‘Hold harmless’ shows flaws in school grades

The Indiana Senate and House have scrambled to approve “hold-harmless” legislation that, as Chalkbeat Indiana says, will render the state’s school letter grades essentially meaningless for two years.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

A better approach would be to scrap the school grades altogether and get to work on a more fair and meaningful method for assessing school quality. But that might be too much to hope for.

The Senate and House voted unanimously for Senate Bill 2, which says the grades that schools receive for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years can be no worse than their grades in 2017-18. Gov. Eric Holcomb called for hold-harmless in his State of the State speech, so he’s sure to sign the bill into law.

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Lawmakers take first steps on virtual schools

Finally, the Indiana General Assembly is taking steps to regulate “virtual” or online charter schools. But it has a way to go to make the regulations as tough as they should be.

Gordon Hendry

Gordon Hendry

“Right now, I’m encouraged that the legislature is taking the issue seriously,” said Gordon Hendry, a member of the Indiana State Board of Education. “I think it’s still early – my hope is some additional items make it into final legislation, and I hope the governor encourages that.”

Hendry chaired a committee of the board that drafted recommendations for the legislature to adopt. Some of those recommendations are included in legislation; others aren’t, at least not yet.

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Group that DeVos led spending big on elections

The organization formerly led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is spending at least $325,000 this year to keep the Indiana General Assembly in Republican control.

The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, the American Federation for Children, doesn’t give directly to candidates or parties but funnels its largesse through state partners. In Indiana, that’s Hoosiers for Quality Education, which has led the push for private-school vouchers and charter-school expansion.

Indiana Statehouse

The federation’s political action fund gave Hoosiers for Quality Education $325,000 in three big contributions in 2018, according to campaign finance reports filed this month. That’s about half the money the Indiana-based group received this year.

In turn, Hoosiers for Quality Education has handed out $575,000 this year, nearly all of it to the campaigns of Republican candidates for the Indiana House and Senate. It’s sitting on a cash balance of $170,000 that can be parceled out between now and Election Day if needed.

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For Indiana schools, freedom from union restrictions, but not from regulation

The Indiana General Assembly gave Gov. Mitch Daniels almost everything he asked for in the way of education reforms – almost.

More charter schools, vouchers, merit pay for teachers, limits on collective bargaining, even a “Mitch Daniels early graduation scholarship” for students who complete high school early. The solid Republican majority in the House and Senate managed to bull all those measures through the legislative process.

But when Daniels gave his State of the State address back in January, he also called on lawmakers to get rid of rules that have been piled on schools – for example, that they teach about organ donation, self-examinations for breast and testicular cancer and the spread of disease by rats, flies and mosquitoes.

“We are asking this Assembly to repeal … mandates that, whatever their good intentions, ought to be left to local control. I am a supporter of organ donation, and cancer awareness, and preventing mosquito-borne disease, but if a local superintendent or school board thinks time spent on these mandated courses interferes with the teaching of math, or English, or science, it should be their right to eliminate them from a crowded school day.”

As far as we can tell, none of these sorts of mandates were repealed. Nor were requirements that schools display the American flag in every classroom, provide a daily moment of silence and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and maintain 15 specific “protected writings, documents, and records of American history or heritage.” In fact, the patriotic requirements were extended to private schools that receive state-funded tuition vouchers under House Bill 1003.

Legislators are a lot better at making up new rules and regulations than at getting rid of old ones.

The Indiana Department of Education’s legislative agenda called for providing schools with greater flexibility and freedom. You might think that would mean getting rid of unnecessary regulations. But it turns out to have meant freeing schools from restrictions imposed by collective bargaining agreements.

Part of Daniels’ successful agenda, SB 575, limits collective bargaining for teachers to salaries, insurance benefits, and paid-time-off policies.

Of course, those were essentially the only factors that were required to be included in bargaining under the old law. School boards could also choose to bargain over the length of the school day, student-teacher ratios and working conditions. Many did. But no one was holding a gun to their heads.

Performance pay for teachers is here: Some reflections

The Indiana General Assembly, to no one’s surprise, passed Senate Bill 1 Monday and sent it to the governor to sign into law. The legislation upends how teachers are compensated in Indiana, replacing a system based on experience and education with one based on measures of effectiveness.

The old system has been in place for decades. And while it served important purposes – reducing discrimination, providing job security, creating a career path in which a person could count on making a decent living in a relatively low-paying profession – it couldn’t hold up to the new political reality.

So now Indiana will have a system in which teachers undergo yearly evaluations, which must be “significantly informed” by student test scores and test-score improvement, and are placed in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, needs improvement and ineffective.

Give some credit to state lawmakers for amending the SB 1 to make clear that teachers won’t face salary cuts from the change; early versions of the bill weren’t clear about that. Also, the Department of Education seems to be doing the right thing by asking school corporations to try out new teacher assessment systems in 2011-12 before they’re implemented statewide in 2012-13.

Here are a few concerns:

– SB 1 says “objective measures of student achievement and growth” will “significantly inform” teacher evaluations, and ISTEP exams will be used to rate teachers whose effectiveness can be measured that way: i.e., classroom teachers in grades 3-6, middle-school English and math teachers, Continue reading

Gary, IPS are biggest losers in GOP school funding plan

Many school districts would face hardships under the budget and school funding formula unveiled last week by the Republican leaders of the Indiana House of Representatives – but none of them gets slammed harder than the Gary Community School Corp.

The GOP plan would cut funding for Gary schools by nearly $20 million over a two-year period. Add the $5 million that Gov. Mitch Daniels sliced from the district’s budget last year, and the city’s schools are looking at a 25-percent reduction.

We don’t talk much about race or class in 21st century America, but it’s hard not to notice that 97 percent of students in the Gary public schools are African-American and most come from low-income families. Look also at Indianapolis Public Schools, where two-thirds of students are black, Hispanic or multiracial and more than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches: IPS funding would be cut by $41.3 million over two years, about 15 percent, under the proposal.

All 60 Republicans in the Indiana House are white. It’s a safe bet that none are poor.

Republicans would point out that, even with the cuts, per-pupil funding will remain higher in Gary and Indianapolis than the state average. They might suggest that generous state funding hasn’t produced stellar test scores and graduation rates in those districts, so it’s time for something else.

One reason the funding imbalance developed was that Democrats long controlled the House and protected urban (and some rural) schools from funding cuts, even when they lost enrollment. The logic was sound: A district that loses a few students can’t necessarily close schools and lay off teachers without sacrificing quality.

But growing suburban school districts complained the formula wasn’t fair. Some even sued. Now Republicans control both the House and Senate in Indiana, and they are tilting the school-funding formula to favor their own constituents.

Catching up with the legislature (or trying to, anyway)

Several of the bills to implement Gov. Mitch Daniels’ education agenda are moving through the Indiana General Assembly — some faster than others.

Up next: House Bill 1003, the school vouchers bill, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the House Education Committee, which meets at 9 a.m. in the House Chambers. The bill, supported by Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett, would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to help pay tuition for parents who transfer their children from public to private schools.

It’s hard to keep track of legislation from a distance – ideally, you’d want to attend every meeting of the House Education Committee and the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, then follow the debates on the floor of the House and Senate. But we’ll make a stab at it anyway.

Bills that have passed either the House or Senate

House Bill 1002, which seeks to expand the number of charter schools and gives charters access to unused public-school property, was approved by the House last week, 59-37. Lots of amendments were added, and the bill is clearly a work in progress. Next step: a committee hearing in the Senate.

Bills in committee this week

Senate Bill 1, which creates new procedures for teacher evaluations and mandates merit pay for teachers, was subject to three hours of committee testimony last week. The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to consider amendments and vote on the bill this Wednesday Continue reading