Court may open door for vouchers, religious charter schools

It was a big deal when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled just 20 years ago that states could legally provide tuition vouchers for students to attend private, religious schools. Now the court is poised to take a more radical step.

It’s likely to rule that denying public funding to religious schools is unconstitutional, at least in some circumstances. The question is, how far will the ruling go? Experts expect the court to overturn a Maine program that pays for student tuition at some private schools but excludes religious schools. But the decision could be written to apply more broadly.

Supreme Court Building

The case, Carson v. Makin, involves a program that affects a handful of rural Maine school districts that are too small to support a local high school. The state pays for students in those areas to attend a nearby public school or private school. In 1980, citing concerns about separation of church and state, Maine barred religious schools from participating.

Parents eventually sued, arguing that denying them funding to attend a religious school was discriminatory and violated the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. The court heard oral arguments in December 2021 and is expected to issue its decision this month.

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Charter schools and ‘educational blackmail’

Are charter schools like polluting industries? That’s a provocative analogy, but two University of Connecticut researchers explore it in a recent paper. They contend that, while some charter schools may help students, the sector needs stronger regulation to prevent harm to students and school districts.

“I would argue that, even if there are benefits, that does not give you carte blanche to not regulate or mitigate the harms that occur,” Preston C. Green III, the paper’s lead author, told me.

The paper, “Beware of Educational Blackmail: How Can We Apply Lessons from Environmental Justice to Urban Charter School Growth?,” is pending publication in South Carolina Law Review and is online at the Social Science Research Network. Authors are Green, the university’s John and Maria Neag professor of urban education, and doctoral student Chelsea Connery.

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Session could have been worse for education

The 2022 session of the Indiana General Assembly produced plenty of bad news, but at least there’s this: When it comes to education, it could have been worse. Much worse.

Republican legislators failed in their all-out effort to ban the teaching of what they misleadingly call “critical race theory” in schools. They also fell short in their efforts to politicize school board elections, encourage book-banning, and make public schools share funding with charter schools.

Indiana Statehouse
Indiana Statehouse

Their one truly harmful action regarding schools was the approval of House Bill 1041, which prohibits transgender girls from playing girls’ sports. This cruel legislation was designed for one purpose only: to toss a bone to the GOP’s right wing. Maybe – hopefully — Gov. Eric Holcomb will veto it.

Other than that, Republicans wasted people’s time and energy with lots of sound and fury about education, but it ultimately signified almost nothing.

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‘Follow the money’

A political action committee that favors more funding for charter schools gave $50,000 in December 2021 to the Indiana House Republican Campaign Committee and one of its favored candidates.

Weeks later, House Republicans introduced and began supporting legislation to require public school districts to share funding from property-tax referendums with charter schools.

Is there a connection? Hoosier Republicans have long been ideologically predisposed to school choice in all its forms. They argue state education tax dollars should “follow the child,” whether parents send the child to a public, charter or private school or a for-profit tutoring service.

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Enrollment up, but only a little

Enrollment in Indiana public and charter schools bounced back last fall as most districts returned to full-time, in-person learning. But not all the way back.

According to data released this week by the Indiana Department of Education, 1.03 million students were enrolled in public and charter schools at the start of the current school year. That’s up slightly from the previous year but about 14,000 short of number in fall 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enrollment had declined in the fall of 2020 as the pandemic took hold and many schools switched partly or fully to online or hybrid instruction. Much of the decrease was in the early grades, especially kindergarten, where enrollment shrank by over 7%.

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Bill would share referendum funds with charter schools

Legislation to force school districts to share money from property-tax referendums with charter schools is scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The measure, House Bill 1072, says funding from future operating and school-safety referendums must be shared with charter schools attended by students who live in the school district. Its author is Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the influential chair of the House Education Committee.

An analysis by the state’s Legislative Services Agency suggests the bill could shift about $25 million a year from school districts to charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. The impact would be most pronounced in cities with many charter schools, like Indianapolis and Gary. It would not apply to online charter schools or “adult high schools” like Goodwill Industries’ Excel Centers.

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IPS, Gary dominate charter school demographics

Two themes jump out from Indiana Department of Education demographic data on charter school students in Indiana. First, it’s a tale of two cities – or, more accurately, a tale of two districts.

Over half of Indiana’s nearly 45,000 charter school students live in the Indianapolis Public Schools and Gary Community Schools districts, even though those districts account for fewer than 5% of the state’s students. State charter school data are overwhelmingly skewed by what happens in those two districts.

Second, Indianapolis’ approximately 50 charter schools enroll higher percentages of Black and economically disadvantaged students than IPS schools – even though IPS has significantly more Black students and students from low-income families than most districts in the state.

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Budget would increase charter school funding

Charter schools would get a boost in funding under a budget bill that’s headed for approval by the Indiana House. There may be an argument for that, but don’t expect the legislature to debate it.

Under a budget amendment adopted Thursday by the House Ways and Means Committee, the state’s “charter and innovation network school grant” would increase from $750 per pupil to $1,000 in 2021-22 and $1,250 in 2022-23. The increase would cost the state nearly $40 million over two years.

The grant program is intended to compensate for the fact that charter schools can’t levy local property taxes, while public school districts use property taxes to pay for student transportation and facilities expenses. The result is that districts spend about $3,300 more, per pupil, than charter schools, according to a report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Charter schools aren’t required to provide student transportation; reportedly some do, and some don’t. They do have costs for facilities and may have to pay most of those from their state operating funds. According to the CRPE report, charter schools spend $1,285 per pupil on facilities.

Charter school advocates have long objected to the unequal funding and have lobbied to change it. In the 2020 elections, one of the biggest contributors to the House Republican Campaign Committee was a new political action committee called Hoosiers for Great Public Schools. Chaired by former Democratic Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, the group gave $150,000 to the House GOP committee and another $50,000 to the campaign of Republican House Speaker Todd Huston.

The PAC raised $900,000 in 2020, none of it from Hoosiers: it all came from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and former energy trader and hedge-fund manager John Arnold. (It also spent heavily on Indianapolis Public Schools board elections).

Peterson told me last fall that his primary concern was the “funding gap” between charter schools and traditional public schools. Just what constitutes fair funding for charter schools is a debate worth having, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead, House leaders have dealt with the issue in the budget, effectively bypassing any discussion of charter-school funding policy.

When it comes to advocacy, money talks; and those with the most money get heard.

‘School choice’ and public schools

Here’s a little secret about school choice in Indiana: Public schools lose more students to other public school districts than to charter schools or private school vouchers.

According to the Indiana Department of Education’s fall 2020 Public School Corporation Transfer Report, 70,394 Hoosier students transferred from one public school district to another this year. That compares with 44,569 who attend charter schools and 35,150 who attend private schools using state-funded tuition vouchers, the options we think of as “school choice.”

Until a few years ago, Indiana didn’t see so many public-school transfers. School district operations were partially funded by local property taxes. Students could transfer from one district to another, but they were expected to pay “transfer tuition” to cover the costs.

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Former Democratic mayor raises big money for GOP

A political action committee chaired by a former Democratic mayor of Indianapolis is one of the top contributors to the Indiana House Republican Campaign Committee.

The PAC, Hoosiers for Great Public Schools, was created in April and is chaired by Bart Peterson. He was mayor of Indianapolis from 1999 to 2007 and is now president and CEO of Christel House International, a nonprofit that operates three charter schools in Indianapolis. The PAC’s treasurer is Caryl Auslander, former vice president of education for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

The PAC has contributed $150,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee and another $50,000 to the campaign of Republican House Speaker Todd Huston, according to campaign finance reports. That’s more than almost any other donor with a couple of exceptions.

It has also given $20,000 to the Indiana Senate Republican campaign committee and $17,000 to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s political action committee. It gave $200,000 to RISE Indy, a PAC that supports Indianapolis school board candidates who favor charter-like “innovation” schools.

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