Stevens was right on vouchers

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who died Tuesday, is being remembered for a lot of things: His evolution from Republican corporate attorney to a leader of the court’s liberal bloc. His common-sense and non-ideological approach to the law. And yes, his snappy bow ties.

Those of us who care about education should remember his forceful dissent in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the 2002 decision that said it was OK for states to pay for tuition vouchers allowing students to attend private schools, including religious schools.

Justice John Paul Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens (uscourts.gov)

Zelman was a 5-4 decision. If just one more justice had agreed with Stevens’ reasoning, the school choice landscape in 2019 might look very different.

The case involved a small pilot program in Cleveland that let about 5% of the city’s students receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools. Susan Zelman, the Ohio superintendent of public instruction, challenged the program as an unconstitutional violation of church-state separation.

The majority decision, by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, reasoned that vouchers were allowable because the state money went to the parents, not directly to religious schools. He justified the decision with a discourse on the poor quality of Cleveland public schools and the choices available within the public system.

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Indiana schools that discriminate receive public funding

It’s great that the firing of gay teachers by Indiana Catholic schools is generating national attention – and a great deal of outrage. But the bigger issue is that Hoosier taxpayers are subsidizing this discrimination through the state’s voucher program.

And the incidents in the news, involving three Indianapolis high schools, are just the tip of the iceberg.

Schools under the purview of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis are now being required to terminate teachers who are in a same-sex marriage, and those schools received $38.6 million in voucher funds in the 2018-19 school year, according to Indiana Department of Education data.

But Indiana law lets private schools that receive vouchers discriminate against against students and their families as well as against employees. As Indiana University professor Suzanne Eckes and other scholars have shown, voucher programs in Indiana and other states allow schools to exclude students on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

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School referendums may be reaching limit

I’ve written a lot about winners and losers in Indiana school funding, usually focusing on budget decisions made by the state legislature. But there’s another important divide when it comes to funding schools: between districts that pass local property-tax referendums and those that don’t.

And judging by this month’s elections, the number of referendum winners may be nearing its limit. Only six of the 10 school referendums that were on the May 7 ballot were approved. That’s a far lower rate than the 88% that passed between 2016 and 2018, according to data from Purdue University.

Under Indiana’s system of funding schools, money to pay teachers, staff and administrators and to fund most day-to-day operations comes from the state, appropriated by the legislature in the two-year state budget. Money for buildings and transportation comes from local property taxes.

But if schools need more operating money than the state provides, they can turn to local voters in a referendum. Continue reading

Hoosiers resisted school desegregation

After a handful of black students were assigned to attend a previously all-white school, about 80 percent of white students boycotted classes for 10 days. “White students and other demonstrators gathered every day to jeer and threaten black students.”

Little Rock Central High School in 1957? New Orleans Frantz Elementary School in 1960? Somewhere else in the South? No, the setting was Emerson High School in Gary, Indiana, and the year was 1947.

1949 school desegregation bill.

1949 Indiana school desegregation bill. (Indiana Historical Society).

The description is from Emma Lou Thornbrough’s book “Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century,” which devotes an entire chapter to the rocky history of school desegregation in the state. Gary school officials had decided to desegregate after racial tensions, including a strike in which white students demanded the removal of black students who attended separate classes at Froebel High School.

Schools in several of Indiana’s largest cities were formally segregated in the 1920s, the heyday of the Klan in the state. While Gary decided on its own to integrate, Indianapolis and Evansville continued to have racially segregated schools despite decades of objections from civil-rights advocates. Other cities, including Bloomington, had segregated elementary schools and integrated high schools.

In 1949, Democrats took control of the governor’s office and the House, and the state legislature passed a law prohibiting racially segregated schools. But school districts were given several years to comply; and in many communities, housing patterns meant most whites and blacks attended different schools.

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Weak laws allow discrimination in voucher, charter schools

School voucher programs and charter schools practice discrimination in enrollment and hiring because they can, according to a recent policy brief from the National Education Policy Center. Federal and state laws permit discrimination in private schools that receive public funding. And charter schools are held to looser standards than traditional public schools when it comes to selecting students.

The policy brief, by education law scholars Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin and Suzanne Eckes of Indiana University, examines the legal landscape that allows for discrimination and recommends changing laws to ensure publicly funded schools are open to all.

“To the extent that states have determined that voucher programs and charter schools are part of the menu of educational opportunities” they write, “those programs must also ensure equitable access to both students and employees. To do anything else is to return to the days of separate and inherently unequal education.”

Mead and Eckes identify three factors that allow for discrimination.

  • Federal law largely prohibits discrimination in public spaces but may allow it in private spaces such as private schools, even those that receive public funding via vouchers.
  • Private schools and charter schools design their own programs and may not offer adequate services for certain students: for example, students with disabilities and English learners.
  • State legislatures have taken a hands-off approach to discrimination in voucher or voucher-like programs, which now exist in 28 states.

In Indiana, for example, voucher schools are barred from discriminating by race, color or national origin but may discriminate by religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status or other factors.

The policy brief cites the example of Indianapolis Roncalli High School, which indefinitely suspended a guidance counselor after learning she had married her longtime female partner. The school has received almost $6 million in state voucher funding over the past four years.

It also points to reports that Indiana voucher schools refuse to enroll students because of their religion or sexual orientation and research that finds many charter schools are racially homogenous and enroll fewer special-education students and English learners than public schools.

Mead and Eckes recommend four changes:

  • Congress should prohibit discrimination by schools that receive public funding.
  • Federal agencies should consider withholding funds from schools that discriminate.
  • States should revise voucher laws to ban discrimination by sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, first language and other factors.
  • States should strengthen laws to ensure that charter schools are accessible to all students.

Vouchers and charter schools may have been created with good intentions, Mead and Eckes write, but “we can ill afford to experiment with equity and access in programs funded by public dollars. Insisting that publicly funded programs ensure access to the entirety of the public should be beyond argument.”

Do A-to-F grades leave some students behind?

A key element of federal education law since 2002 has been the idea that K-12 schools should be held accountable not only for the performance of their entire student population but for subgroups of students – students of color, poor children, students with disabilities and so on.

But there’s debate over whether Indiana’s accountability system under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act is really doing that. The state tracks and reports the performance of subgroups at the school and district levels, but the results don’t have any impact on overall school grades.

An analysis from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C., policy and advocacy organization, argues that Indiana and 11 other states are missing the boat by not including subgroups of students in their school grades or evaluations.

“Research has shown that simply reporting on performance doesn’t have the same impact as reporting and also holding schools accountable for those results,” said Anne Hyslop, an assistant director of the alliance. “We’re more likely to see improvement when there are consequences.” Continue reading

Touting school grades bolsters dubious policy

Those of us who advocate for public schools tend to blame outside forces when we lament the move to grading schools on an A-to-F scale. In Indiana, we may blame former Gov. Mitch Daniels, former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, state legislators, business groups and others.

MCCSC bannerBut public schools and school districts have helped validate this questionable policy. When they brag about their own grades, they’re endorsing the system as a measure of school quality.

Some of what they’re doing is old-fashioned public relations. At a time when public education is under attack, schools and districts can point to high grades to defend their reputation. “See?” they’re saying. “Our schools aren’t ‘failing’ like some of those public schools you hear about.”

And as public schools compete for students with charter schools and private schools, they are likely trumpet any endorsement they get. After all, charter schools are doing it – for example, here and here and here.

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