Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. On this painful anniversary, we miss his vision and moral clarity as much as ever.
Library of Congress photo
King was in Memphis to support union sanitation workers who were striking for a living wage and safe working conditions. He was also launching a national Poor People’s Campaign to fight poverty. Today, unions are under attack in the courts and statehouses, and the social safety net is shredding.
The president of the United States was elected in part by appealing to resentment of racial progress and social change. His base doesn’t flinch at expressions of racism, misogyny and religious bigotry.
And then there are the schools.
Recent reports on state education funding suggest Indiana is slipping when it comes to providing fair and adequate support for public schools.
Exhibit A, and the most discouraging example, is an annual report by researchers at Rutgers University and the Education Law Center. The report, “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card,” evaluates states on four measures of how they fund schools.
Indiana gets a C in the report for “funding distribution,” a measure of whether states provide additional funding for high-poverty school districts. That’s unfortunate, because Indiana used to consistently get A’s in the category. It used to do a better job of sending more money to the neediest districts.
There’s nothing more snooze-inducing than the adoption of state administrative rules. It features technical language, choreographed hearings, public comment periods, legalistic processes – and a sneaking suspicion that the people making the rules have already decided what will happen.
But rules can be important: case in point, the new school accountability rule that the Indiana State Board of Education is in the process of approving. It will set criteria for awarding A-to-F school grades and ultimately have a big influence on the reputations of schools and communities.
So it’s good that some of the people who will be most affected by the rule – teachers, school administrators and school board representatives – have been making clear what they think is wrong with the proposal the board is considering:
- They say a plan to put less emphasis on test-score growth and more on test-score performance will handicap high-poverty schools and provide an inaccurate picture of school effectiveness. The board’s proposal would cap math and language-arts growth points for elementary and middle schools and eliminate growth as a factor in high-school grades.
- They worry that adding accountability for science and social studies could lead to more emphasis on testing and test prep if it isn’t handled properly.
- They question details of the state’s move to a national college-admission exam, like the SAT or ACT, to measure of high-school performance. One official pointed out that students who aren’t college-bound may not take the test seriously, but schools will be judged on their scores.
- They ask how the accountability rule, including the requirement of SAT or ACT exams, will mesh with new high-school graduation pathways requirements that the board has adopted.
Average teacher salaries in Indiana have declined by over 15 percent in the past 15 years after adjusting for inflation. That’s according to an interactive analysis produced last week by Alvin Change of Vox, drawing on data from the National Education Association.
Indiana’s pay cuts, Chang writes, are “worse than the nation as a whole, where teachers have had their pay cut by an average of 3 percent when we adjust for inflation. And since 2010, teachers in Indiana had their pay cut by 9.7 percent.”
They’re also worse than in West Virginia, where low pay and a lack of raises touched off a two-week teacher strike that pushed state officials to approve a 5-percent raise for educators. Clearly, lagging teacher pay is an issue across the country. The West Virginia strike could be a harbinger of things to come. Kentucky or Oklahoma could be next.
Chang quotes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to explain what has happened:
Indiana lawmakers may have been trying to do the right thing last week when they created a way for financially struggling school corporations to avoid being flagged for takeover by the state. But they went too far when they made those procedures secret.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to create new exceptions to the state’s public records and open meetings laws, limiting public scrutiny of efforts by local and state officials to turn around a school corporation’s finances before it gets placed on a state watch list.
As Steve Key of the Hoosier State Press Association pointed out, this isn’t just bad public policy – it’s likely to be counterproductive by blocking public participation in important government decisions.
“To me it’s puzzling,” he said. “It doesn’t allow people in the community to support their school district or push the administration and the school board to turn things around before it gets worse.”
The Indiana Department of Education has released its 2017-18 school voucher report, providing more evidence that the state voucher program has evolved into something very different from its original design. It is now a massive government entitlement for religious schools and their students.
Indiana has awarded $154 million this year in private-school tuition vouchers to 35,458 students attending 318 schools. All those numbers are records, and nearly all the voucher schools are religious schools. The program keeps growing, although the growth has slowed.
Voucher advocates claim the program doesn’t cost the state because subsidizing tuition is cheaper than paying for students to attend public school. But many of the students have never attended public school; and there’s no clear evidence that, without vouchers, they would have.
According to the state report, 56.5 percent of students receiving vouchers this year have no record of having attended a public school in Indiana. That percentage grows every year.
It’s tempting to think Indiana House Bill 1315 is a concern only for people in Muncie and Gary. But if state officials can abolish local control of Muncie and Gary community schools because of financial problems, they could do the same for your local district.
“There are real stakes here for a number of districts,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association. “They’re seeing that, even though we’re not Gary or Muncie, what happened to them could happen to us.”
HB 1315 doubles down on 2017 legislation that enabled the state to intervene in the Muncie and Gary districts and turn their operation over to emergency managers appointed by a state board.
Most dramatically, it would hand the operation of Muncie Community Schools over to Ball State University and turn it into a charter-like district exempt from state laws on curriculum, transportation and collective bargaining for teachers. In Gary, the bill would convert the elected local school board to an advisory committee that could meet no more than four times a year.
Legislative Democrats and teachers’ unions have been pushing back against the bill, which has been approved by the House. But Ball State and the Republican supermajority seem to strongly support it. The best hope for slowing it down may be via amendments this week in a Senate committee.