Voucher program is state-funded religious education

Remember when Indiana Republicans said vouchers would let disadvantaged students find alternatives to “failing” public schools? Times sure have changed. Advocates no longer pretend Indiana’s voucher program is about improving education. It’s about funding private religious schools, plain and simple.

For evidence, see this article in Today’s Catholic, a publication of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Joseph Brettnacher, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese, explains the benefits of a voucher program expansion that state lawmakers approved this year:

“The most important aspect of the choice expansion is that more families will have the ability to send their children to faith-based schools, where students can develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ within his mystical body, the Church,” Brettnacher says. “Our goals for students are to create disciples of Jesus Christ, help them fulfill their destiny to become saints and reach heaven.”

Continue reading

Referendums give districts an edge on teacher pay

The Indiana legislature is calling on school districts to spend at least 45% of their state funding distributions on teacher salaries. Some districts will find it easier to meet the goal than others. One reason: referendums that let districts supplement state funding with local property taxes.

According to a December 2020 report from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission, teacher salary costs as a share of state funding vary widely. In 2020, they ranged from about 30% in some districts to over 60% in others.

The report found that 109 of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts paid less than 45% of their state funding for teacher salaries in 2020. (The figures are in Appendix 15). Those districts will have to increase teacher salaries – in some cases, significantly – or cut other spending to meet the legislature’s target. Collectively, they fell $52.4 million short of paying enough for teacher salaries in 2020.

Continue reading

Civics for some

Indiana will soon require students to take a semester-long course in civics in sixth, seventh or eighth grade. The requirement was approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb. It applies to “each school corporation, charter school, and state accredited nonpublic school.”

You might think that covers everyone, but it doesn’t. According to the Indiana Department of Education, fewer than 200 of the state’s more than 300 private schools are state-accredited. Judging by a state list (see link below), most Catholic and Lutheran schools are state-accredited. Many other Christian schools are not, although they may be accredited by groups like the American Association of Christian Schools.

The new law calls for the State Board of Education to adopt civics education standards, which will be the basis for the required course. It also establishes the Indiana Civics Education Commission, made up of legislators, other state officials and educators, to recommend further civics education actions.

The focus on civics is part of a national trend. According to a report from the Center on American Progress, the subject has received renewed attention since the 2016 election, sparked in part by stagnant scores on social studies exams. Officials also were alarmed by surveys that found only one in four Americans could name the three branches of government and that trust in government had tanked.

In Indiana, the effort got a boost from the 2020 Indiana Civic Education Task Force report, a 56-page document with a host of recommendations produced for the Indiana Bar Association.

The idea that schools should teach civics is not controversial. The Indiana legislation was approved by votes of 49-0 in the Senate and 88-1 in the House. But what a good civics course looks like, and how it should be taught, may not be so simple. I’d envision civics with a strong dose of U.S. history, drawing on sources like Learning for Justice and the 1619 Project. Some legislators might not agree.

A 2020 report from the Brookings Institution casts civics as an “essential 21st-century skill,” incorporating not only knowledge of government but engagement in civil discourse and activities like voting and volunteering. The Brookings report also looks backward, connecting civics with American history and the common-schools movement of the 1800s.

“The fact that children today across the country wake up in the morning and go to school five days a week for most of the year has everything to do with civic education,” writes author Rebecca Winthrop. “The idea of a shared school experience where all young people in America receive a standard quality education is inextricably linked to the development of the United States as a national entity and the development of citizens who had the skills and knowledge to engage in a democracy.”

I’d take the argument a step further and suggest the reduction of official support for public education – as we’ve seen in Indiana – may be linked to the decline in civic awareness and engagement.

Indiana legislators may be boosting “civic-ness” with one hand, when they mandate a new course for elementary and middle-school students. But they’re undercutting with the other, when they increase state support for private schools and turn their backs on the very idea of “a standard quality education.”

Maybe it’s the legislature that needs to learn civics.

Moneyed interests call the shots

They say legislators are supposed to represent the people who elect them, but what, exactly, does that mean? Do they represent the people who voted for them? The people who live in their districts?

Or do they look out for the businesses and organizations that made their election possible through campaign contributions? Judging by the actions of the Indiana General Assembly, it may be the latter.

Continue reading

Legislators may push voucher expansion

Don’t be surprised if lawmakers try to expand Indiana’s already generous private school voucher program in 2021. They’re signaling their intention with the issues surveys they send to constituents.

At least eight House Republicans include this question in their surveys, which are posted on their internet sites: “Do you support increasing the income eligibility for Indiana’s CHOICE scholarships, giving more low- and middle-income families the option to send their children to the school that best meets their needs?”

Note that the question contains a falsehood. Increasing the income eligibility for vouchers, officially labeled Choice Scholarships, won’t change anything for low-income families. They already meet income qualifications for the program, which provides state funding for private school tuition.

Continue reading

Schools may lose funding over virtual start

It’s entirely possible that Indiana schools will lose millions of dollars in state funding if they aren’t opening their doors to in-person instruction this fall.

Sen. Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, the Senate president pro tem, raised the issue in a letter last week to school officials, pointing out that state law says online classes qualify for only 85% of normal funding.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and several legislative leaders indicated in June that the funding restriction would be lifted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bray said there is “a strong appetite” in the legislature for making that change for schools that offer online learning as an option.

“However, there is no guarantee such an exception will be made for schools that don’t give families the option of in-person instruction in a school building,” he wrote. “Therefore, schools that don’t offer in-person instruction should plan on operating under the current funding policy.”

Continue reading

Deadline nears on charter schools bill

Indiana advocates for traditional public schools are doing what they can in the little time that’s left to block legislation that would let charter schools share in the revenue produced by local property-tax referendums.

They had no chance to weigh in on the measure before Monday, when it was approved by the Senate as an amendment to House Bill 1065, dealing with various tax matters. That’s because it didn’t appear until Monday morning. Its author bypassed the normal legislative process, which includes committee hearings in both the House and Senate and a chance for the public to speak.

Continue reading

Charter school legislation bypasses democratic process

Legislation to let school districts share the proceeds of property-tax referendums with charter schools is a short step from becoming law. Maybe that’s a reasonable idea and maybe it isn’t. But the way it arrived – slipped into a catch-all bill with no chance for scrutiny – should upset everyone.

Indiana Statehouse

Indiana Statehouse

There were apparently rumors around the Statehouse that charter school advocates might want a share of school referendum dollars. But no legislation to that effect was introduced, and no lawmakers suggested the idea during meetings of the House and Senate education committees.

On Monday, though, the referendum-charter measure was filed as an amendment to House Bill 1065, dealing with “various tax matters.” This was well after the bill had been approved by the House and by a Senate committee, when advocates for and against could review the language and have their say.

Continue reading