Phyllis Bush, champion of public schools

Public schools lost a true champion with the death this week of Phyllis Bush, a retired Fort Wayne teacher and tireless activist who inspired us all with her with her truth-telling and optimism.

Phyllis Bush, right, and Donna Roof

Phyllis Bush, right, and Donna Roof at the 2018 Network for Public Education conference.

Her passion for public schools was in no way abstract or ideological. It came from experience and relationships. She taught school for 32 years, including 24 years at Fort Wayne South Side High School. And she radiated love and loyalty for her fellow teachers and former students.

When she spoke out against school vouchers and charter schools, it was because she hated what they were doing to her beloved public schools and the 90 percent of students who attend them.

She died Tuesday after a lengthy battle against cancer, which she chronicled in a blog that she referred to, with characteristic humor, as “Cancer Schmantzer.”

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Poor schools neglected in funding plan

Hardly anyone wins in the 2019-21 budget and school funding formula approved by the Indiana House, but some schools lose more than others. And high-poverty school districts continue to fall behind.

Legislators have boasted that the budget increases K-12 funding by over 2 percent each of the next two years. But allowing for inflation and increasing enrollment, that’s effectively no increase at all.

As Northwest Allen County Superintendent Chris Himsel tells the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, the key figure is funding per student. Statewide, that will increase by just 1.5 percent in fiscal 2020 and 1.7 percent in fiscal 2021, according to school funding calculations released by House Republications.

And the increase won’t be distributed equally. That’s because funding for the “complexity” category, which funnels additional support to neediest students, is being cut by over $100 million.

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Study: Indiana lags on school funding

Indiana has fallen far behind neighboring states when it comes to funding K-12 education, according to a study released this week by the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Robert Toutkoushian

Robert Toutkoushian

It’s also fallen behind where it used to rank on education spending and teacher salaries. A few years ago, Indiana did a relatively good job of funding schools, but it has slipped markedly in state rankings.

And it will take a lot of money to catch up, the study finds. The state would have to increase K-12 spending by nearly $1.5 billion a year to catch up with surrounding states. It would have to boost spending by $3.3 billion a year to get back the ranking it enjoyed five years previously.

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Lawmakers take first steps on virtual schools

Finally, the Indiana General Assembly is taking steps to regulate “virtual” or online charter schools. But it has a way to go to make the regulations as tough as they should be.

Gordon Hendry

Gordon Hendry

“Right now, I’m encouraged that the legislature is taking the issue seriously,” said Gordon Hendry, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education. “I think it’s still early – my hope is some additional items make it into final legislation, and I hope the governor encourages that.”

Hendry chaired a committee of the board that drafted recommendations for the legislature to adopt. Some of those recommendations are included in legislation; others aren’t, at least not yet.

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Voucher program serves the top 20 percent

Over 1,300 households that participate in Indiana’s school voucher program have incomes over $100,000, according to the 2018-19 voucher report from the Indiana Department of Education.

That puts them in the top 20 percent of Hoosier households by income. So much for the argument that the voucher program, created in 2011, exists to help poor children “trapped” in low-performing schools.

Like previous state reports on the voucher program, the current report paints a picture of a program that primarily promotes religious education and serves tens of thousands of families that could afford private school tuition without help from the taxpayers.

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‘Charter schools are public’ claim doesn’t hold up

Seven Oaks Classical School headmaster Stephen Shipp makes several debatable claims in his Herald-Times guest column arguing that charter schools are public schools.

He suggests charter schools are public because they “are judged by the state’s A-F accountability system.” But in Indiana, so are private schools that receive vouchers. He says charter schools are “accountable to an authorizer who can shut them down.” Yes, but that almost never happens. Seven Oaks’ authorizer, Grace College, does not answer to the public.

Shipp claims charter schools are at a disadvantage because they can’t levy property taxes to pay for buildings and transportation. But they don’t have to provide transportation (Seven Oaks doesn’t). And, unlike public schools, charter schools in Indiana receive state funding — soon to be $1,000 per student — for those costs. They also qualify for grants, like the $900,000 recently awarded Seven Oaks.

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McCormick unbound

I don’t think Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick has ever been shy about saying what she thinks, but she seems to have become even more outspoken since announcing in October that she won’t seek re-election when her term expires in January 2021.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

She called out legislators on several issues Wednesday in a Bloomington discussion sponsored by the Indiana Coalition of Public Education-Monroe County and the Monroe County Community School Corp.

School funding: McCormick said the school funding increase in the budget that the Indiana House has approved – just over 2 percent each of the next two years – isn’t enough. Low pay and working conditions are creating a severe teacher shortage, she said, and more money is needed. Thirty-five percent of teachers leave the profession in their first five years.

Funding for charter schools: She took issue with a budget provision that doubles grants to charter schools for transportation, buildings and technology to $1,000 per student – at a cost to the state of $77 million over two years. “If we’ve got $77 million,” she said, “let’s put it in the pot for everybody.”

Indiana’s private-school voucher program: McCormick pointed out that the program was sold in 2011 as a way to help poor and minority students stuck in low-performing schools, but it has evolved into something quite different. Fifty-eight percent of voucher students never attended a public school. “Suburban whites are the ones taking advantage of it most,” she said. Continue reading