Indiana Democrats look to score points on education

Kudos to Indiana House Democrats for making education a big part of their agenda for 2012. Not that their proposals are likely to pass – Democrats are a minority in the House and even more so in the Senate. And their ideas cost money, which the Republican majority won’t agree to spend.

But sometimes you introduce legislation to make a point, or to generate debate, or to set the stage for progress in future years. And the Democratic proposals make sense on all three of those counts.

While Indiana Republicans boast of enacting the most far-reaching educational reforms in the nation last year, they left important business unfinished. Indiana is one of only 10 states that don’t provide public funding for pre-kindergarten programs. And the state doesn’t fully fund all-day kindergarten, so parents in many school districts must pay tuition for their kids to attend kindergarten for more than half-days.

House Democrats propose providing full state funding for full-day kindergarten and creating a voucher program to help low-income parents send their children to preschool.

The centerpiece of the Dems’ education platform is a proposal to cap class sizes at levels as low as 18 for kindergarten and 22 for upper elementary grades. Small classes are popular with parents and teachers, but this absolutely will not happen – it is way too expensive. Florida voters adopted similar class-size caps with a constitutional amendment in 2002, but the state has struggled to pay for the initiative.

Class size does matter, at least at the levels of reductions that Indiana Democrats are suggesting. But debate continues on whether small classes are the best use of educational dollars.

Indiana among the leaders in free-lunch numbers

A New York Times report on the increasing number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches suggests the recent economic downturn has hit Indiana children particularly hard.

Indiana is one of only four states in the nation where the share of fourth-graders who qualify for subsidized lunches increased by at least 10 percentage points between 2007 and 2011, the report says. (Florida, Nevada and Ohio are the others). And it’s the only state in the Great Lakes region where more than half of all fourth-grade students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Some 51.1 percent of fourth-graders in Indiana qualify for subsidized lunches, according to interactive maps included with the article.

School funding cuts lead to big classes

Dave Smith has 21 sixth-graders in the class he teaches at Bloomington’s Arlington Heights Elementary School – not a bad number. But add the 16 fifth-graders who are also in Smith’s class, and you’re looking at a lot of kids for one teacher.

Smith’s 37-student class is not exactly an outlier. More than a dozen Monroe County Community School Corp. elementary teachers have 33 or more students in their classrooms. Class sizes in the district ballooned when the school board eliminated teaching positions as part of $5.8 million in spending cuts.

MCCSC officials warn that more teacher reductions, and possibly even bigger classes, are likely if voters don’t approve the school-funding referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The school board voted in February to set staffing levels at 22 students per teacher for kindergarten, 24 for grade 1, 25 for grades 2-3, and 30 for grades 4-6. But those numbers are just averages. Principals group students and assign teachers the best they can, but some classes inevitably will be bigger than average.

According to figures compiled by the superintendent’s office, here’ some of what you’ll find this year in Bloomington elementary schools:

— Arlington Heights, split classes (grades 5-6) with 37, 35 and 32 students
— Clear Creek, multi-age classes (grades 4-6) with 35, 33 and 32 students and a sixth-grade class with 35 Continue reading