to release data used to determine school grades for 2015, arguing it falls under an exception in the public-records law that says state agencies don’t have to disclose information that is “deliberative” and used for decision-making.

But an attorney and advocate for open government says the department is wrong to conceal the information, which would show how much grades might have been affected by the new, more difficult version of the ISTEP exam that students first took last spring.

“I think they’re misconstruing the deliberative information exception,” said Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association. The exception is intended to protect records that are opinion or speculation, he said, and the school-grade information is neither.

As has been extensively reported, Indiana switched to new learning standards and a harder-to-pass version of ISTEP in 2014-15. Passing rates plummeted and many schools expected to see their grades drop. In response, the General Assembly rushed through legislation to “hold schools harmless” if their grades got worse. Each school would get the higher of the grade it earned in 2014 or 2015.

When the Department of Education released the grades last month, it reported only the grades that schools were awarded, not the grades they actually earned. I emailed the department’s press office to ask for copies of the grades that schools would have received based on their 2015 test scores. As an alternative, I said, the department could provide the scores that schools earned on a 4-point scale, the basis for calculating the grades. These scores were made public in 2013 and 2014.

At the suggestion of the department’s press secretary, I filed a request for the data under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. Continue reading

Educator or politician?

Jennifer McCormick, seeking the Republican nomination for Indiana superintendent of public instruction, says she wants to “take the politics out” of the office. Good luck with that. Especially when, as Chalkbeat Indiana reported, she announced her candidacy surrounded by representatives of Stand for Children, the Institute for Quality Education and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, some of the most political outfits in the state.

Candidates for Indiana superintendent run as Democrats or Republicans – and they run as part of a slate of candidates for state office, including governor – so the race will likely be political in every sense.

But let’s assume McCormick, the Yorktown Community Schools superintendent who is challenging Democratic incumbent Glenda Ritz, is being honest. Here is some unsolicited advice:

  • Keep your distance from ideologues, especially those of the school-choice-and-free-educational-market variety who have an outsized influence on state Republican politics. If the Walton family and their ilk come offering big campaign donations, run the other way. Fast.
  • Decide and make clear that, as superintendent, you will be a forceful advocate for the traditional public schools that nine of 10 Indiana students attend. Let your public school flag fly. Don’t let the charter-and-voucher tail wag the policy dog.
  • Be careful about criticizing Ritz for being “political.” To her supporters, it’s crystal clear that Gov. Mike Pence, Republican legislators and State Board of Education members are the ones who brought the politics with their relentless attacks on the Democratic superintendent.
  • Better yet, reach out to Ritz’s supporters, including the teachers’ unions. They won’t back you, but if you win, you should want to work with them. Make the election about effectiveness and transparency, and make it clear you’re not just a kinder, gentler Tony Bennett.

Continue reading

Survey is ammunition, not illumination

University of Illinois education professor Christopher Lubienski said he winced when he saw a recent Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice survey that purported to find suspiciously strong support among Indiana voters for private school vouchers.

Christopher Lubienski

Christopher Lubienski

Lubienski, who studies both school choice and research methodology, suspected the survey results would be reported uncritically — and sure enough, they were.

“The Friedman Foundation is an advocacy organization,” he said in a phone interview this week. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but they have a position. I think it’s not appropriate to represent them as some kind of objective research organization. They’re not; they’re pushing an agenda.

“Researchers are looking for illumination,” he said. “And the Friedman Foundation is looking for ammunition.”

The Friedman Foundation survey found that an extraordinary seven in 10 Hoosier registered voters favor vouchers, in which the government pays private and religious school tuition for qualified students. Other surveys find voucher support to be half that strong. The foundation also found strong support for charter schools and for education savings accounts, a new and convoluted approach to providing public funding for private school tuition.

Continue reading

Voucher survey findings: Consider the source

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice is out with a new public opinion survey featuring the surprising finding that seven in 10 Indiana registered voters favor school vouchers, which provide taxpayer-funded tuition payments for parents who send their children to private schools.

The survey finds vouchers are popular across the board – even with many Indiana Democrats and with supporters of Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, an outspoken voucher opponent.

If this sounds suspicious, it should. Surveys by other organizations never seem to find anywhere close to that kind of support for vouchers. The recent Hoosier Survey by Ball State University’s Bowen Center for Public Affairs, for example, found only 39 percent support for vouchers for private or charter schools. Nationally, the 2015 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa Poll found only 31 percent support for vouchers.

So as for Friedman Foundation survey, consider the where it’s coming from. The foundation is an advocacy organization whose mission is to bring about the late economist Milton Friedman’s vision of privatizing education through universal state voucher programs that are open to all students.

The Indianapolis-based foundation has been conducting these state opinion surveys for a long time, and somehow they never fail to find strong support for vouchers. Researchers Jon Lorence and Gary Miron analyzed 10 of the Friedman Foundation surveys several years ago and concluded they were plagued with questionable sampling techniques, biased questions and other problems.

“Contrary to the authors’ claims, the data provide little evidence that state public officials will increase their electability by supporting school choice policies,” they wrote in a review for the pro-public education National Education Policy Center. Continue reading

Authorizer shopping pays off for charter school

Organizers of the Seven Oaks Classical School in Monroe County went shopping for a friendly authorizer and found one. Grace College and Theological Seminary, a small Christian school in northern Indiana, agreed this month to approve the charter school.

But Seven Oaks has work to do before it can open. For one thing, it needs a suitable facility. It’s looking to buy or lease and renovate a building in Bloomington, according to a news release.

The board also has to work through a 10-page checklist of items to the satisfaction of Grace College, including details about school governance, financial management, curriculum and other matters. And it needs to hire staff, including a head of school, and recruit and enroll students.

So the school may open this August, as organizers hope, but it will be a scramble. It will probably require leaning heavily on Hillsdale College’s Barney Charter School Initiative and/or the school management firm Indiana Charters, both identified as partners in the Seven Oaks application.

In fact, the charter – the written contract that spells out the duties of Seven Oaks and the authorizer – hasn’t yet been completed, Grace College public relations director Amanda Banks said. No decision has yet been made on whether Grace will collect the 3-percent administrative fee that state law allows charter authorizers, she said; that provision will be part of the charter, when it’s completed.

Continue reading

Afflicting the afflicted

Indiana lawmakers are rushing to prevent schools from getting lower accountability grades as a result of this year’s big drop in ISTEP scores. But in their haste, they are making a serious mistake.

Senate Bill 200, which they are about to pass, says schools’ grades for 2014-15 can’t be any lower than their 2013-14 grades. The new grades are set to be issued this month by the State Board of Education.

Here’s the problem. The legislation doesn’t do anything for schools that got an F in 2013-14 and that didn’t improve in 2014-15. And improving was a long shot because passing rates for ISTEP, the major component in school grades, declined by over 20 percentage points statewide.

Indiana schools that get successive Fs face increasingly severe state sanctions. Schools that reach six Fs in a row – and apparently there are three that could this year – face state takeover.

This doesn’t make any sense. The only reason for SB 200 in the first place is that the spring 2015 ISTEP tests were so difficult that it would be unfair to base grades on those results. But if that’s the case for schools that got an A, B, C or D in 2013-14, it should be just as true for schools that got an F.

Journalists like to say their job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With SB 200, the legislature is turning that adage on its head. And that’s just wrong. Continue reading

Free speech and free riders

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“Or the right of public employees to free-ride on other public employees.”

Who knew that second paragraph is what the Founding Fathers were thinking when they drafted the First Amendment to the Constitution? Apparently a majority of the Supreme Court knows.

According to news coverage of Monday’s oral arguments, the five conservative members of the court are likely to rule in favor of the plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a lawsuit that claims charging “fair-share” fees for union representation violates the First Amendment.

California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow plaintiffs argue that the fees amount to forced support for a political organization – the California Teachers Association – whose policies and positions they don’t support. But public-sector unions can’t use fair-share fees for lobbying and politics. The fees can pay only the costs that unions incur for bargaining contracts and representing employees.

Continue reading