Dysfunction and politics became a distraction, superintendent says

Jennifer McCormick ran for Indiana superintendent of public instruction in 2016 vowing to keep politics out of the office. She did her best, but it was too tall an order.

A state education governance system that McCormick calls “dysfunctional” has made it hard for her to do her job. And in recent months, her fellow Republicans have reportedly been talking among themselves about making the job an appointed one in 2020, likely removing her from office.

Jennifer McCormick

Jennifer McCormick

Last week, trying to calm the waters before the next legislative session starts in January, McCormick announced that she will not seek re-election when her term ends in two years.

“When we got into the race, I did it for sake of kids, for helping with the field and to try and calm things down and ease that disruption,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I said, if it ever came to where that wasn’t the case, I would need to re-evaluate.”

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Indiana gets an F for school privatization

Indiana fares poorly in a “Grading the States” report issued this month by the Network for Public Education. One of 17 states to receive an F for its school privatization policies, it is near the bottom overall and for its policies on vouchers and charter schools.

That’s hardly surprising. Indiana’s Republican-dominated government has aggressively promoted charter schools for over a decade and vouchers for years. For a time, the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council advised states to “do what Indiana does” on education.

But it seems that other states may have caught up. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Nevada all rank lower than Indiana in supporting public education, according to the Network for Public Education report. Indiana is 46th overall, 45th for vouchers and 42nd for charter schools.

The 29-page report, written by Tanya Clay House, a former U.S. Department of Education official, starts with the position that charter schools and voucher programs undermine the public schools that serve most students in the United States.

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Little diversity in Indy charter schools

The Hechinger Report and NBC News collaborated over the weekend for some solid reporting on racial segregation in charter schools. They focused on Lake Oconee Academy, a Georgia charter school where 73 percent of students are white while 68 percent of students in surrounding public schools are black.

Their stories identified 115 charter schools that they deemed racially segregated – much more heavily white than surrounding public schools. Texas and Michigan were home to the most charter schools where African-American and Hispanic students were dramatically underrepresented.

Hechinger and NBC defined a charter school as “segregated” if its share of white students was 20 percentage points higher than the whitest nearby public school. They also found at least 747 charter schools that enrolled a higher percentage of white students than any public school in the same district.

I wondered if Indianapolis would have charter schools on the list. It didn’t, but it might have if reporters had set their criteria a bit differently.

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Suspension rates extremely high at some schools

Some Indiana schools gave out-of-school suspensions to over half of their students during the 2016-17 academic year. That’s according to data provided by the Indiana Department of Education.

The suspension rates should be cause for concern, said JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, which advocates for research-based and nonpunitive school discipline.

“When kids are not in school and are losing critical days of instruction, their risk of dropping out is greater,” she said. “But it’s also important to note that, when you have really high percentages of students suspended, it impacts the whole school.”

“We’re really missing the big picture if we don’t understand how school discipline can undercut what we’re trying to do, which is improve these schools for all students.”

The high rates of suspension come at a time of concern that excessive discipline fuels a “school-to-prison pipeline.” Researchers have found that students of color are more likely than white students to be punished for the same offenses, and that such disparities may contribute significantly to racial achievement gaps. As Hanger suggested, studies have found that harsh school discipline can have negative effects even on students who aren’t subject to disciplinary actions.

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Charter-school study ‘one piece to the picture’

Indiana students lost ground academically after they transferred from public schools to charter schools, according to a new study by Indiana University education professors.

The students tended to catch up with their peers if they stayed in their charter school long enough. But here’s the rub: many did not. The study found that nearly half of the charter-school students returned to public schools within three years after leaving them.

The results don’t mean that charter schools are doing a bad job, said Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor in the IU School of Education in Indianapolis and one of the authors. Research has shown that students are likely to fall behind any time they move from one school to another.

“The problem is, charter schools were created as an option where that sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen,” Murphy said. “It’s about the expectations and how they’ve been marketed.”

The researchers presented the study, “Unfulfilled Promises: Transfer to a Charter School and Student Achievement in Indiana,” at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New York. Along with Murphy, authors are Gary Pike, Patricia Rogan and Demetrees Hutchins.

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Charter-school ‘evaluation’ reads like boosterism

The State Board of Education released its first report on Indiana charter school outcomes this month. The report includes a lot of information, but overall it reads more like pro-charter advocacy than the “formal evaluation” the state legislature requested.

The report claims to compare charter schools with public schools serving similar students and concludes that “brick-and-mortar” charter schools generally do a better job. But it uses a questionable methodology and leaves out important details and performance criteria. Tellingly, it cites pro-charter sources as authorities and unquestioningly adopts talking points about “innovation” and “autonomy.”

The report sets the tone at the start, boasting that “leading experts rank Indiana No. 1” for charter schools. But the only expert it cites is the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an organization that exists to promote charter schools and that gives Indiana A’s for its charter school support.

“The way it leads off, grading the law — it definitely comes across as kind of a cheerleading piece,” said Indiana University education professor Chris Lubienski, who reviewed the report last week.

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Urban schools losing students to transfers

Only 56 percent of school-age children who live in the Indianapolis Public Schools district attend IPS schools. The rest attend charter schools, receive vouchers to attend private schools or transfer to public schools in other districts.

In Gary, it’s even worse. Only 39 percent of school-age children who live in the district attend Gary Community Schools. More Gary students attend charter schools than local public schools.

These figures include only students whose schooling is funded by the state, not those who attend private schools and don’t receive vouchers. They are among the findings of the first Public Corporation Transfer Report, a revealing report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education..

And when students transfer out of their local school district to attend other public schools, charter schools or private schools, it matters. Districts lose funding when they lose students, and declining enrollment is one reason IPS, Gary and other urban districts have struggled financially.

In those cities, the growth of charter schools and state-funded vouchers for private schools have been driving the decline in enrollment. But elsewhere, a bigger factor has been the de facto inter-district open enrollment that was created when the state took responsibility for funding school operations several years ago. In some areas, students transfer so much that district boundaries seem almost meaningless.

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