Black legislators were right to talk about race

Some Indiana House Republicans lost their cool last week when Democratic colleagues dared to raise the issue of race. According to the Indianapolis Star, the Republican legislators “shouted down and booed Black lawmakers during floor debate on a bill that some see as discriminatory.”

Rep. Greg Porter (House Democratic Caucus).

Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, became emotional and walked off the House floor when Republicans interrupted his attempt to speak, the Star reported. Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, began talking about his own experiences with racism and “was met with ‘boos’ from several … GOP lawmakers.”

But Porter and Smith were right. Lawmakers were debating House Bill 1367, which would allow Greene Township in St. Joseph County to secede from South Bend Community Schools and join John Glenn School Corp. Greene Township’s population is 98% white, according to census data, while nearly three-fourths of South Bend students are Black, Hispanic or multiracial. John Glenn’s enrollment is 90% white and less than 1% Black. How can you debate a bill like that and not talk about race?

According to the Star, the conflict in the House spilled into the hallway, where a confrontation erupted between Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis. Eberhart said Summers called him a racist. She said Eberhart “just went off and got mad and tried to hit me.”

Eberhart told the Star, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

But bones aren’t at issue; and, actually, neither are hearts. It doesn’t matter if Republicans aren’t stereotypical racists who hate Black people. Their actions are what matter. When legislators promote laws that make schools more segregated, their actions should be scrutinized.

The same should apply to Indiana’s state-sanctioned open enrollment policy, in which families may transfer their children from the school district where they live to another, provided there’s room. The policy accounts for about half the “school choice” in the state. In theory, it lets parents choose the public school that best fits their children’s needs, as long as they can provide transportation. In practice, families are leaving racially diverse urban schools for mostly white suburban or rural districts.

Muncie Community Schools, for example, where 57% of students are white, lose nearly a quarter of their prospective students through inter-district transfers. Many go to nearby districts where over 90% of students are white. Figures are similar for Marion Community Schools, where 48% of students are white and many leave for districts that are 80% or more white.

Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, the author of HB 1367, said it has nothing to do with race but would address transportation concerns for Greene Township students, 274 of whom already attend John Glenn schools. The bill sets up a “pilot project” and applies only to one township and two school districts. But Teshka acknowledged there is interest in similar district secessions in other parts of the state.

The House approved the bill, 53-42. If the Senate follows suit, it could open the door to redrawing district boundaries in ways that make many districts more racially segregated. That policy decision shouldn’t happen without debate, and Black legislators shouldn’t be on their own in forcing it.

Funding cap would hurt high-poverty schools

The state budget being considered this week by the Indiana House would shift millions of dollars away from high-poverty schools and school districts.

That’s because it includes a cap on the complexity index, the calculation that Indiana uses to direct additional funding to schools that serve many low-income families. Lawmakers would impose the cap at a time when many Hoosier communities are struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The budget legislation, approved by the Ways and Means Committee and now before the full House, puts a limit on how much a district or school’s complexity index can increase. For the most part, the cap would not affect low-poverty schools and districts, but it could have a big impact on those that enroll large numbers of poor students.

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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 voucher surprise

Indiana Republican legislators dropped a surprise Monday. They are proposing to increase state funding for some students who receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools.

They want to add a new category of voucher, bridging the gap between low-income families that qualify for “full vouchers” and middle-income families that get “half vouchers.”

Currently, students who qualify by family income for free or reduced-price school lunches qualify for a voucher worth 90 percent of state per-pupil funding received by their local public school district.

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Legislators OK with discrimination

Indiana House Republicans lined up four-square in favor of discrimination last week. They rejected a proposal to prohibit private schools that receive state funding from discriminating against students and staff because of disability, sexual orientation or gender identification.

The House voted 62-33 against the proposal, offered by Rep. Dan Forestal as an amendment to House Bill 1641, which deals with charter school issues. Sixty-two Republicans voted against it. Voting in favor were 32 Democrats and one brave Republican, Rep. Sean Eberhart of Shelbyville.

The proposal was sparked by controversy over Indianapolis Roncalli High School’s suspension of longtime counselor Shelly Fitzgerald after school officials discovered she was married to a woman. Roncalli has been receiving about $1.5 million per year in voucher funding. Indiana spent $154 million last year on tuition vouchers for private schools, nearly all of which are religious schools.

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Lawmaker tries again to protect student journalists

Will the third time be the charm for legislation to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists in Indiana? It’s a long shot, but we can hope.

Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, has again introduced a bill to prohibit school officials from censoring student publications produced under the guidance of teachers who serve as media advisers. The measure almost became law two years ago, but opponents managed to block it.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle this year, probably the most uphill it’s been in three years,” said Ryan Gunterman, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association and a supporter of the bill.

The legislation, House Bill 1213, calls for school corporations and charter schools to adopt policies to protect the rights of student journalists. It says high school and middle school officials can’t block the production and distribution of student media unless it’s libelous, illegal or would disrupt school activity.

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Republican support for early-childhood education lacks specifics

It’s good news that Indiana House Republicans mentioned early-childhood education when they unveiled their 2013 legislative priorities this week – but not such good news that they provided absolutely no details about what they plan to do about it.

In fact, when Speaker Brian Bosma was questioned about how the caucus would pay to promote more access to preschool, he apparently segued into an argument for expanding Indiana’s school voucher program, which is already one of the most generous in the country.

“He recounted a meeting with a group of low-income families who had ‘very tearfully’ explained how they had scraped together funds to pay for private school only to find that blocked them from getting a voucher,” the Indianapolis Star reported. “‘Unless they send their child back to the classroom that failed them in the first place, they have no opportunity to access what other Hoosiers are accessing through our voucher program,’ Bosma said. ‘Perhaps it’s time to take a look at that.’”

So instead of talking seriously about expanding access to high-quality early-childhood education, we’re looking at turning taxpayer funding for private and religious education into an entitlement?

OK, let’s cut the speaker some slack and assume he wants to do … something. Continue reading

Republicans’ shifting rationale for vouchers

It’s a rare treat when a public official directs journalists to a document that proves what he is saying isn’t true. So … thank you, Speaker Brian Bosma.

The topic, once again, is school vouchers. Last week, the Republican-controlled House voted largely on party lines for a bill that would provide taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for low- and middle-income parents who transfer their children from any public school to a private school.

House Democrats tried to amend the bill to limit the vouchers to students transferring out of schools that receive a D or F on Indiana’s school-rating system. Wasn’t the point of the voucher idea to help students escape “failing” schools, they asked?

But Republicans rejected the amendment. Pressed by reporters after the vote, Bosma, R-Indianapolis, insisted GOP support for vouchers had always been about “giving parents choice,” not about getting kids out of ineffective schools.

“No one in the Republican caucus has said this (was about failing schools),” Bosma said, according to the Indianapolis Star. He urged reporters to look at the House Republicans’ “Strengthening Indiana” plan. “It says nothing about failing or successful schools there,” he said, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. “It’s about empowering parents with additional choices.”

Of course, the reporters looked at the plan, which is linked from Bosma’s own website. And the only language in the plan that could be a reference to vouchers is this pledge:

“Provide Children who Attend Failing Schools Grants to Attend a School of Choice” (italics added).

The voucher bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday afternoon before the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.