Senate budget is better but not by much

UPDATE: The Senate budget bill now includes the same expansion to Indiana’s voucher program that the House approved last month. The Senate added the voucher provision as an amendment late Monday. It approved the budget today. Differences between the two versions will be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee.

The Indiana Senate took some modest steps in the right direction with the state budget that it approved last week. For education, it improves on the House-approved version on several counts.

  • The Senate budget bill allocates more money for K-12 schools: an increase of 2.7% in the first year of the biennium and 2.2% in the second year versus 2.2% each year for the House version.
  • It keeps more of the funding with public schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools, spending less on virtual charter schools.
  • It provides a little more money for “complexity,” the factor in the funding formula that gives more money to schools serving disadvantaged students.

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Senator-elect not what he said

I wrote last week that Jon Ford, the Republican who beat Democratic Sen. Tim Skinner of Terre Haute in the Nov. 4 election, was a “business owner.”

Apparently not. Good for the Tribune-Star for calling Ford out on his campaign deceptions. And for alerting the people of Vigo and Clay counties to the fact that their new senator’s former employer has accused him of misappropriating $56,400.

One the other hand, if someone from the paper had been checking court filings on a daily basis, the election may have had a different outcome.

School voucher backers help oust pro-union Republican

State Sen. John Waterman is as solid a conservative as you’ll find: a former sheriff who is tough on crime, 100 percent pro-gun, stingy with money and endorsed by Indiana Right to Life. He has just one flaw, and for a Republican politician, it’s fatal. He supports unions, including teachers’ unions that back public schools.

That was enough to get him taken out in last week’s GOP primary after representing his rural Western Indiana district since 1994. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce put a target on his back, ostensibly because he voted against the so-called right-to-work law that Indiana adopted in 2012. The Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity threw in with undisclosed funding for ads.

But key money – big, late contributions that may have helped push his opponent, Eric Bassler, over the top – came from forces whose agenda is promoting private school vouchers. Bassler won with 51.3 percent of the vote, even though the Senate Republican caucus backed Waterman.

Bassler got $15,230 in the week before the election from Hoosiers for Economic Growth, which is not funded by Hoosiers and doesn’t focus on economic growth. It functions as the Indiana arm of American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher group led by mega-donor Betsy DeVos.

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Voucher foes fall short

The bad news for Indiana supporters of public education is that the state Senate voted Wednesday to expand the state’s already generous school voucher program.

The good news: At least the vote was close.

Ten Republicans joined all 13 Democrats in the Senate to vote against House Bill 1003. The tally was 27-23. Bucking party leadership and standing with public schools were GOP Sens. Sue Landske, Jim Tomes, John Waterman, Vaneta Becker, Ronnie Alting, Ed Charbonneau, Susan Glick, Randy Head, Ryan Mishler and Ron Grooms.

Indiana gives private-school tuition vouchers to students whose families make up to 277 percent of the federal poverty level: $65,000 for a family of four. Until now, students have had to spend at least a year in a public or charter school to qualify. The bill passed by the Senate would lift that requirement for:

// Students who live in the attendance area of a school that gets an F on the state’s grading system.
// Siblings of students who currently receive vouchers.
// Students in special education. (And in their case, the income limit is 370 percent of the poverty level: $87,000 for a family of four).

Leaving aside questions about the appropriateness of handing over taxpayer money to unaccountable private schools – almost all of which are religious schools – the bill raises serious questions. How much will it cost? There’s no way to know how many more students will qualify for vouchers, or how many will take advantage. Continue reading

Indiana school vouchers: House proposes, Senate disposes

They say the Senate is the “deliberative body,” as opposed to the impulsive, anything-goes House – and it’s proving true at the Indiana Statehouse, at least where education policy is concerned.

So far, the Senate has held back the wave of support for a nearly universal school voucher system pushed by the Friedman Foundation, Gov. Mike Pence and House leaders. The House passed a bill, HB 1003, that provided multiple add-ons to the state’s already generous voucher program. The Senate Education Committee scaled back the expansion.

As it stands now, HB 1003 would extend vouchers to:

// Students in special education whose families make up to 370 percent of the federal poverty level.
// Siblings of students who are already receiving vouchers.
// Students who live in the attendance area of a school that gets an F on the state’s grading system for one year, or a D for two years, and whose families make up to 277 percent of the poverty level.

The current system, created by a 2011 law, provides state tuition subsidies for students who attend private and religious schools if 1) the students first attended a public school for at least a year, and 2) their family income isn’t more than 277 percent of the poverty level. About 60 percent of Indiana families with children meet that income threshold.

Rep. Robert Behning, who authored HB 1003, wants to extend vouchers further: to special-needs students and children of veterans, military personnel and foster parents, without regard to income. He also wants to give vouchers to all income-eligible students who sign up in kindergarten, with no requirement that they first attend public schools.

That didn’t fly with Sen. Luke Kenley and others on the Senate Education Committee. Continue reading

‘Pay to play,’ part 2

The term “pay to play,” when used in education circles, usually refers to requiring students or their parents to pay fees for the privilege of playing sports or taking part in extracurricular activities.

But there’s another kind of pay to play, and it’s alive and well in Indiana politics, including education politics. It’s the practice of elected officials taking campaign donations from companies that do business with the government agencies that the officials oversee.

Karen Francisco of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette points to one example in her Learning Curve blog. She notes that Apangea Learning, a privately owned company based in Pittsburgh, signed a contract last week to provide online tutoring for Indiana students. And that the company had made two $1,000 contributions to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s election campaigns.

Here’s another: K-12 Inc., a Herndon, Va., company that is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, gave Bennett’s campaign $2,000 in October 2008. The next year, the Department of Education announced the launch of Indiana’s first online charter school: Hoosier Academies, run by K-12 Inc.

And another: Connections Academy, based in Baltimore, gave $2,000 to Bennett’s campaign in 2009. Continue reading