Pre-K expansion still faces hurdles

An Indiana University research center released a detailed report last week recommending Indiana expand its pre-kindergarten pilot program and explaining how 10 others states have done just that. But on the same day, a state Senate committee slashed funding for pre-K expansion to almost nothing.

And so it goes here in the 201st year of Indiana statehood. We are determined to pinch pennies as tightly as we can, even if it means depriving our youngest citizens of the education they deserve.

The report, from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU, was produced for the State Board of Education. It describes Indiana’s nascent pre-K program – which serves about 1,600 4-year-olds in five of the state’s 92 counties – and contrasts it with programs in other states that started small and grew.

The programs vary in scope, student eligibility and academic requirements. Not surprisingly, states that spend the most money serve the most students. Georgia, for example, provides pre-K in 100 percent of its school districts. Massachusetts, which got a later start, serves 25 percent of districts. Other states examined are Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Indiana’s pilot pre-K program, On My Way Pre-K, is available only in Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties. It was created in 2014 and spends $10 million per year.

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Latest voucher gimmick: Education Savings Accounts

Give Indiana Republican legislators points for resourcefulness. They keep finding new ways to undermine public schools by expanding the state’s school voucher program. The latest, and arguably the most egregious, is the creation of Education Savings Accounts, state-funded accounts to pay for private schooling and other expenses.

Senate Bill 534, scheduled to be considered today by the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, would create ESAs for the families of special-needs students who choose not to attend public school and don’t receive a private-school voucher.

The state would fund the ESAs with money that would otherwise go to the public schools where the students would be eligible to enroll — typically about $6,000 per student but potentially quite a bit more for some special-needs students. Then the students’ families could decide where to spend the money: private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, and other services from providers approved by the State Board of Education.

SB 534 would cost the state between $144 million and $206 million a year, according to a fiscal impact statement from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. This is at a time when legislators are arguing about whether Indiana can afford $10 million to expand a popular  pre-kindergarten program.

Unlike with Indiana’s existing voucher program, there’s no income requirement for qualifying for the proposed Education Savings Accounts. So if Joe Billionaire has a special-needs child and wants to send the child to a private school, we the taxpayers would providing funding.

As Vic Smith of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education writes, the legislation is right out of the late economist Milton Friedman’s plan “to take public schools out of our society and leave education to a marketplace of private schools, all funded by the taxpayers but without government oversight.”

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Pre-K and vouchers: not a good combination

Excuse the language, but Indiana House Republicans served up a classic shit sandwich with House Bill 1004, their legislation to expand Indiana’s pre-kindergarten pilot program. Stuffed inside the bill is language that would provide yet another route for students to become eligible for the state’s school voucher program.

Under the legislation, students who participate in the pre-K program for low-income families would become eligible for a voucher to help pay private school tuition. They would stay eligible as long as their family income continued to meet the program’s requirements.

The House Education Committee approved the bill last week on a party-line vote, sending it to the full House. The lead author is Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the education panel.

Seen as pure politics, HB 1004 of a slick move. Democrats have pushed for years to expand state support for pre-K. But as backers of public schools, they oppose vouchers. They’re in the awkward position of having to vote against one of their long-time priorities.

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Zombie teacher-pay bill rises from the dead

Somebody really wants the Indiana legislature to pass a law that will let school superintendents give raises to favored teachers outside the bounds of union-negotiated contracts. Somebody with clout. Otherwise the supplemental-pay measure would have died last week when the state Senate, responding to overwhelming opposition from teachers and their supporters, refused to pass it.

But it didn’t. House leaders kept the idea alive Monday when they breathed new life into Senate Bill 10, which lawmakers had previously said wasn’t going to become law.

The controversial Republican-sponsored legislation lives again.

Both chambers had approved versions of the same bill – House Bill 1004 and Senate Bill 10 – which would, among other things, let superintendents award higher salaries to certain teachers. The votes were close: 57-42 in the House and 26-24 in the Senate (where Republicans have a 39-11 majority).

The extra-pay language in the Senate bill is actually worse, in the eyes of teachers’ unions, which strongly oppose both. It would let superintendents award higher pay “to attract or retain a teacher as needed” while the House bill would allow extra pay only to hire for a position “that is difficult to fill.”

Also, the House bill would require the superintendent to present justification for additional pay to the school board in a public meeting. The Senate bill would let that happen behind closed doors.

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Anti-Ritz legislation is overkill

The way Indiana legislators’ are trying to fix the state’s education governance system calls to mind what an American officer reportedly said during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

The lawmakers say they want to save the system from the dysfunction that’s come with feuding between Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and the other 10 State Board of Education members, all appointed by Republican governors.

But their approach is to blow up a structure that has served Indiana well for many years, even when the elected superintendent and governor were from different parties.

Their main weapon is House Bill 1486, approved last week on a party-line vote by the House Education Committee. It transfers significant elements of education authority from the Department of Education, headed by Ritz, to the State Board of Education.

The bill authorizes the board to hire an executive director and staff and to employ outside contractors. And the board is going to need a lot of help if it takes on all the duties described in the bill. They include new responsibility for turnaround schools, teacher evaluation, standardized tests, state learning standards and audits of federal and state education programs. Continue reading

A lousy election for Indiana Democrats, public education

Public schools lost some loyal advocates in the Indiana legislature last week with the defeat of Democratic Sen. Tim Skinner and Reps. Shelli VanDenburgh and Mara Candelaria Reardon.

Skinner, a former school teacher from Terre Haute, may have been the most outspoken supporter of public schools in the General Assembly. He lost his bid for a fourth term by more than 1,000 votes to Republican Jon Ford, a business owner.

Tim Skinner

Tim Skinner

VanDenburgh, from Crown Point, and Reardon, from Munster, were part of a northwestern Indiana Democratic delegation that advocated reliably in the House for public schools. VanDenburgh lost a close contest to Julie Olthoff, a Merrillville ad agency owner. Reardon’s narrow loss to Munster attorney Bill Fine means there is now only one Hispanic legislator in a state that is over 6 percent Hispanic. (That’s Rep. Christina Hale, an Indianapolis Democrat who is part Cuban-American).

Republicans expanded their super majorities in both the House and Senate with the election. They now control the House, 71-29, and the Senate, 40-10. On partisan issues – and there are a lot of them in education – Democrats will do well to get a word in edgewise.

Senate Republicans put more than $100,000 into Ford’s campaign. Skinner got some help from the Indiana State Teachers Association but it was too little, too late.

Olthoff’s campaign against VanDenburgh picked up nearly $75,000 in late, large contributions as her supporters apparently realized she could win. About half came from the House Republican campaign committee and the rest from the school-voucher advocacy group Hoosiers for Quality Education.

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Lawmaker uses real numbers to paint false picture

They say figures don’t lie but liars figure. The axiom comes to mind in connection with claims that District 62 Republican state Rep. Matt Ubelhor is making to attack Democratic challenger Jeff Sparks.

Ubelhor, in a flier mailed to Monroe County households and a nasty TV attack ad, uses true figures to create a misleading picture of school funding in Indiana. He labels Sparks “dishonest” for challenging him on the issue and for suggesting Republicans have cut school funding. The flier says Ubelhor “has delivered an increase of $3,952,008″ to the Monroe County Community School Corp.” since 2010.

It’s true that state funding for MCCSC has grown by about that much under budgets he and other lawmakers approved. But over four years and with a $60 million-plus budget, that’s just 1.6 percent per year – not enough to keep pace with costs for health care, utilities, etc. In real terms, it’s arguably a cut.

Ubelhor also says state spending for MCCSC has increased every year since Republicans took control of the House. The flier includes a graph that shows spending decreased in 2010, when Democrats had a majority. But Democrats had nothing to do with that cut. It happened because Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels unilaterally cut state spending on schools by over $300 million as the recession decimated state tax revenues. For MCCSC schools, that meant a $3 million loss.

As David Emmert, general counsel with the Indiana School Boards Association, pointed out Friday on WFIU radio’s “Noon Edition” program, Indiana schools continue to operate at pre-recession funding levels – while the state sits on a $2 billion budget surplus.

Since 2009, before the Daniels cut, state funding for MCCSC has grown by $900,000 – only 1.4 percent after five years. Per-pupil state funding has barely budged.

The Ubelhor flier also employs a common but unfortunate trick in the graph showing trends in MCCSC funding. It sets the baseline for the vertical axis at $5,600 per pupil, not at zero. This makes it look like funding has more than doubled since he took office, when nothing remotely like that has happened.

This is a hot contest, and the House Republican Campaign Committee has dumped $215,000 into Ubelhor’s campaign in the past two weeks. Apparently this kind of desperate tactic is the result.

Referring to Sparks, the flier says: “We don’t need more politicians who are willing to do or say anything to get elected.” Look in the mirror, Rep. Ubelhor.