Quick takes on the 2017 legislative session

A session of the Indiana General Assembly is kind of like a tornado. When it’s over, you crawl out of your shelter, look around and assess the damage.

Lawmakers finished their business and left the Statehouse on Saturday morning. Here’s a quick look at some of the wreckage they left on the education front.

School funding

The most important thing the legislature does for education is to allocate funding for schools. Education funding is the lion’s share of the state budget, but you can’t say lawmakers were very generous.

On average, per-pupil funding will increase by only 1.1 percent in 2017-18 and 1.3 percent in 2018-19. That’s not good enough. School funding in Indiana has never caught up to what it was before the Great Recession, and private school vouchers account for an ever-growing slice of the school funding pie.

The funding formula continues a recent trend of directing bigger funding increases to growing suburban schools and less money to urban and rural schools. Funding is down a lot for the complexity index, the part of the formula that boosts support for schools serving more poor children.

Appointed superintendent

Lawmakers delivered on a priority for Gov. Eric Holcomb: making superintendent of public instruction an appointed rather than an elected position. In a compromise between the House and Senate, the new system won’t take effect until 2025 and the appointed superintendent must be an Indiana resident.

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Legislation gives governor unusual power over education

Making the case that Indiana’s governor should appoint the superintendent of public instruction, House Speaker Brian Bosma said the “vast majority” of states have moved away from electing state education officials. That’s not entirely accurate.

It’s true that Indiana is one of just a dozen states that let the voters choose their chief state school officer, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. But seven states elect their state education boards, which typically appoint the state superintendent.

In fact, House Bill 1005 – approved by the legislature and sent to Gov. Eric Holcomb to be signed into law – would make Indiana one of only five states in which the governor has complete control of appointments of the state superintendent and members of the State Board of Education.

That’s a lot of authority to put in the hands of one person. And it’s a bit unusual in Indiana, where we insist on electing public officials all the way down to the township level. Continue reading

Appointed superintendent push is about politics

Indiana Republicans are determined to change state law so the governor can appoint the superintendent of public instruction. OK, but stop pretending this is about principle.

There’s some validity to the idea that the governor and superintendent should be on the same page regarding education policy. Governors from both parties, including current Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, have made that argument.

But advocates like House Speaker Brian Bosma are blowing smoke when they claim they just want to put the superintendent position and the Indiana Department of Education above politics. It could have the opposite effect.

You could say that Indiana went down this road before. In 2008, the popular and scrupulously nonpartisan superintendent Suellen Reed had served four terms and could have run again. But Gov. Mitch Daniels recruited a southern Indiana school administrator named Tony Bennett to replace her on the Republican ticket.

Bennett won and proceeded to implement an agenda of promoting charter schools and vouchers and weakening teachers’ unions. Continue reading

Meier: ‘We need to teach creative noncompliance’

Our 11th-grade American history teacher didn’t mince words. “I am going to teach you about democracy in an autocratic manner,” he said on the first day of class.

The stab at irony may have produced some smiles, but none of us expected it to be any different. Of course, he would be an autocrat. School was an autocratic institution. We all knew that.

Deborah Meier

Deborah Meier

Deborah Meier may have known it, but she didn’t accept it. The renowned progressive educator has spent her career not only preaching but practicing progressive, democratic principles at places like Central Park East schools in New York and Mission Hill School in Boston.

Speaking last week to an audience at the Indiana University School of Education, she said it’s odd that we send our kids to “thoroughly autocratic” schools and expect them to learn democratic citizenship.

“There are very few places where young people experience what democracy looks like,” she said.

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Discussions to focus on equity in local schools

Researchers have shown school choice via charter schools and private school vouchers is increasing the segregation of American schools by race and social class. That’s a worrisome and important finding, but schools were growing more segregated before the rise of choice, in part because of decisions we made as individuals and communities.

HMI symposium posterOne example is Bloomington, Ind., the small college town where I live. With relatively few black and Latino students, you can’t say the schools are segregated by race. But students from different socioeconomic groups are separated in different schools.

That’s the backdrop for discussions that will take place this week at the Harmony-Meier Institute’s third annual symposium. It will include conversations on local school equity issues on Thursday and a panel featuring legendary progressive educator Deborah Meier and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick on Friday.

Thursday’s event celebrates the legacy of the late Indiana University education professor Ellen Brantlinger, who described class segregation in local schools in her 2003 book “Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage.”

The local school district has put more resources into high-poverty schools since then, but the basic situation continues. Students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch range from over 85 percent in one school to less than 7 percent in another. Not surprisingly, low-poverty schools tend to have higher test scores and consistently get As on the state’s school grading system, while high-poverty schools sometimes struggle.

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Confusion over charter school teacher licensing

A disagreement over licensing requirements for teachers in Indiana charter schools is coming to a head with legislation making its way through the General Assembly. It centers on how to interpret language in state law. Depending on how you read the law, it either requires most charter-school teachers to have a standard teaching license — or it doesn’t.

The Indiana Department of Education, which administers teacher licensing requirements, has interpreted the law to say that 90 percent of teachers in a charter school must have a regular teaching license, the kind that would let them teach in a neighborhood public school. The Indiana State Teachers Association agrees; it says licensing requirements should apply to state-funded charter schools just as they apply to public schools.

“We believe the professionals going into the classroom need to be properly trained, not only in content areas but also in pedagogy,” said ISTA Vice President Keith Gambill. “You don’t learn classroom management in a calculus course.”

But some advocates for charter schools, including the Indiana Charter School Board, say the flexibility allowed to charter schools should include more leeway in hiring teachers.

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State funding lags for high-poverty schools

The state budget bill approved last month by the Indiana House continues a trend that we’ve seen for several legislative sessions: School districts that primarily serve affluent families are getting decent funding increases while high-poverty school districts are losing out.

But the story is more complicated than a simple tale of taking from the poor and giving to the rich. It also touches on the innate difficulty of coming up with an accurate and reliable measure of student poverty. For some districts, another factor in play is the current atmosphere for immigrant families.

For over 20 years, Indiana has used a school funding device called the Complexity Index to direct more money to high-poverty schools, which face more complex challenges in educating students. The House budget reduces Complexity Index funding by 15 percent, or $136 million.

The result: High-poverty school districts, those that rely for extra funding on the Complexity Index, could face financial challenges in the two-year period covered by the budget. The legislation is now being considered by the Senate, which could make changes in the House-approved school funding formula.

According to data from Libby Cierzniak, an attorney who represents Indianapolis and Hammond schools at the Statehouse, average per-pupil funding would increase three times as much for the state’s 50 lowest-poverty school districts as for the 50 highest-poverty districts under the House budget. Lawmakers could tweak the formula to make the results more equitable, but so far, they haven’t.

“High-poverty school districts, compared to low-poverty school districts, would take the biggest losses,” Cierzniak said.

Why does Complexity Index funding decrease? The short answer, Cierzniak said, is that, according to the poverty measure used in the index, there are fewer poor children in the state than two years ago. Continue reading