McCormick: “irresponsible” not to review voucher program

Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction, is showing herself to be a principled advocate for public schools, even if it means defying Republican orthodoxy on private school vouchers.

After six years of experience with a fast-growing and largely unregulated voucher system, she told National Public Radio reporters, it’s time for Indiana to take a serious look at the program.

“You know, we’re spending roughly $146 million on a program and not really reviewing it. That is irresponsible,” said McCormick, a Republican who took office in January.

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Cost calculation missing from voucher report

The annual school voucher report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education includes lots of useful and important information. But something is missing.

Gone from the 122-page report is the “special distribution” calculation, which gave us an idea of how much the voucher program could be costing the state’s taxpayers. In its place is a new calculation that shows how much it might cost if all voucher students attended Indiana public schools.

Adam Baker, spokesman for the education department, said the old calculation was dropped because the result “can be misleading as it does not show a true depiction of what the cost/benefit situation is.”

That’s true, but neither does the new calculation. It’s obvious that many families receiving vouchers never had any intention of sending their children to public schools, so the cost of their education amounts to a new expense for the state, not a savings. The voucher program has become a state subsidy for religious education.

The special distribution calculation provided a sort of worst-case estimate of the net cost to the state of the voucher program. In 2015-16 the figure was $53.2 million.

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Voucher price tag keeps rising

Hoosier taxpayers paid $131.9 million in the 2015-16 academic year to send students to private schools, nearly all of them religious schools. That’s a key figure in an updated school voucher report released this week by the Indiana Department of Education.

What the voucher program actually cost the state is an open question, because we don’t know how many of the 32,686 voucher students would have attended public schools if not for the vouchers. If they had, the state would have been paying the full cost of their schooling, not just the voucher amount.

But, using a formula created by the pro-voucher state legislature, the state education department calculates the net cost to the state at $53.2 million, up from $40 million in 2014-15. That’s a good chunk of change that could otherwise be used to support public schools.

What is clear is that state officials pulled something of a bait-and-switch with vouchers. When the program was created in 2011, advocates insisted it was a way for poor children to escape “failing” public schools. Gov. Mitch Daniels even said it was appropriate that students should attend a public school for a year to qualify for a voucher, so they could see first-hand if the school was any good.

But lawmakers quickly expanded the program, making it more generous and easier to qualify. According to the state report, 52 percent of voucher students now have no record of attending a public school.

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Why public records should be made public

School grades are bogus, so why ask for more of them? That’s a reasonable question.

Why would a critic of the state’s system of grading schools on an A-to-F scale ask the Indiana Department of Education to provide data showing what grades the schools would have received for 2014-15 it if weren’t for “hold harmless” legislation approved by the General Assembly?

Why would I file a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor when the department refused? And would I share the data with readers if I got my hands on it? Yes, absolutely. Here’s why:

Transparency matters

Public records belong to the public and, on principle, should be disclosed unless there’s a compelling reason to keep them secret. And in this case, there really isn’t. The preamble to the state Access to Public Records Act gets it just right:

“A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.” Continue reading

State education department opts for secrecy

The Indiana Department of Education still refuses to disclose data used to determine A-F grades for schools in 2014-15, despite receiving a letter from Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt that says the data should be made public.

I’ve requested the information twice, arguing it should be disclosed under the Access to Public Records Act. And the department has rejected my request twice, insisting the data falls under an exception for records that are speculative or expressions of opinion and are used for decision-making.

But I’m not asking for anything deliberative. I’m asking for numbers – the scores on a 4-point scale that were used to establish what grades schools would receive.

Remember that Indiana switched to new learning standards and a tougher ISTEP exam in 2014-15. Passing rates dropped dramatically. As a result, the General Assembly passed “hold harmless” legislation that said no school would get a lower grade than it received the previous year.

When the Department released grades in January, it didn’t indicate which schools were being held harmless and which actually earned the grades they received in 2014-15. And unlike in previous years, it didn’t include the scores on a 4-point scale that schools earned.

After the department turned down my first request for the data, I filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Access Counselor, the state agency tasked with advising government officials on the public records and public meetings laws. Britt initially sided with the department in an advisory opinion to my complaint, labeled 16-FC-34.

But on the advice of Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, I provided the counselor with additional information clarifying that I was seeking data, not deliberative material. In a June 2 follow-up letter, copied to the Department of Education, Britt said the data should be released: Continue reading

More confusion on Title I allocations

The fallout continues from the Indiana Department of Education’s allocation of federal Title I funds for 2015-16, and nowhere near all the questions have been answered.

In the latest development, the department announced Monday that it is asking the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver from restrictions on how some schools can spend the money. This is a belated attempt to help schools – most of them charter schools – that got a smaller-than-expected Title I planning allocation last year and a big bump when allocations were adjusted this spring.

The announcement says the department is asking for the waiver. But then it also asks the public for input on whether it should ask for the waiver, by May 16. So that’s a little confusing.

According to the department, Title I funds that are allocated for 2015-16 but aren’t spent by the end of the school year can be carried over and used during the following year. Typically, schools aren’t supposed to carry over more than 15 percent of their total allocation.

They can get permission to carry over more than 15 percent, but no more than once every three years. It’s that once-in-three-years limit that the state is asking the feds to waive, if I’m reading the announcement correctly.

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Title I adjustments aren’t small change

Information released recently by the Indiana Department of Education suggests that more than a handful of charter schools were shorted on their Title I funding allocations last fall.

A few of the schools complained publicly, federal education officials stepped in and the department made some adjustments this spring. Fifty-two of the 63 charter schools that receive Title I funds saw their funding increase from what they were told to expect last fall. Most saw an increase of 20 percent or more.

Where did the adjustments come from? Largely from money that had been promised to public school districts, apparently in error. Total Title I allocations for charter schools increased by $4.5 million or 27.2 percent, by my calculations. Allocations for public school districts declined by $6.2 million or 2.8 percent.

There were bigger changes were for four turnaround schools, public schools that were taken over by the state and are run by private school management organizations. Their Title I allocations nearly doubled.

None of these figures are final, the state says. The numbers that the department reported to schools last fall were “planning allocations,” intended to help school districts and charter schools plan how to spend their Title I money. And the new amounts reported this spring are “updated planning allocations.”

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