Pre-K expansion still faces hurdles

An Indiana University research center released a detailed report last week recommending Indiana expand its pre-kindergarten pilot program and explaining how 10 others states have done just that. But on the same day, a state Senate committee slashed funding for pre-K expansion to almost nothing.

And so it goes here in the 201st year of Indiana statehood. We are determined to pinch pennies as tightly as we can, even if it means depriving our youngest citizens of the education they deserve.

The report, from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU, was produced for the State Board of Education. It describes Indiana’s nascent pre-K program – which serves about 1,600 4-year-olds in five of the state’s 92 counties – and contrasts it with programs in other states that started small and grew.

The programs vary in scope, student eligibility and academic requirements. Not surprisingly, states that spend the most money serve the most students. Georgia, for example, provides pre-K in 100 percent of its school districts. Massachusetts, which got a later start, serves 25 percent of districts. Other states examined are Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Indiana’s pilot pre-K program, On My Way Pre-K, is available only in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. It was created in 2014 and spends $10 million per year.

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Message for legislators: School funding hasn’t kept pace

Indiana schools still haven’t recovered from the financial hit they took from the recession of 2007-09. And schools that serve poor children have fallen furthest behind where they once were.

Those are key findings from an analysis of school funding from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. The report, “Equity Analysis of the 2015-17 Indiana School Funding Formula,” was written by CEEP researcher Thomas Sugimoto for the State Board of Education.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

The findings should be front and center for legislators as they put together a state budget for the next two years, including a funding formula that will allocate about $7 billion a year to schools.

Sugimoto said lawmakers shouldn’t see the report in isolation but should consider it in light of their efforts to create a fair and effective system for funding education. And the report should improve their understanding of the challenges facing schools where funding has declined, he said.

Indiana schools have been digging out of the hole left by the recession, the report shows, but they’ve not reached daylight. Adjusting for inflation, they operate on less money today than eight years ago. State leaders will say there’s only enough money to give schools a modest increase. But the state has $2 billion in reserves, some of which could be tapped. And tax cuts approved in recent years reduced state revenue by $650 million, according to Purdue agricultural economist Larry DeBoer. Investing that money in education would have put schools on much more solid ground.

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Big costs, little oversight for voucher program

Indiana spent over $131 million last year on tuition vouchers for students to attend private K-12 schools. But the state provides almost no fiscal oversight for the voucher program, according to a recent report from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

Schools that participate in the program aren’t audited. There’s no public reporting or accounting of how they spend the public money they receive. It’s hard even for scholars to track down detailed data that would give a full picture of how the program operates and what it costs taxpayers.

And the lack of oversight and accountability is just one of several ways in which the Indiana program differs from established school voucher programs in Wisconsin, Ohio, Arizona, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., the report finds. Other differences include:

  • Indiana is unusually generous, offering vouchers to more categories of students.
  • Its treatment of special education is unusual, letting parents of special-needs students with vouchers decide if the private school or local public school will provide services.
  • Budgeting is opaque, with funding coming from overall education appropriations rather than a separate line for vouchers in the state budget.

CEEP’s Indiana voucher report is tied to a larger report, “Follow the Money: A Comprehensive Review of the Funding Mechanisms of Voucher Programs in Six Cases,” released last week by the IU research center. Authors are research associate Molly Stewart and graduate research assistant Jodi Moon.

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Indiana voters back school funding

This blog specializes in bad news. But here’s some good news for public education from this month’s elections: Nine of the 10 Indiana school districts that asked voters for permission to raise local property taxes to support education were successful.

Prior to this year, fewer than half the referendums that took place since Indiana’s current school-funding laws went into effect in 2008 won public approval. With the May 2014 results, schools have finally topped the .500 mark: 52 of 102 have succeeded.

School-funding referendums in Indiana come in two varieties: They can raise taxes to build schools; or they can augment state funding for a district’s general fund, which pays teacher and staff salaries and other operating expenses. Over the years, the mix has been about half-and-half between construction and general-fund referendums. But this year, eight of 10 were to boost general-fund spending. All those proposals passed. Some were close, though; three passed with 51 percent or less of the vote.

In at least two – White River Valley in Greene County and Eminence in Morgan County – local officials said losing would force the district to close and consolidate with a nearby school district. Voters didn’t want that to happen. The Eminence measure passed with 87 percent of the vote; WRV with 54 percent. Continue reading

Ritz to speak Monday in Bloomington

The first eight months in office have been eventful for Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz. There should be a lot to talk about when she visits Indiana University Bloomington Monday for a policy chat.

The session, sponsored by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, starts at 2 p.m. in the Georgian Room of the Indiana Memorial Union. Jeremy Anderson, president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, will moderate.

Ritz, of course, pulled off a shocker by upsetting incumbent Tony Bennett in the November 2012 election. Republican Bennett had a 5-to-1 spending advantage and support from the likes of Jeb Bush and Michael Bloomberg. Ritz had a grassroots movement of teachers and parents on her side.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing since she took office in January.

// State ISTEP-Plus exams were plagued by computer interruptions in the spring, delaying results and throwing a wrench into school and teacher evaluations.

// The legislature mandated a “pause” in implementing the Common Core State Standards, putting Ritz in the middle of a nasty fight between supporters and opponents of the standards.

// Controversy erupted over the state’s A-to-F school grading system when the Associated Press revealed that Bennett and his staff manipulated the system to boost a charter school’s grade.

// Gov. Mike Pence created a Center for Education and Career Innovation, a new agency that appears to take responsibility for education policy away from Ritz. Ritz said she wasn’t told in advance about the move.

// State Board of Education members, appointed by Pence and his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, regularly balk at Ritz’s recommendations and seem to be taking over some of the superintendent’s budgetary and policy responsibilities.

All this puts Ritz in a tight spot. She has tried to nudge the state away from the hard-nosed approach to education reform that Bennett favored. But to a certain extent, she has to get along with the Republicans who run state government. It should make for an interesting policy chat on Monday.

Three ideas worth considering

With everyone hunkered down over A-to-F school grades, Common Core, and Tony Bennett’s emails, it’s refreshing to hear new and interesting ideas for improving education. Here are three, presented in an Indianapolis Star op-ed by Terry Spradlin of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy and gleaned from multi-state conversations aimed at creating a “blueprint for college and career readiness.”

Redesign the senior year of high school: Students who are ready for college should focus on AP or dual-credit college classes, Spradlin writes. Students who plan to go to college but aren’t ready should take classes that combine remediation with college gateway credits. Those who aren’t college-bound could use the year to become certified for jobs that are in demand.

Review math requirements for college programs: “It is becoming apparent that the math remediation problem in college is somewhat of a manufactured crisis because of our ‘one size fits all’ singular math pathway,” Spradlin writes. Continue reading

Surprise! Indiana students among world’s best in math and science

The basic assumption behind education reform in Indiana – the belief that drives high-stakes testing and accountability focused on students, teachers and schools – is that our public education system isn’t very good. Or at least that it isn’t what it ought to be.

But what if the assumption is wrong? Here’s some evidence that it is: Hoosier eighth-graders posted some of the world’s best scores in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which compared math and science achievement for students in 63 countries.

If Indiana were a country, it would have ranked with some of the world’s leaders.

The TIMSS results were analyzed in a policy brief produced in March by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University and written by David Rutkowski, Justin Wild and Leslie Rutkowski of the IU School of Education. But the report received almost no media attention.

“The only message we’re ever getting, and the impetus behind all this testing that we’re seeing, is that our schools are failing,” Leslie Rutkowski said last week. “We’re really not doing that badly.”

TIMSS measures how well students are learning an internationally accepted curriculum in math and science. It’s given every four years to students in fourth and eighth grades. The last round of testing was in 2011 –- significantly, before Indiana’s high-profile education reforms, including private-school vouchers, more charter schools and test-based teacher evaluations, took effect. Continue reading