A ‘Marshall Plan’ for schools

Economist Susan Dynarski writes in Sunday’s New York Times that America needs an ambitious initiative to help students make up for the learning that they missed this spring when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the nation’s schools.

Teachers and students have done their best with distance learning, she writes, but “it’s time to admit that, for the vast majority of students, online learning and work sheets are no substitute for trained teachers in classrooms.”

Her proposal: a massive federal program to help students catch up, something on the order of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II. It’s needed, she says, because for many students, the school year effectively ended in March.

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Coming recession could devastate school funding

A recession is coming, and the consequences are likely to be devastating for public schools – unless state and federal policymakers learn from the last downturn and take smart steps to cushion the blow.

That’s the message of “The Coronavirus Pandemic and K-12 Funding,” a new report from the Albert Shanker Institute. It points out that schools in many states never recovered from the 2007-09 recession. Now they are about to be hit with another one, and it may be worse.

“That is, many jurisdictions will be facing a possibly unprecedented funding crisis while they are still digging out from the last one,” co-authors Bruce Baker and Matthew Di Carlo write.

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Lower-income parents worry about learning loss

Lower-income parents are more than twice as likely as upper-income parents to be “very concerned” that their children are falling behind from missing school during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

The survey confirms that lower-income parents value their children’s education as much as anyone. And they are right to be concerned. Even if schools can reopen in the fall, most students will be away from the classroom for nearly half a year. As a New York Times editorial argues, this could have catastrophic effects.

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Time for ‘educational recovery planning’

It was no surprise when state officials announced last week that Indiana K-12 schools would stay closed for the remainder of the school year, with instruction provided remotely. But important questions won’t be answered for some time.

First, when will schools reopen? Will there be summer school this year, or will schools stay closed until fall — or even longer? How will Indiana help students recover from losing over two months of their education? And finally, how will we pay for it?

A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that, absent an effective educational response, the pandemic “is likely to generate the greatest disruption in educational opportunity worldwide in a generation.” That’s a frightening thought.

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Public access still matters

The Indianapolis Public Schools board violated the state’s Open Door Law last week when it effectively excluded the public from attending what should have been a public meeting.

The violation may have been “technical,” and it may have been motivated by public health concerns. And yes, there are more serious things to worry about right now, given the COVID-19 pandemic and all its effects. But it’s still worrisome that the state’s most closely watched district could disregard the law that protects our right to have government business conducted in public.

And this wasn’t a no-one-cares school board meeting. The board voted 4-3 to turn two IPS schools over to outside partners, which will operate them as “innovation network” schools. The proposals had been subject to considerable debate at previous meetings, which were open to the public. Those decisions could be overturned if a judge were to rule the meeting was illegal.

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What if e-learning isn’t enough?

Was it just a week ago that we were worrying about whether students would have to take standardized tests when they returned to schools that had been closed by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Testing now seems to be the least of our problems. Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered Thursday that Indiana schools must close until May 1 as part of the state’s approach to fighting the spread of the new coronavirus. The order wasn’t a surprise, but it’s unsettling for students, families and educators.

It seems increasingly likely that this school year is shot. Holcomb suggested it would take a miracle for schools to reopen in May. Even if they do, that leaves just a few weeks of the semester.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, schools are moving to e-learning, with students doing their work online. That may work for some schools and some students, but not for all. Many families, and some rural parts of the state, don’t have access to the internet. And as Indiana’s experience with virtual charter schools has made clear, online learning is often a bust.

Responses to COVID-19 school closings on social media fall into two camps. Some parents are planning to effectively home-school their children and sharing resources for online learning. Others, convincingly, counsel parents to relax, enjoy their children and know they’ll eventually learn what they need to know.

Missing are the voices of parents who may not have the time or means to debate on Twitter or Facebook but are legitimately concerned about what their kids will miss from being out of school for six weeks or longer. Some questions.

  • Can schools, teachers and community organizations to take e-learning help directly to low-income neighborhoods, in the same way schools are delivering free meals?
  • Should school districts and the state plan to extend the school year?
  • Can summer school be expanded to make up what students lost in March, April and May?
  • Should we be talking about lengthening the 2020-21 school year?

Any of those options would cost money, and logistics would be challenging; but if school matters, the loss of school matters, too. Yes, these are extraordinary times – as the decision to cancel Indiana’s standardized tests makes clear. But relying exclusively on e-learning could leave our most vulnerable students behind. We shouldn’t let that happen.

Time to cancel state tests

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick and the Indiana Department of Education are calling for standardized tests to be canceled in response to the COVID-19 outbreak that is closing schools across the state. It’s not an easy call, but it’s the right one.

The department asked Friday for schools to be excused from state and federal requirements for standardized assessments for the 2019-20 school year. The requests go to Gov. Eric Holcomb and to the U.S. Department of Education.

The department also said it would postpone the third-grade reading exam IREAD-3, scheduled to start next week, and suspend 10th-grade ISTEP testing. ILEARN exams for grades 3-8 will be delayed if not canceled.

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Students fall behind in virtual charter schools, study finds

Recent news stories disclosed that virtual charter schools have been a bad deal for Indiana taxpayers. A new study suggests the schools may have been an even worse deal for students.

The study, slated for publication in the journal Educational Researcher, finds that Hoosier students who switched from public schools to virtual charter schools experienced significant academic setbacks.

“We see substantial, persistent drops in math and English language arts achievement,” said study co-author Joe Waddington, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Kentucky.

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Deadline nears on charter schools bill

Indiana advocates for traditional public schools are doing what they can in the little time that’s left to block legislation that would let charter schools share in the revenue produced by local property-tax referendums.

They had no chance to weigh in on the measure before Monday, when it was approved by the Senate as an amendment to House Bill 1065, dealing with various tax matters. That’s because it didn’t appear until Monday morning. Its author bypassed the normal legislative process, which includes committee hearings in both the House and Senate and a chance for the public to speak.

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Charter school legislation bypasses democratic process

Legislation to let school districts share the proceeds of property-tax referendums with charter schools is a short step from becoming law. Maybe that’s a reasonable idea and maybe it isn’t. But the way it arrived – slipped into a catch-all bill with no chance for scrutiny – should upset everyone.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

There were apparently rumors around the Statehouse that charter school advocates might want a share of school referendum dollars. But no legislation to that effect was introduced, and no lawmakers suggested the idea during meetings of the House and Senate education committees.

On Monday, though, the referendum-charter measure was filed as an amendment to House Bill 1065, dealing with “various tax matters.” This was well after the bill had been approved by the House and by a Senate committee, when advocates for and against could review the language and have their say.

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